By Brian Shottenkirk, Ph.D, Deputy, Histories Branch with Assistance From Karolina Lewandowska, M.A., M.L.I.S., Archives Branch, Naval History and Heritage Command
Well, this is the watch on that special night,
When the OD writes poetry by gangway light
’Tis the 1st of January, 1968
And I’ve the watch that runs quite late.
USS Agerholm (DD 826)
The naval service, by its very nature, thrives on rules and regulations. Above all else, a ship and her crew must promote self-reliance, discipline, and teamwork to maintain effectiveness and ensure mission accomplishment in the unforgiving and uncertain environments of both ocean and fog of battle. This truism of rules and regulation is particularly reflected in the official record maintained by all commissioned U.S. Navy vessels — the deck log.
The deck log is kept by the Quartermaster of the Watch and prepared by the designated Officer of the Deck (OOD) for each commissioned ship in accordance with Navy regulations and specific instructions. In either handwritten, typed, or in electronic format, the deck log chronicles the daily locations and movements of the ship, and captures all significant and prescribed events taking place either aboard or otherwise in the immediate vicinity of the vessel. Deck log entries are reviewed daily by the ship’s navigator for clarity and final approval as they document particular circumstances for administrative and legal purposes. Completed deck logs are subsequently forwarded each month to the Washington Navy Yard, where the Naval History and Heritage Command is tasked to maintain the records in its archives. At the end of thirty years, the individual deck logs are transferred to the National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, Maryland, for ultimate retention and future research access. As a permanent official record of the ship, the deck log is efficient and succinct in its purpose, professional in appearance, and certainly not a forum for creativity.
On the first night of the New Year, an unofficially endorsed truce allows the sacrosanct veil of regulation to be pierced — if only for a brief moment. During the mid-watch from midnight to 0400 (and only during the mid-watch) it is permitted for a ship to record the first entry of the New Year in verse. In this annual, fleeting, first entry of the New Year, the deck log bears witness to a hint of individuality, personality and sometimes the mindset of shipboard life. However, Navy regulations remain ever obstinate, and the leeway for creativity comes with a caveat: all entries should still include the specified requirements noted in current Navy Regulations, and administered under OPNAV instruction issued by the Chief of Naval Operations.
And therein lies the rub. The OOD (often with some assistance from the crew) is granted the freedom to compose the entry as they artistically deem fit — provided they include such mandatory details as the sources of electric power, steam and water; the state of the sea and weather; position of the ship; status of the engineering plant; courses and speed of the ship, bearings and distance of objects sighted; changes in status of ship’s personnel, disposition of the engineering plant, and even the strain upon anchor chain or cables when anchored and the placement of lines while moored. This tradition presents a challenge to the imaginative (or unlucky) author to maintain meter or rhyme and still report all these details in an original manner over multiple stanzas whether on wartime patrol…
At 8kts, steaming with Hanson in stride,
Richmond K. Turner serves country with pride.
Dangerous waters are these on the coast,
Rimmed with Viet Cong who are hardly our host.
Nothing must daunt on this New Year’s night,
This year, as last, we must concentrate might,
Fighting aggression, and guarding our home,
Wary, lest Commies try farther to roam.
This ship is darkened as Hanson is too,
Hiding the fact we’re on 020 True.
SOPA and Officer in Tactical Command –
Captain of Turner is much in demand.
His is the judgement, on which we rely,
He calls the shots, and TE 188.8.131.52 does comply.
COMSEVENTH Fleet has positioned us here
Near North Vietnam, where our purpose is clear.
USS Richmond K. Turner (DLG 20)
1 January, 1967
…or moored pierside closer to home…
I’d like to say ‘Happy New Year to you’
And tell you our ship is moored starboard side to
Berths Mike and November, and here’s the location:
San Diego, California at North Island Air Station.
As an added precaution again any trouble,
Our mooring lines are, not singled, but doubled.
Our boilers are cold at the start of this year
So we must receive various services from the pier.
To list all ships present indeed would be hard
But Oklahoma City (CLG 5) and Bon Homme Richard (CVA 31)
Are two of the ships, one forward, on aft
The others are various yard and district craft.
SOPA Admin said tonight, and I quote,
‘COMFIRSTFLT is senior officer present afloat.’
He’s presently embarked in Oklahoma City,
But being aboard tonight, what a pity.
The night has been long, but would you believe,
That this watch is over – I stand relieved
USS Constellation (CVA 64)
1 January, 1968
Occasionally, the tradition even allowed a venue for personal lamentations as well as good wishes extended to all:
As OOD I greet with scorn
This wet and dreary New Year’s morn!
It seems to me as I shiver with cold
That the Year is nearly 100 days old
The New Year is greeted with much good cheer
As MAUNA KEA is moored to number 2 pier
At berth number 1 port side to is this craft
Standard lines are doubled with wires fore and aft
The PARICUTIN; the FIREDRAKE, and the MT KATMAI
Along with yard craft, are moored nearby
At NAD Concord our home port we wait
A long sea detail to the Golden Gate
Boiler #2 and generator #1 are in use this hour
To give to the ship the much needed power
The pier provides services as they usually do
The brow, fresh water, and telephone too
The pertinent facts; I have told them all
While other this night have had a ball
0345 has come and I must not glance back
I look ahead to a siege in the sack
I must end this verse, I cannot go on
For very soon will break the dawn
To all the world, and to those near and dear
I wish a peaceful, prosperous, and HAPPY NEW YEAR
USS Mauna Kea (AE 22)
1 January, 1963
The exact origin of the New Year mid-watch verse is hidden in the recesses of Navy history, but was certainly known among some younger American Sailors in the years following the First World War.
Indeed, the tradition is not practiced in Royal Navy or her Commonwealth, and appears wholly American in nature — with all the informality and irreverence that often brings. Former Lieutenant (junior grade) Arthur Ageton, was aware of the New Year’s Eve entry as early as 1926 while he was stationed aboard the battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB 38). In the 1972 issue of “Shipmate,” the official alumni magazine of the United States Naval academy, LT (j.g) Ageton related his unsuccessful attempt to submit a mid-watch entry of what must have been a relatively new endeavor since the experienced “…Skipper was a humorless fella who had never heard of this tradition and sent the Log back to me for rewriting in less rhythmical style.” The Commanding Officer instead recommended submitting the verse to the ship’s paper.
An article in the January 1959 issue of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings says “generations” of U.S. Sailors had practiced the tradition, and provided contemporary examples, but regrettably offered no additional historical background. By the time of escalated U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, the tradition was well enough known throughout the Navy to generate a “New Year’s Eve Log contest” promoted by the Navy Times. In 1968, the publication received over 1000 submissions competing for the grand prize of $100 awarded to the author and $50 to the winning ship’s Welfare and Recreation Fund. The finalists were published over several issues with a generous $5 sent to each entrant and their commanding officer. By January 1970, All Hands, the official magazine of the U.S. Navy, confidently referred to the New Year’s mid-watch verse as a “growing naval tradition”.
However, despite the optimism of All Hands, Navy culture changes with each generation, and the annual Navy Times contest of decades past appears to be the heyday of the tradition. With a focus on operational commitments and warfighting, it is understandable that ships and crew of the new millennium devote valuable time, energy, and manpower to training and readiness, rather than composing verse for an extremely limited audience. In 2016, fewer than 30 ships made a New Year’s Eve mid-watch verse; in 2017 that number dwindled to fewer than 20. And, although the outlet for creativity in the form of the New Year’s Eve deck log is waning, it is certain that today’s Sailors, both at sea and on shore, will continue to ring in the New Year with hope for the year to come.
Want to know more about the importance of U.S. Navy’s deck logs on the other 364 days of the year? Check out our page.