NINETY-DAY WONDER: How The Navy Would Have Been Better Off Without Me

Grab your life preservers, sailors! Ensign Davenport is on the bridge!
In 1953, shortly after the end of the Korean War, while the draft was still on, Stephen Davenport became a Ninety-Day Wonder, the derisive term for junior officers in the Naval Reserve after only ninety days of training.

All on dry land!

On his final navigation exam in Reserve Officers Candidate School, he landed a fictional destroyer somewhere in the Sierra Mountains. Hoping the officer who would grade the exam had a lively sense of humor and very bad judgement, Davenport wrote at the bottom This vessel is amphibious. Nevertheless, he received his commission and was assigned as First Division Officer aboard The USS Vermilion of the amphibious fleet. The First Division was manned by deckhands skilled at maneuvering huge booms to lift landing crafts into the water thirty feet below the main deck and driving the landing crafts through surf, often dangerously high, to land on beaches. Davenport gave orders to do this work that he himself had no idea how to do. He confesses to asserting his unearned authority over people who were more qualified than he even if they had been “dead drunk, on drugs, sound asleep and deathly ill all at once.”

Once when he was the Officer of the Deck, conning the ship from the bridge, all the men in the First Division put on their life jackets.

Davenport’s memoir has its serious side too. His keen observer’s eye reveals what life was like aboard ship in peacetime when a significant portion of the crew were reservists, eagerly waiting for the day their hitch would end.

That same observer’s eye, focused on Vermilion’s commanding officer, Captain Oliver G. Kirk, a decorated World War Two hero, provides a mini thesis on inspiring leadership .Officers and enlisted men did their very best because they wanted to emulate Captain Kirk, and because they knew he cared more for them than for his own career.

Often funny, sometimes scary, as when Davenport almost caused a collision at sea, Ninety-Day Wonder is a riveting account of lessons learned aboard shop by an inexperienced officer among far more experienced sailors.

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More about 90 Day Wonder:

Ensign Stephen Davenport was the most severely underqualified of the Ninety-Day Wonders, the derisive term for commissioned officers in the Naval Reserve with only ninety days of training, all of which were on dry land. For his final navigation exam, he actually plotted a course that landed a fictional destroyer somewhere in the Sierra Mountains. Nevertheless, in August of 1953 he reported to his first assignment aboard the USS Vermillion. He would be overseeing the First Division for training in amphibious landings.

“What was I going to do with my B.A. in literature: gather the sailors around me just before taps and read Faulkner to them as they fell asleep?”

Once on ship, Davenport quickly learned that while he held authority in title, respect was less easily learned. The First Division was manned by deckhands who could do things he had no idea how to do- like maneuvering a winch to drop a truck into a landing craft bobbing in the waves thirty feet below without killing the crew, or getting a landing craft on and off the beach through high surf in the middle of the winter. Davenport just called out orders…. and he didn’t always feel confident in that either. He fell for dangerous pranks by the crew, permitted an inebriated sailor to ride a horse up the gangway and almost caused a collision at sea. Though he only served for two years, Davenport’s time in the Naval Reserve was bizarre, incredible and absolutely unforgettable.

At times hilarious, other times scary, Ninety-Day Wonder is the riveting account of dangers, triumphs and fundamental lessons learned aboard ship by an inexperienced officer among far more experienced sailors.