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California and the West

Hated Navy Task Is Being Shipped Out

Military: The painting and chipping of vessels wastes skills and discourages reenlistment, say officials, who have begun hiring civilians to do it.

February 05, 2001|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — Jason Swaney, 19, enlisted in the Navy eight months ago from Tomahawk, Wis., eager to see the world, learn a trade and defend his country.

Instead he's been spending his days chipping off old paint and applying new paint to the amphibious transport ship Ogden.

Swaney is too polite to complain, but he does allow that he would not be a bit unhappy if he no longer had to chip and paint. "I could handle that," he said quietly, paintbrush in hand.

Hang on, Seaman Swaney. Help is on the way.

Chipping and painting has been the bane of sailors since ships became metal. Now the Navy is trying to let civilians do the drudgery and free sailors to be sailors.

Here at the West Coast home of the U.S. Navy, officials predict that a painting-reduced Navy will be a happier Navy, possibly boosting reenlistment rates.

One admiral rates chipping and painting as the most hated job aboard ship, followed by cleaning heads (toilets) and working in the mess deck (kitchen).

"I don't think anybody's self-esteem was ever enhanced by chipping and painting," said Vice Adm. Pete Nanos, commander of the Naval Sea Systems Command. "It's an absolute burden."

And--as any sailor can tell you--the Navy does a lot of chipping and painting. Saltwater takes a brutal toll on a ship, eating away paint, immediately rusting any surface left unprotected.

The average ship requires enough chipping and painting annually to keep 16 sailors busy full time--a lavish use of manpower that a former secretary of the Navy says is intolerable in a time of tight budgets and decreasing crew sizes.

The Navy has hired a Chula Vista-based firm called Corrosion Engineering Services to paint ships in San Diego and Norfolk, Va. This year, the firm also will send painting crews to bases in Hawaii, Japan, Washington, Florida and Texas. Last year the budget was $16 million; this year, $37 million.

Many young sailors, who enlisted in hopes of getting technical training in electronics, computers or modern weapons systems, are shocked at how much of their time is spent painting.

"Chipping and painting is one of those things the recruiter doesn't tell you about," said Seaman Randy Ingle of Walkerton, Ind., now assigned to the guided-missile cruiser Antietam.

As a Navy town, San Diego is a repository of memories about chipping and painting. Every former sailor has a story.

Michael Stepner, dean of the New School of Architecture, said that avoiding painting duty was a major goal of sailors when he served on a troop transport during the Vietnam War.

"Guys would do anything, stay busy on other things, keep out of sight, anything," Stepner said. "Eventually you got caught, though."

Chipping and painting was so onerous that the Marines used it as punishment for enlisted men who could not behave on their way to war. "The sergeant would come with 15 Marines and say: 'Here are your chippers and painters for today,' " Stepner said.

Edwin Bell, a security guard at a downtown office building, was on a destroyer where the captain, after the ship had been at sea for weeks, denied liberty for the lower ranks until painting work was finished. "It was bad," he said.

Bill Sinatra, head engineer for a cable television station, said that in the late 1950s he painted himself into a corner below decks on an oiler and then passed out from the fumes from the lead-based paint. "They had to carry me up three decks," he said.

John Morgan, now employed by the San Diego office of the state Public Utilities Commission, remembers chipping and painting on one of the Navy's last diesel-powered submarines.

"I hated it, of course," he said.

So dreaded is the chore that anyone who expresses a liking for it is considered slightly daft.

"If anyone said they liked painting duty, I figured they needed to be sent to sick call," said Gregg Hartung, a retired Navy captain now working for the San Diego County water board.

With the use of stronger paints and better cleaning equipment, Corrosion Engineering Services promises that its paint jobs will last longer. Historically, the Navy has used low-cost paint, which had the unfortunate effect of requiring numerous paint jobs on the same surfaces in short periods of time.

"It's a constant, continual process," said Allen Herman, a senior chief petty officer aboard the Ogden. "You paint your house and it lasts maybe five years. I'm lucky if I get five months from a paint job."

The shift to civilian contractors was championed by Richard Danzig, who served as secretary of the Navy during the final 14 months of the Clinton administration.

No business, he often said, would do what the Navy does: Take entry-level employees, spend time and money to train them in technical skills, instill them with the lofty values of the organization, and then make them do a job that is tedious, repetitive and unrelated to their career goals.

No one expects that civilians, working dockside, will be able to do all of the painting for the Navy's 300-plus ships. There always will be a need to perform rust removal and repair when a ship is at sea.

Last week, Corrosion Engineering Services workers were painting interior sections of the Ogden while sailors, including Swaney, were painting the hull.

Decreasing the amount of chipping and painting done by sailors is meant to boost morale and allow sailors to spend more time training, in the case of the Ogden, for the task of delivering Marines to combat.

"Nobody comes into the Navy to chip and paint," said Cmdr. Ted Guillory, the Ogden's commanding officer. "We're war fighters, not chippers and painters."

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