The message that comes through loud and clear all around this naval complex the biggest in the world, is that the U.S. Navy is in distress.

Walk along the gray destroyer piers jutting out into the calm water of Hampton Roads and two big symbols of the Navy's distress stand out from the seascape: the USS Saipan and the USS Mitscher.

The Saipan, commissioned here last week, looks awesome - her bulk leaving in shadow the lesser vessels tied up nearby. But the Saipan, although the latest in amphibious assault ships, is somewhat of a floating embarrassment.

She was delivered to the Navy a full four years late and $111 million over the estimate $154 million cost.

Moving down the pier to the Mitscher, one comes face to face with another side of the Navy's warship problem: a destroyer too old to fight but too valuable to retire without a replacement.

Climb down into the boiler room of the Mitscher and the men point to a pump that has been waiting for parts for years; to equipment nobody makes anymore; to rusty bolts that break off as the men try to repair leaking gaskets.

Listen to the chiefs in their private domain on the ship - the chief petty officers' mess - and the talk about today's Navy is a volley of angry complaints ricocheting around the steel bulkheads.

There is nothing wrong with the Mitscher, the chiefs tell their visitor over seemingly unending cups of coffee, that some money from Washington could not fix. But while Washington ponders whether to let Mitscher sink or sail as a fighting ship, the chiefs complain, the destroyer's only sea duty since March has been to carry corpses to be buried at sea.

"We're getting good at it," cracks the "boat" (boatswain's mate), adding that at least burial details are better than sticking at the pier in Norfolk.

The Saipan and Mitscher symbolize the larger problems of the Navy today - problems that make the Navy look like a ship taking on water faster than it can pump it out; leaders not leading, ships not steaming, shipbuilders not building, sailors not sailing.

Sen. John C. Stennis (D-Miss.) chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Navy's badly needed friend, complained this year that Navy leaders cannot seem to decide what kind of Navy they want for the future. "They came up here with three or four navies last year," he protested.

The House Appropriations Committee, in reporting out a bill providing $110 billion for the military for fiscal 1978, complained that "Navy management of the shipbuilding program needs to be improved starting at the top."

Civilian budget analysts at the Pentagon, in combing through Navy budget requests for next year, complained to Defense Secretary Harold Brown that Navy leaders seem to want to go to the poorhouse in a Cadilac by buying more $20 million-a-copy F-14 fighter planes than the service can afford.

Pentagon civilian budget chiefs further complain that there seem to be at least three separate navies fighting for money - the nuclear-powered one championed by Adm. H.G. Rickover; the "black-shoe" conventional Navy like the Saipan and Mitscher, and the "brown-shoe" Navy of aviators and their aircraft carriers.

Although there is nothing new about this, the fragmentation is more worrisome now than previously because much of the Navy which will serve the nation in the 1980s and 1990s is still on the drawing board, with big versus small aircraft carriers but one of many issues.

While Washington makes up its collective mind about the future Navy, the men in ships must keep fulfilling the same-sized military commitments with ships that become fewer as absolescene advances. This means that men and ships often break down from overwork.

Today, the Navy says it has 457 combat and support ships on duty. In 1968, the fleet was up to 976. The Navy decided to spend most of its money on new ships rather than try to keep old ones running, creating today's gap.

Although Navy leaders predict that the downward trend in ships will reverse itself next year as enough new ships are delivered to more than make up for the ones being retired, it will be several years before the increase will be significant.

Gordon W. Rule, retired Navy captain who used to monitor Navy ship contracts, blames the delays and cost overruns on what he calls "unfair" contracts of the past and the Navy's refusal to pay for the shipbuilders' losses under them.

Relations became so strained last year between the Navy and its biggest shipbuilder. Newport News Shipbuilding, that the yard finally said it would build no more ships. Deputy Defense Secretary William P. Clements Jr. deputized Rule to break the impasse.

Rule negotiated what he considered a fair settlement of who owes whom for work on nuclear cruisers - only to see the agreement torpedoed by Rickover and his allies. The issue of whether the agreement Rule negotiated is binding on the Navy is still tied up in federal court.

"You can't build ships in a courtroom," grumbles Rule. He adds that the lawyers running today's Navy - Secretary W. Graham Claytor and Under Secretary James R. Woolsey - do not seem to realize this.

More years of waiting for enough ships to spread the work around means continuation of the conditions thousands of sailors find intolerable: a six-month deployment to the Mediterranean: six months back in port to fix up the ship for another six months, with the repair time in port often the most tedious part of the cycle.

"They just kept pushing us from 6 in the morning till 10 at night," says Machinist Mate Gerald L. Beers, 20, in giving a typical explanation for deserting his ship, the U.S.S. Forest Sherman, a destroyer, while she was in Boston for overhaul.

Other interviews with sailors pending punishment here for deserting their ships indicated that overwork and under-appreciation in port are-more intolerable to the young sailors than months at sea.

Whatever the reasons, the unemotional statistics kept by the Pentagon show that more sailors are deserting today than ever before - 31.7 desertions for every 1,000 sailors on duty in fiscal 1977.

Skippers in separate interviews questioned whether the Navy's personnel officials could find the root causes through their own recently named admirals committee.

The chiefs - who are to the Navy what the sergeants are to the Army - believe they know some of the things that are wrong and fixable.

"They came in here to see the world," says one chief on the Mitscher in talking about disillusionment of young sailors. "They don't see nothing. All the fun's been taken out. I'm surprised we don't have more deserters."

Before Vietnam wore out ships to the point that fleet commanders felt they must use them sparingly, the chiefs say there were fun cruises to the Caribbean and other places in between long, monotonous deployments.

No more. Today, the chiefs complain, it is either the sea or the pier, with all kinds of papers to fill out, while in port that no one could possible have time to read.

"Every time I turn around I'm being inspected by somebody," a Mitscher chief complains.

The chiefs also call for stiffer disciplining of sailors, contending that the Navy, to quote one of them, "has to be a dictatorship."

Up in the captain's cabin of the 24-year-old Mitscher, the commodore of the Atlantic Fleet's destroyer squadron agrees with the chiefs that today's Navy leaders are overly constrained from imposing the necessary discipline.

"Too many bleeding hearts," snaps Capt. Louis Colbus, the commodore.

Instead of being able to instill discipline, says Colbus in an interview, a Navy skipper today risks breaking privacy laws by warning a sailor's father that his son is fouling up.

Cdr. D.E. Mosman, the low-keyed skipper of the Mitscher, who drew praise from the chiefs in between their salvos against everything else, explains what he finds frustrating.

Today's young sailors "have a zero concept what it means to live up to a bargain - whether it's a good bargain or a bad bargain. When you get them like that, it's a re-education process."

A Navy chaplain who hears the troubled tales of sailors day after day at the main Navy base here contends that such explanations fail to reckon with the social revolution among young people - including sailors.

"It's not the sea duty," says Cdr. Davis S. Hunsicker, senior Navy chaplain on the base, in disputing the explanation for desertions coming from the admirals running the Navy's personnel headquarters in Washington.

Today's young sailors are not driven by "survival and security" to perform, as were their predecessors. Instead, continues the chaplain, their motivation stems from "the need to be loved and the need to belong."

Navy officers who communicate, explain, show the purpose of the jobs at [TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCE]

Whatever it takes to motivate the new breed coming into today's Navy, and the other services as well, the Navy has not found it. Of the sample group of 100 first-time sailors who came into the Navy in fiscal 1973, 39 dropped out before fulfilling their obligated service and only 18 re-enlisted for another hitch.