Even in the dark, in the barroom shadows of bikini-clad go-go dancers who help sailors forget their troubles just outside the Navy's Little Creek Amphibious Base here, the once-proud men of the USS Pegasus are ashamed to show their faces.
"Hey man, you were on the screw-up ship," sneer beer-guzzling barmates upon learning that a sailor happened to be aboard the Navy's sleek, $65 million hydrofoil when it ran aground just after breakfast on Aug. 20 in the mouth of the York River.
"It kind of hurts a man's pride," sighs a Pegasus crew member who was aboard on its first outing with a new captain when the speedy missile patrol boat landed atop a sandbar. "Everyone kids you when they find out you ran aground on your first voyage.
"But it was a real good ship and the captain was a good man, had a real good sense of humor. The whole crew loved him. He got along with everyone. We were really ticked off when he got relieved. Everybody figures he got a raw deal. It wasn't his fault . . . "
That is not the way the Navy sees it -- so far.
Following a secret administrative hearing conducted here last week, sources say, the Pegasus' commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Charles W. Penque, temporarily was relieved of his command, issued a punitive letter of reprimand and an adverse fitness report, essentially wrecking a distinguished 16-year Navy career. He has filed an appeal.
The Navy will confirm only that Penque appeared before Rear Adm. R. L. Walters, a group commander in the Navy's Norfolk-based Atlantic fleet who heard the case under Article 15 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Officials declined to comment further.
"We have confirmed a hearing was held, but the Navy will not discuss the results of the hearing until the appeal process and subsequent review have been completed," says public affairs officer Jeff Renk.
What the Navy will not explain is how such an advanced ship, whipping across the waves on its foils, could run aground in one of the most heavily traveled harbors in the world, fouling its rear struts in the muddy bottom.
There are Navy sources, however, who say officers investigating the incident may have failed to appreciate the aerodynamics of the Pegasus, which like its winged horse namesake of Greek mythology, is able to gallop across the surface, as well as fly through air.
The sailor frowns and tugs at a stubby bottle of Budweiser as Rhoda rotates her hips on stage at RT's, a popular haunt within walking distance of Pier 14. There, the 132-foot Pegasus awaits $200,000 worth of repairs, its foils raised fore and aft like gleaming blades of a bulldozer temporarily out of commission.
Boeing, the aircraft company in Seattle that built the Pegasus in 1974 and has five more Pegasus-class craft in production, dispatched an engineer to assess damage that the Navy calls "minor." The ship is expected to be fully operational by Nov. 1, following repairs at the Norfolk Naval Ship yard.
The Pegasus is able to chug along on its hull at 16 knots but cannot fly on its foils at 40 knots because of "damage sustained to the after foil assembly," said a Navy official. Otherwise, "all major systems are operational."
A direct descendant of the highly maneuverable World War II PT boats that brazenly took on larger Japanese warships with torpedoes, the Pegasus hunkers low in the water for now, an object of embarrassment and remorse not only for its men, but for the Navy. The service has long-standing traditions which do not lightly abide a ship -- and a commanding officer -- that mistake land for water.
For that reason, sources say, the commanding officer was relieved post haste -- one week after the accident that injured no one -- pending a full investigation. The fact that the 50-mile-per-hour Pegasus is the fastest of the Navy's new class of patrol boats -- and an experimental ship that handles more like an airplane than a typical patrol craft and with a navigation system that critics suggest may lag behind its speed and technology -- is said to have figured little in the hearing.
Navy brass cling steadfastly to the notion of absolute command accountability: once an officer accepts command of a ship, he remains responsible for anyone who so much as stubs a toe aboard, even if he happens to be 50 miles away at the time.
"That's the name of the game," says one high-ranking Navy officer, who subscribes to the traditional dictum, "Once you pin on the star of command, everything that happens on board that ship is all yours. That's the only way it can be.
But the case of Penque, 38, a 1967 Naval Academy graduate whose yearbook entry notes that "Huck will try his hardest and never give up," is different, maintain his supporters.
"They're using a sledgehammer to kill a fly," says one.
Some of his supporters privately raise questions about the training afforded Penque before he took command of a unique ship and about the biases of traditional line officers towards experimental craft.
"When you have a unique craft," says one officer familiar with the case, "the Navy ought to be very, very careful at making snap judgments based on conventional means of navigation, especially when craft are operated in the Tidewater area with low marshes that make for bad radar horizons and (have) the possibility of shifting sandbars."
Under the military code of justice, an officer embarked on a ship can be subjected to a proceeding called an Article 15 hearing, a form of nonjudicial punishment that his commanding officer can choose to administer.
The proceeding is closed to the public, and under the code, the officer has one appeal right and that is to the direct superior of the hearing officer -- in Penque's case to Vice Adm. J. D. Johnson, the commander of the Navy's Atlantic Fleet surface forces.
Nowadays, the affable 38-year-old officer, who has been temporarily reassigned to shore duty until his case is resolved, spends the days behind a desk, the nemesis of many ambitious line officers. He declines to discuss his case, but friends say he was "shocked" at the preliminary findings and now appears to be taking the matter philosophically, expecting that the appeal process will vindicate him and prove that the "system has compassion."
After all, reason his supporters, the Navy would never have awarded Penque duty as commanding officer of the prestigious Pegasus had he not been marked as a young officer on a fast track.
A former enlisted man who yearned to be an officer, Penque enrolled in a Navy preparatory school to get into the Academy and went on to serve in Vietnam under Samuel Gravely, who became the Navy's first black admiral.
He later served in the Pentagon, where former Secretary of the Navy I. William Middendorf III selected him to be his speechwriter.
After Washington, he joined the Mississippi, a nuclear-powered guided missile cruiser as weapons officer and, following a series of courses, assumed command of the Pegasus, based in Norfolk.
Gravely, now director of the Defense Communications Agency in Washington, says Penque was "an outstanding officer who, I felt, had a long way to go.
"Despite his grounding, I'd have to look very carefully at all the circumstances to relieve him," says the vice admiral, who calles Penque "one of those guys who did it all right . . . a very fine ship handler."
Navy spokesman Renk says the Navy's silence is designed to protect Penque's right of privacy. "The legal process has not run its course and it's premature to assume anything until it does," he said.
Nonetheless, from interviews with crew members, ordered not to talk, and other sources, it is possible to sketch what happened to the Pegasus its first time out under Penque.
The crew was excited, "psyched up," said one crew member following a rousing pep talk by Penque as the 239-ton Pegasus and its 21-man crew steamed toward the Yorktown Naval Weapons station to pick up ammunition for a fleet exercise. Suddenly, about 9:30 a.m., the boat hit bottom and breakfast plates crashed to the deck.
"Dammit! What the hell's going on?" shouted one of the ship's four officers. Below decks, a machinist mate was carefully watching the boiler temperatures when he was knocked unconscious.
"ALL HANDS, GENERAL QUARTERS!" came the ominous word over the PA system as an alarm bell clanged throughout the ship and officers cursed and a dazed crew scrambled for battle stations.
"Suddenly, it was as if everyone had gone stark, raving made," says one enlisted man who says many crew members still don't know what happened and are afraid to ask.
What happened was that the Pegasus, reportedly skimming through a light chop on its foils at 40 knots, slowed, came in for a landing on its hull and became mired in two to eight feet of water just south of buoy 21 east of Tue Point Marshes in the mouth of the York River.
On its hull, the ship draws six feet of water. Zipping atop the waves on its hydrofoils, the Pegasus requires nine feet and if foils are extended at low speeds, the ship needs 23 feet of water.
The foils are ski-like struts that lift the ship's hull out of the water so it can be propelled at greater speeds than conventional ships.
When Penque gave the order to come down off the foils, a depthfinder recorded about 32 feet of water under the ship, according to a source familiar with the case. Visibility was two miles in haze, with light, variable winds.
"When he made the decision to come off the foils, he understood he had more than enough water to land on the hull," says an informed Navy source. "At the time, it was a good decision and the traces of the bottom on the recorder verify that."
Still, there remains a question of how much distance lay between Penque's order to land and the mud in which the Pegasus eventually became mired. Old river hands say the mouth of the York River, which is more than half a mile wide with depths close to 40 feet, can turn deceptively shallow in certain areas, with buoys that indicate one thing one day meaning something different the next.
The Navy's preliminary investigation, according to a source familiar with the case, complained that Pegasus had failed to mark a safe hydrofoil operating zone on its navigation radar. But, says the source, "that [requirements] doesn't apply to the type of radar he was using and shows a lack of understanding" by investigators.
"Men," came Penque's voice over the loudspeakers, "We've run aground on our first cruise and are awaiting further orders."
Two officers who commanded the Pegasus before Penque had always managed to skirt the bottom. But they reportedly were better trained than Penque, some say.
Two tugs failed to pull the mired rear foils out of the marsh the day it ran aground and the men spent a dejected evening aboard. "We all wondered what they were going to do to the CO," said a loyal crewman.
The next day, tugs refloated the Pegasus, and it returned to port hull borne, under its own power.
The Pegasus' mishap was a similar, but less serious, version of the 1972 accident involving the Norfolk-based hydrofoil Tucumcari. It ran aground in the Caribbean and was damaged so badly, it had to be scrapped.
Penque and his wife, Jackie, who is regarded as a gung-ho real estate hereabout, now must endure the barbs of commentators like the Good Morning American announcer who suggested the officer's three-week command was so short that it may wind up in the Guinness Book of Records.
It is hardly so trivial, say supporters, who rush to point out that Penque was a respected officer at the peak of his career when his props got caught in a tangle of bad luck.
As for the crew, some of whom Penque is said to have recommended for medals for prompt action following the accident, they have a new leader for the moment. But the men reportedly had to be dissuaded from picketing the admiral, following their old leader's ouster.
There is widespread empathy for Penque here. As one officer said, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."