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The 239th Navy Birthday Ball

DEPSECDEF: Happy 239th, Navy!

Admiral Greenert, thank you for that very kind introduction. I want to thank all of those who have made this evening possible and all those groups here tonight that support our sailors. And MCPON Stevens, thanks for everything you do to represent those on the deck plates who do so much for our nation and department every single day.

I have a confession to make. I had every intention of becoming a Navy officer. I was born into a Marine family. My dad enlisted in January 1942, soon after Pearl Harbor. He fought in the Pacific, rising to the rank of E8, Tech Sergeant. He was selected to attend the very first basic school class in 1945. He rose to the rank of reserve Captain, and was awarded the Silver Star in Korea. After the war, in the subsequent drawdown, he was given a choice: leave the service as a Captain or revert to Master Sergeant. He reverted, and was subsequently selected for Warrant Officer, retiring after more than 30 years of service and three wars. For my entire life I was around Marines. I attended high school in Rota, Spain from 1965-1970, where the dads of almost all of my friends were Navy officers. When selected for the NROTC program, I decided I wanted to serve our nation, but did not want to follow in my dad’s footsteps. So I decided to try to become a Navy officer.

That dream lasted until my third class midshipman cruise, when I spent six weeks aboard USS Chicago, CG11, a converted WWII Baltimore class heavy cruiser……the rest, as they say, is history!

But, even though I spent 27 years in the Marine Corps, it is truly an honor to be here this evening to celebrate the 239th birthday of the United States Navy. Those here tonight represent the greatest naval force in the world today. Last month while on a trip to Japan I sat with a group of young NCOs in the mess onboard the USS Shiloh whose motto is “making excellence a tradition.” I came away mightily impressed. So it is a thrill to be here with all of you, surrounded by sailors, to share this wonderful celebration of 239 years of history and accomplishments, and thank you for your service, for your patriotism, and for your warrior spirit.

And tonight, as we celebrate the rich history and proud traditions of our United States Navy, I want to focus on the fighting spirit of our Navy. To remind you that you are all an indispensable part of a Navy that is built and prepared for war. That is what we do at the Department of Defense. We may operate forward to preserve the peace, but we can never forget that we build, train, and prepare the joint force to win wars. This imperative is reflected well in the CNO’s 2014 Navigation Plan, which says: “warfighting first… our first consideration is the ability to fight and win today.”

In my mind, few personify that fighting spirit better than World War II destroyer commander Ernest E. Evans. As everyone here knows, all real men and women ascribe to be a surface warrior. And at the commissioning ceremony for the new destroyer USS Johnston on October 27, 1943, Evans said: “This is going to be a fighting ship. I intend to go in harm’s way, and anyone who doesn’t want to go along had better get off right now.” He went on to say, “now that I have a fighting ship, I will never retreat from an enemy force.”

I’ll return to the story of Ernest Evans—and how he was true to his words—in a moment. But his vow to never retreat from any enemy force, however superior, has been a part of the Navy’s very DNA from its birth. As you well know, the U.S. Navy faced its greatest challenge after December 7, 1941. In the early months of World War II, the Japanese military swept across the Western Pacific and Southeast Asia – it appeared unstoppable. It had been over four decades since the U.S. Navy had fought a fleet action. Yet, the U.S. Navy’s fighting spirit still burned strong, especially in the submarine force. Because as everyone here knows, there are two types of fighting ships: submarines, and their targets. So, within hours of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy department sent out the message: “Execute unrestricted air and submarine warfare against japan.” And our sub crews set about doing just that.

Let me tell you about Sam Dealey – a submarine commander. Sam Dealey was described as soft spoken, clean living, and family oriented. Dealey was “bilged” from the Naval Academy for low grades, got reinstated, and graduated in the class of 1930. On his fifth war patrol in command of the submarine USS Harder, on June 6, 1944, Sam Dealey stumbled upon a Japanese convoy in the Philippines sea. A Japanese destroyer escort spotted his submarine and charged in. Dealey turned head-on into the enemy destroyer and coolly waited for it to close to 1,000 yards before firing his torpedoes, sinking it. The next day, Dealey sighted another destroyer. He let it close to point blank range of 650 yards before unleashing three torpedoes that all hit and sank it too. On the night of June 9, he sank another destroyer, and then two more in the following days. Dealey was credited with sinking five destroyers in five short-range torpedo attacks on that patrol, to which a sixth was added from an earlier patrol, earning him the nickname “the destroyer killer.” Tragically, Sam Dealey and the crew of the Harder were lost on his sixth patrol just two months later.

The same warrior spirit was also evident in naval aviation. Because as every aviator knows, torpedoes can’t touch them, and ships can’t outrun them. So just weeks after Pearl, on February 1st, 1942, “Bull” Halsey took the carrier Enterprise on a strike against the Japanese held Marshall Islands – Halsey’s mantra: “hit hard, hit fast, hit often.” And on June 4, 1941, at Midway, America’s naval aviators went up against the elite pilots of the Japanese Navy, the best they had, many with years of combat experience. Those young U.S. Navy pilots bore in, turned the noses of their Dauntless dive bombers over, and sank four Japanese carriers.

No one defined the fighting spirit of naval aviation than David McCampbell. He was part of Admiral Mitscher’s fast carrier forces pacific. On October 24, 1944, McCampbell and his wingman were flying combat air patrol over their carriers when they spotted 60 Japanese aircraft inbound. McCampbell didn’t hesitate, he and his wingman turned their Grumman Hellcat’s into the fight – two against 60.

McCampbell downed nine enemy planes, setting a U.S. single mission aerial combat record. His wingman downed another six Japanese warplanes, the rest of the Japanese attackers turned away. When McCampbell landed his Hellcat only two rounds remained in the six .50 cal. machine guns, and the plane was completely out of fuel.

Now, let’s catch up with Ernest Evans. It’s October 25, 1944, in Leyte Gulf, the Philippines. Ernest Evans and the USS Johnston are part of “Taffy 3” – pulling escort duty along with six other destroyers for a handful of small-deck escort carriers. Unbeknownst to them all, bearing down on Taffy 3 were the heavy units of the Japanese fleet, including the largest battleship ever built, the Yamato with her 18-in. guns. As the Japanese battleships heaved into view, the escort carriers launched their planes and tried to get clear. Without awaiting orders, Ernest Evans took his “tin can” – they called destroyers “tin cans” because they were so thinly armored – and he turned into the fight… because that’s what our Sailors do.

Ernest Evans ordered flank speed and went straight at the Japanese battleships and heavy cruisers. The Johnston’s crew furiously worked the 5-in. guns scoring hit-after-hit on the Japanese capital ships, she fired off a spread of torpedoes that took the bow off a Japanese heavy cruiser. The Johnston attacked whole columns of Japanese ships again and again. In the process the little destroyer was hit repeatedly, her topside wrecked, holed clean through by the enemy’s big cannon. Finally, after two hours of fighting against overwhelming odds, the battered and bloody Johnston had enough and she slipped beneath the waves, along with much of her crew, and her skipper, Ernest Evans. But Evan’s aggressiveness in the face of overwhelming odds scattered the Japanese warships, blunting their attack, saving the U.S. carrier force, along with dozens of fully laden troop transports.

I have to tell you, from time-to-time America’s Sailors have been known to take that boisterous fighting spirit ashore with them – not that I condone that behavior of course.

Anyway, I digress. Fast forward to the present day. I’m sure most of you know the story of Navy SEAL Michael Murphy and Operation Red Wings in Afghanistan, June, 2005. Outnumbered, their recon mission compromised, Murphy and four of his fellow SEALs turned into the fight, and gave everything they had.

Each one of these warriors, Sam Dealey, David McCampbell, Ernest Evans, and Michael Murphy, were awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in the face of overwhelming odds. All but McCampbell received the honor posthumously.

I recount these stories from Navy lore because it’s important to remember that you are part of a long line of patriots and warriors in a noble calling – a calling that is greater than oneself. I know many of you either enlisted or re-enlisted during wartime – you heeded the call of duty.

You are part of a new greatest generation of American fighting men and women – those who have served during the past twelve-plus years of war, the longest period of war in our nation’s history.

You have a chance that few get in life – you have an opportunity to not just witness history, but to make history. And I know that when the opportunity arises – and believe me it will – I know you will turn into the fight. I urge you to do so with a stout heart and with the confidence that you are part of one of the mightiest navies that have ever commanded the seas. Do so knowing you are part of the United States military, the greatest fighting force in history. And do so knowing you are a proud citizen of a country that still shines brightly across an unsettled world, that is still a symbol of promise for so many.

Let me conclude by quoting from President John F. Kennedy, who told the Naval Academy graduating class in 1961, “The answer to those who challenge us so severely in so many parts of the globe lies in our willingness to freely commit ourselves to the maintenance of our country and the things for which it stands.”

I thank all of you for your service and your unyielding commitment to maintaining this nation’s security and for those things for which it stands. May God bless you, may God bless all those serving in harm’s war, and may God bless the United States Navy.

Thank you.