Interview of Eric Charles McCafferty by Anthony Licari
April 27, 2017
Senior Chief Quartermaster (SW) Eric Charles McCafferty (Ret.): Pride and Professionalism
Eric Charles McCafferty was serving his country before he was legally able to vote. His high school burned down while he was attending it, and so along with around a dozen others, Mr. Rick was relocated to a temporary classroom in an old warehouse. It was around this time that he realized his opportunities in Chester, Pennsylvania, were limited, so he decided to enlist in the Navy. He was only seventeen at the time, so his enlistment required his parents’ signatures. “My mom and dad had to sign a waiver for me to join,” he recalled. His older brother Mike was already serving, and Mr. Rick was able to secure a “brother contract,” which would guarantee him a spot serving aboard the same ship, at least initially, as his brother. In April of 1973, he departed for basic training, and, after completing a brief navigation training school, received his first set of orders to the USS Conyngham.
Mr. Rick flew alone to Barcelona, Spain, with one dollar in his pocket and all his belongings in a seabag. He was given instructions to find his ship and report in for duty. It was his first time out of the country and on his own, but fortunately he spotted another sailor outside the airport and hitched a ride to where the Conyngham was docked. He joined the crew in finishing a six-month Mediterranean cruise, and learned the trade of the Quartermaster—the ship’s navigator—on the job. His tenure onboard the ship was cut short, however, when he was involved in car accident stateside that required him to undergo surgery. He was rehabilitated, and after being attached briefly to a shore command, Mr. Rick received orders to the USS Rich in 1976.
Mr. Rick’s time onboard the USS Rich was abbreviated as well, this time due to a near disastrous collision at sea. In July 1977, after performing an Underway Replenishment (UNREP) with the USS Caloosahatchee in the Atlantic Ocean, the Rich began pulling ahead by increasing her speed to a brisk 22 knots. A right standard rudder was ordered as per procedure to break away from the supply ship, but a faulty switch caused the rudder to turn sharply left instead, setting the USS Rich steaming into the path of the USS Caloosahatchee.
Mr. Rick was standing watch on the bridge at the time and saw the incident take place in clear view. The first two impacts caused the Rich to heel over at least 50 degrees from center, and a later investigation concluded the ship would have likely capsized had it not been refueled minutes before. A group of young Sea Cadets were onboard for the day, making the situation potentially more disastrous. Mr. Rick recalled, “I remember one guy, a gunners-mate chief, grabbing the back of a young Sea Cadet. He was going over the rail.” He surmised of the experience, “It impressed upon me the very real possibility that bad things can and do happen.” The Caloosahatchee struck the Rich fourteen times. The resulting damage was severe enough that the Rich was decommissioned entirely, and Mr. Rick was stationed elsewhere.
After serving another round of shore duty as a military police officer at an airfield in Pennsylvania, Mr. Rick was assigned to the commissioning crew of the USS Clark in 1980. “It was one of first Oliver Hazard Perry-Class Frigates on the east coast” Mr. Rick remarked. The year also marked the beginning of a Navy-wide campaign that began the “Pride and Professionalism” era. “It made a big difference in the way we did things,” Mr. Rick remarked, “We tightened up the ship.” These sweeping reforms transformed the Navy into the professional fighting force we know today. Mr. Rick performed extremely well throughout his career, earning top marks on his performance evaluations, but his time onboard the Clark was exemplary in this regard: He was promoted to 1st Class, Chief, and finally Senior Chief Petty Officer during his five-year tour onboard.
In 1983, the Clark was part of the battlegroup that surged to the Persian Gulf in response to the bombings of the Marine barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. Mr. Rick led his division in charting an unplanned course for the region, and successfully adapted to transit the dangerous Suez Canal on only a few days’ notice. “Those five years,” he reminisced, “were the best in the Navy.”
Following his time on the USS Clark, Mr. Rick served his final shore tour at the U.S. Navy Quartermaster A-School. As an instructor, he mentored and taught young sailors the skill of maritime navigation, from celestial navigation to a host of more modern techniques.
Following this assignment, he received orders to his final duty station, the USS Santa Barbara. As a Senior Chief, Mr. Rick led his division during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. He was the only enlisted man qualified to stand Officer of the Deck at sea, a position that carries with it command of the ship. He was standing that watch at midnight, the night the attack was launched over the Kuwait border into Iraq. Mr. McCafferty’s Commanding Officer, Capt. Michael Frimenko, Jr, wrote that he was the “first and only chief petty officer to qualify as OOD Underway aboard Santa Barbara…He prepared the navigation team for professional transit of the Suez Canal.
Because of his shiphandling expertise, I selected him to perform duties of Conning Officer and OOD during the evolution.” From the bridge wing, he watched planes from the nearby carrier group circle into formation in the night sky, before departing into darkness to fulfill their purpose.
The crew listened to radio BBC news reports on the bridge as they stood a tense early morning watch. It is likely that Mr. Rick was the only enlisted man with command of a Naval ship in the theater during those early hours of the war. The story is an example of the kind of confidence Mr. Rick inspired in his command leadership, his peers, and the scores of young sailors that looked up to him.
Senior Chief Petty Officer Eric McCafferty retired on April 30th 1993, exactly 20 years from the day he entered the service. His exemplary service set a positive and professional example to the countless young sailors he mentored and taught. Mr. Rick served his country and, in doing so, found a profession that he loved. Since his retirement from the Navy, Mr. Rick’s love of the sea has not changed. His civilian jobs have all been aboard ships, and he enjoys sailing in his free time. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina, with his wife, Liz, and his two daughters, Megan and Devon.