The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Can this quirky Naval poetry tradition make a comeback?

Tara Anand for The Washington Post (Tara Anand/For The Washington Post)
6 min

It was during the Vietnam War, on the South China Sea in the waning days of 1968. Aboard the transport ship USS Weiss, Lt. Grant Telfer, the operations officer, was eyeing the rotation schedule for the watch shift from midnight to 4 a.m., known as the midwatch, for New Year’s Day.

“You’re scheduled for the midwatch,” Telfer recalls telling a junior officer. “How are you at poetry?”

“Oh god, no — do I have to do that?” came the officer’s response.

It was exactly what Telfer wanted to hear: It meant that he could take the shift — and write a poem — himself.

On every Naval watch shift, an officer records the workaday vital signs of the ship, which might include a chronology of the ship’s movements or particulars of its anchorage, the status of its power systems, vessels spotted nearby, and absentees or injuries onboard. For many ships, logs are held by the Navy for 30 years before moving to the National Archives. It’s generally a dry administrative document.

But a long-standing Navy tradition holds that the first deck-log entry of the new year may be written in verse. It’s unclear when or why this tradition began; the earliest mentions date to 1926, according to the Navy, and seem to indicate the tradition was already established. The practice continued during subsequent decades: The New Year’s verse was once a popular enough element of Navy life that the official All Hands magazine and the independent Navy Times held annual contests to decide the best poems, and a Navy-trained astronaut even carried it to the International Space Station’s ship log in the first hours of 2001.

Lately, the practice has faded. In the 1960s, there were hundreds of poems annually; in the past six years, that number has been counted by the dozen, with just 44 this year. Last year, however, the Navy relaunched a New Year’s deck-log competition — raising the possibility that this endangered tradition might be saved and even reinvigorated.

Over the decades, the Navy’s ship-log poems have ranged from rhyming couplets to one that’s set to the tune of Petula Clark’s “Downtown,” and from those that were inked while placidly at port to those recorded amid battle. (“Commenced fire main battery turret two / And a happy new year Victor Charlie to you,” reads an entry from the USS New Jersey.) They describe foes as varied as Axis powers, homesickness, covid-19 — and even the New Year’s midwatch itself, as a writer lamented in 1966:

With parties going, gay horns blowing

Here sits sunken, gloomy me

Athirst for wine, in life’s full prime

Writing third-rate poetry.

“It’s like a lot of traditions. They’ll ebb and flow over time, and some will fade away completely,” says retired Rear Adm. Samuel J. Cox, director of the Naval History and Heritage Command, which runs the new contest. But Navy leaders “thought this one merited an opportunity to continue.”

Traditions like this connect sailors to past valor, he told me, and remind them “that they’re part of something bigger than themselves.” That goes for Cox, as well, who took the lyrical route on a New Year’s midwatch in the 1980s while serving at an onshore installation in D.C. He doesn’t remember much about the experience, except to say his poetry was “lousy.”

Submissions to the contest are initially judged by deck-log program manager Alexis Van Pool, who selects 10 to forward to a committee of current and former sailors that chooses three finalists. Cox then determines first, second and third place. The winner receives a piece of copper from the USS Constitution, the still-afloat Navy ship launched in 1797. All three finalists receive a small medallion, known as a challenge coin, and a framed print of their poem.

The mandate to still provide all the necessary details of the watch — a ragout of numbers, abbreviations and surnames — requires some contortions. “That part was a little bit challenging,” says Lt. j.g. Sarah Weinstein, 24, who wrote this year’s winner with her late-night-watch colleagues on the USS Lake Champlain. Needing to describe the ship’s use of power and its general direction that night, they found the coupling: “2B engine online, starboard side trailing / 1 and 2 GTG [gas turbine generators] turning so we can keep sailing.”

More than 50 years earlier on the South China Sea, it was Telfer’s last New Year’s Day on a ship, and he’d long wanted to be part of the poetry tradition. Having taken over the midwatch from the reluctant junior officer, he wrote eloquently in the deck log of the ship’s passage toward Subic Bay, in the Philippines, and the recent firing of its weapons for the first time since the Korean War. It read in part:

Through restless seas we steam with ease

As phosphorescence glows

In eerie swirls midst foamy curls

And ever sternward flows.

A white-gold moon shows fullness soon

Through a veil of clouds

That mask the night from starry light

With rolling, coursing shrouds. …

The silent guns with tompions

Fixed tight against salt spray

Belie the roar they lashed ashore

In many a recent day.

Telfer spiced the challenge by modeling his poem on the structure of “The Cremation of Sam McGee” by Robert W. Service, which caught his fascination after his father read it to him as a child. “I took three days to write this thing,” says Telfer, who went on to be the commanding officer of a Navy SEAL team, then spent two decades as a lawyer and now lives in Coronado, Calif. “I remember when the captain saw it, [he] said, ‘Man, you’re in the wrong profession.’ ”

It’s an extremely rare dose of voice for an official Navy document, and Telfer, now 81, says he took that responsibility seriously. Deck-log poets don’t speak for themselves, but for the entire ship. “I did not have an ego that thought that the world was waiting for a message from me,” Telfer recalls. The closest he feels that it comes to offering a message, one felt roundly by those aboard the USS Weiss, is in the last stanza:

While shipmates sleep the watch we keep

And ask with silent prayer

That fighting cease, this new year bring peace

And freedom everywhere.

Danny Freedman is a writer in Memphis.