Sea Stories

Thoughts About LCDR Dudley Ray Overton, USN(ret)

Mark D. Petersen-Overton

My father was one of the greatest Naval Officers I have ever known. Because of who he was and what he taught me, I enjoyed a very successful 26-year Navy career. My Dad was a former Chief Petty Officer and mustang and throughout my career I often tell my shipmates and anyone who will listen that I’ve been influenced by Chief Petty Officers all of these past fifty years. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that my Dad was present at my launching and insisted on being the first to whack my butt and make sure that the “tone” of our relationship was set correctly. That fist whack was just the opening salvo in a long history of guidance that I’ve received from CPO’s and the CPO Association. When I came into the Navy in 1978, CPO’s were the most important shipmates a young officer could have (and they still are for those officers who “get it”).

I still recall my first tour as a dumb Ensign where I was just miserable. The skipper and my department head were all over my butt for a variety of things. I called my Dad and told him that I wasn’t interested in this Navy stuff. He asked if I had talked to my Chief. I told him that I didn’t have one. There was a long silence on the phone. I cannot recall at any other time that my Dad was at a loss for words when we talked Navy stuff. He knew that I’d struggle and probably fail without a Chief in my division. His suggestion was that I hang in there until I had a Chief. And I did. Eventually, a CPO showed up and helped me figure out the Navy. That one piece of counsel kept me in and I couldn’t be happier with the fact that I listened to my Dad and as a result was able to enjoy an exciting, rewarding, and fulfilling Navy career.

At every step, promotion, or major milestone in the Navy, I have always paused and reflected on the legacy that my father and mother gave me. Dad’s “by the book” view of the Navy was useful, but I’ll admit that I’ve got enough of Mom in me to blow that off when I think that it’s the right thing to do at the time. That got me into trouble every now and then but that’s another sea story that will have to wait for another time. I remember making Commander in 1992 and thinking that wow, I had gone beyond my father’s grade. I was so amazed (given my record…again, another story), that I had made it. I also remember writing a long letter to Mom and Dad thanking them in specific detail for the talent that I received from them that had made it all possible. I imagine that Mom may still have that letter… I’m not sure.

In 1988, I was lucky enough to be graduating from the US Naval Post Graduate School. We were required to attend our own graduation or I simply would not have shown up. Sort of like Dad, I never really cared too much for crowds and pomp and circumstance, particularly as a participant. At my last job in the Navy (COMNAVAIRPAC, N43), I refused to have a retirement ceremony or even let the staff write any kind of award recommendation. Frankly, my Dad was too ill at the time to show up in San Diego (all the way from Charleston) and retirement ceremonies (in my view) are really for the family. So if Dad couldn’t come…why bother? I didn’t. Of course I checked with the real boss, my wife, and she didn’t mind at all. On hind sight, it was a mistake since it may have interested my son, Justin, in the Navy, had he attended. I pulled that off later on however. Anyway, the CNAP N43 staff hosted a very informal luncheon and I was very happy with that sort of thing. The photo to the right was taken when President Bush landed on USS ABRAHAM LINCOLN (CVN-72 ) on 2 May, 2003. As I recall that S3 caught the four wire.
The AIRPAC team recovered that wire, cut it into pieces, cleaned it up and anodized a piece for me and mounted it on a plaque. That was one of the best departing gifts that I’ve ever received.

Here is another example: I recall that I was Chief Engineer of USS Reid (FFG-30) for over three years. I took that ship through the pre-commissioning period and into its first deployment. For those sailors out there reading this, you know that leaving a ship that has been a part of you for many years is hard…especially if it was a great ship with great shipmates that kicked butt in the fleet and had a solid team from the skipper’s chair down to the fireman on watch roving the machinery spaces. That was what Reid was like…just a great ship and crew. Rather than leave the ship during the day, I got permission to sneak away at 6 AM one cool morning in Brisbane Australia. I just couldn’t bear to walk down the brow and see my shipmates in the Engineering Department standing there…so I slipped away. I made my way to her next port and then came aboard and said my farewells…I just didn’t want to get bonged off in broad daylight with my department standing there. I guess I’m just an emotional wimp or I’m anti-social.

Anyway, back to graduate school… also like Dad, I know an order when I hear one and so I had to show up. There I was, a young Lieutenant in the Navy just having earned my engineering degree. As my name was called and I walked up on the stage, I had my father’s Navy hat on, his choker whites, his trousers, his socks, and his white shoes. Even the gold buttons on the chokers were the same ones that Dad wore. The only thing that I was wearing that wasn’t previously worn by my Dad were my skivvies, and my shoulder boards. For some reason, Dad didn’t give me his old skivvies (thank God). Besides, I hate boxers and that’s what he wore (or so I recall). He did give me his LCDR shoulder boards but I couldn’t wear them since I was still only a LT…but even if I could, back in those days, they had real gold in them and eventually they turned green with age. I look back on that now and I wonder why I did that. I have no idea (other than I was too cheap to buy uniform parts), but I’m very happy that I did. I also have Dad’s sword and even his sword belt.

Here is a photo of me accepting that degree. I still have those choker whites in my closet upstairs. Unlike my Dad, I put on some pounds in my career and so cannot really get into them today…but they are in my closet with the “D.R. Overton” still on the inside collar. You’ve got to love those permanent Navy laundry markers!

As I mentioned, Dad was not very much into ceremony and so didn’t attend many events in my career but he did attend my first and most important one. My Dad was present to launch my Navy career and he presented me with his Navy sword upon my commissioning at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, SC on 12 May 1978. That sword has since been all over the world, attended a ton of change of commands, and even cut the cake in my own ceremony when I was fortunate enough to assume shore command in 1999. That sword, as you can imagine, remains my most prized piece of my father’s Naval legacy. Many of you who served with my Dad are also part of the history of that sword since he wore it when he assumed and was relieved of command of USS Pinnacle (MSO-462) in Charleston, SC.

I recall as I wrapped up my NROTC work at the University of South Carolina that my Commanding Officer at the time showed me my ROTC application that I had made in 1976. When I had filled it out, I had listed my Dad as a reference. I guess we were not supposed to do such a thing, but I really had no one else to call upon as a reference at the time. Children don’t often get to see exactly what their parents think of them. Sure we know that they love us, but what do they really think? My skipper showed me the reference that my Dad gave me back in 1976. He wrote simply (paraphrased):

I don’t believe that it was appropriate for Mark to use me as a reference, but since he did, I’ll tell you what I think. Of all my children, Mark is the one with whom I have complete confidence in that he can stand the watch as Officer of the Deck underway in any tactical situation and make the right decisions.

LCDR D.R. Overton, USN (ret).

Dad was right and for the first ten years of my career I became extremely proficient at driving ships and ship handling in general. As a senior Ensign (if there is such a thing) I was the OOD for entering and leaving port as well as for General Quarters. I wonder how he knew and I wonder if that helped me get that scholarship? I ultimately became interested in Engineering and so gave up my chance at command at sea, but had I stayed in the ship driving business, I knew that I’d have had a shot at command. I inherited my Dad’s command presence. I even heard my Dad’s voice in my orders to the helm and lee helm.

Over the years either directly or indirectly, Dad taught me many things, but here are just a few of the important ones:

Humility

While I sometimes forget this, my Dad never did. Dad treated every single human being on the planet with the same respect that he would expect to be treated with. He saw everyone as equal and of considerable value. But don’t misunderstand…we always remembered that he was our Dad and deserved the respect of that position. Dad started on the “deck plates” and worked his way up to command. I still remember the day that the USS Pinnacle (MSO-462) came back from a Mediterranean deployment and Dad received the Navy Commendation Medal (NCM) for his work as the Officer in Tactical Command of the task force of three ocean going Minesweepers who were deployed to find the lost hydrogen bomb off of Palomar, Spain. I’ve received some recognition in the Navy myself, but none mean as much to me as when I was standing beside my mother on the waterfront and watching someone pin that medal to my Dad’s chest. I had no idea how important it was at the time; I just have that image in my mind. Some things just don’t drop out of your head for whatever reason. That image has never left me and God willing, never will. These days, with some award inflation, Navy folks would expect to receive a much higher award for such a significant event. I remember receiving the NCM and thinking that I had done virtually nothing in comparison to the one that my Dad had received for the deployment. That thinking has dominated my thoughts over my career and all of my professional recognition over the years have paled in comparison to Dad’s NCM.

Hard Work

Our Dad made us work hard. Whether it was cutting a cord of wood by hand to earn enough money for Boy Scout summer camp, or when he paid us one dollar for each tree stump that we dug out of the ground, or even when he paid us five cents for every mud dauber (wasp) egg that we were able to harvest under the trailer, no matter… He taught us the meaning of hard work. One of the toughest jobs I ever did for him was holding the drop light as he continued to work well into darkness. I had to hold it so it shined on the worksite but not in his eyes. I wasn’t all that good at it and he’d often scold me to get the light out of his eyes (at a rather high decibel level). I enjoyed just being with him and watching him work. He worked with a sense of focus that was daunting. I remember just staring at him as he tackled some repair and tried to fathom what he was thinking.

He and our mother worked every day of their lives to ensure that their children had every opportunity. I cannot imagine how they pulled it off. In 1978 after I was commissioned I thought that I was a rich man earning $9,000 a year. Well it was if you lived on the ship and ate aboard as well! I look back at Mom as a nurse in the operating room at St Francis Hospital earning just over four bucks an hour and my Dad as a LT in the Navy earning what? How they could feed and clothe our large family in those days simply came down to hard work and frugality. What amazes me even more today is how our more junior Navy families pull it off. Now think back…how in heck did they do it back in the 60’s and 70’s before salaries came closer to their commercial counterparts? Anyway, we wanted for very little and I’m amazed at how they managed to accomplish it all. One way is that Dad did everything himself. There was very little he couldn’t figure out, fix, repair, or even “rig” in order to keep working. Perhaps that is what tweaked my interest in Engineering. Dad knew how things worked whether it was mechanical, electrical, or electronic. Another way they pulled it off is that they never paid much for college. Each of us was expected to pay for it ourselves either by working or through scholarships and working. That’s what I did. I worked 56 hours a week while I attended College of Charleston for two years. Then I applied for and was lucky enough to earn an NROTC scholarship. That helped some, but college was still tough to maintain the basics like food. Many of us, me included, sold our blood for $10 a pint at Carolina to give us enough money to eat for the week. Mom and Dad taught me that you had to step up and do what was necessary to accomplish the job or task, so I did.

Communications 

My father was a superb communicator. He could stand up in front of a crowd and make a complex concept seem easy. He could make a crowd laugh but more importantly, he made them really hear his message. He was a superb instructor. The passion that he held for any topic that he was presenting oozed out of him. His mastery of the subject material combined with the ease with which the words flowed made him the perfect person to teach. I still remember when he taught me and my older brother Tom, the “facts of life.” He started with a picture. I don’t believe that he ever had to have that “talk” with any of my other brothers and sisters because I promptly ran out and told everyone I knew of what I had learned!

We lost Dad on 26 April, 2006.

LCDR Dudley Ray Overton USN (ret) passed away at his home on Wednesday, April 26, 2006 as a result of complications from Alzheimer’s disease. Dudley was born on January 30 1930 in Riverhead, N.Y., the son of Raymond David and Velma Viola Overton. He was predeceased by his brother Rodney. Surviving in addition to his wife of 53 years Anne of James Island, S.C., are four sons; Thomas and his wife Rill, of Carmichael, CA., Mark and his wife Lotte of Cherry Hill, N.J., Stephen and his wife Janice of Tampa, FL., and Gary and his wife Kathryn, of Johns Island, S.C., and two daughters; Eileen and her husband Don Bannister of Andrews, S.C. and Joanne and her husband Wiley Knight of Hanahan, S.C, as well as 20 grandchildren. Dudley ‘s career spanned over 22 years of Naval Service followed by nearly 20 years at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, where he retired at the rank of Captain in 1991. Dudley also passionately served as a volunteer member of the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary for close to 30 years. Dud will be terribly missed by all who knew him, forever loved by his wife, children and grandchildren, and always remembered as the consummate professional in everything that he ever did.

Losing someone is never an easy thing. But knowing that he lives on in so many children and grandchildren is comforting. I must say that I feel particularly proud to have carried on Dad’s Naval tradition. I have that sword and will always have it unless I’m lucky enough to pass it on to someone in the family who chooses Naval Service as a career. I will always have Dad inside of me. I hear him in my voice, I sense his thought processes in my head when I tackle problems at home and at work, and when I stand up in front of people, I feel his confidence and easy way with words. When the going gets rough and everyone is looking aft, I feel my back stiffen and my Dad’s courage and positive outlook come to the surface. I feel him in me all of the time. I was lucky enough to inherit some of his talent, his love for the Navy and passion about doing things the right way. I miss him and will always love him.

Mark D. Petersen-Overton

Captain, USN (ret)