Tale of a Heroic Sailor: Ensign Stannus’ M1911A1

Robert “Dickie” Stannus was , in technical terms, a total stud. So much so that he was awarded an inscribed M1911A1 directly by Colt as a prize for being the top sailor in his Naval Academy class. He got the privilege of choosing what ship he would be assigned to, and chose the USS Bear, an assault transport. On its 1959 cruise from Yokosuka for exercises, it encountered Typhoon Ellen, one of the strongest recorded storms of the century. When one of the Bexar’s Marines was washed overboard, Stannus dove into the surging waves to save the man – and did so successfully. As the Marine was being hauled back on board, though, the ship took a roll and Stannus was drowned beneath the hull.

Stannus’ Naval Academy memorial page:


  1. The fact that people were on deck is odd when they should have been ordered not to be there. This is a situation where the Captain would ultimately be responsible for and could face disciplinary action. But the whole cycling of commanders, and why nobody wants to talk about what happened, is really weird. The empty file folder means that someone in the Navy wanted the matter hushed up, to save the “reputation” of the Navy. These sorts of coverups never really do. Being honest about a bad incident is the better path to restore public confidence in an institution. But what happened to the pistol after Stannus’s death so that Ian’s friend ended up with it and the medal?

    • Based on my experience of “military justice”, the odds are pretty good that this got political really, really fast.

      I’ve observed that the Navy, in particular, seems to have a generally draconian approach to dealing with blame; if you’re in command, it is your fault, period. Unless, of course, you’re “connected”, and then things get really weird from an outsider’s viewpoint. Witness what happened to the poor bastard who was in command of the Indianapolis, for example…

      The one thing I’ve noticed as a general rule across all services is that once an investigation into an incident begins, it keeps on going until it finds the first improperly done thing (by regulation…), regardless of what impact that thing might have actually had on the situation. Once they figure out who is to blame for that improperly performed thing, well… There ya go: That’s who is going to be prosecuted (persecuted…?) for the incident. Never mind who might really have been culpable.

      I had this explained to me once, by someone who was more invested in the system than I was, who was less concerned with abstract justice. His take on things was that “military justice” didn’t exist in order to render true justice in any sense, but to reinforce the system itself. Anything that might tend to make the system look bad…? Like a commander having the bad luck to have his ship sunk under him while on a secret mission such that nobody was tracking his ship? Too bad; so sad… You couldn’t allow the spectacle of “the system” being found at fault, ‘cos that’d be bad for morale and erode everyone else’s trust and faith in the system. Better to sacrifice that captain, blame him, and remember that the Navy always had other captains to plug into positions…

      Or, at least, that’s how he justified his actions, in order to sleep at night.

      • That is EXACTLY how the Navy does it.

        On a side note, I got both yours and Bart’s comment notifications (and watched the video on Youtube after seeing his) without having commented myself, but have yet to get the notification for the actual post / video. I just went in the other day and made sure all my WordPress boxes were checked because it’s even worse (no article or comment notifications) on another site.

        • I took the position that “the system, right or wrong” was far more erosive to trust in it than doing justice to a given situation. Of course, I wasn’t in charge, and wasn’t threatened as much by questioning the system; being mid-level, I was more concerned with things actually, y’know… Working.

          Zero-defects leadership and scapegoatism are both things that don’t belong in a truly effective organization, along with factionalism and “favored son” politics. It is unfortunate that all these things tend to grow up within organizational structures like pernicious weeds.

          If you’ve ever watched the lifecycles of Cordyceps fungi, where they take over the nervous system of various insects to use them for their own reproductive purposes, then you’ve seen a pretty good example of the effect that careerism and politics have on organizational effectiveness. After a bit, they no longer focus on their original purpose, and instead seek to get high up into the sunlight where the fungi can sporulate most effectively…

          Although, I think I’d prefer to have cordyceps infest my organization than some of the careerist humans I’ve dealt with. More honesty, less sanctimony…

          • True and LOL on your last point!

            I’d suggest a subtle difference from your friend’s perspective: while morale may be a preferred rationalization, it’s less about trying to maintain faith in an infallible system, and more about the commanders a level or two higher than ship’s leadership wanting to throw investigators a satisfactory sacrifice so they can declare justice served before getting to the systemic failures under their own direct purview. It’s not so much keeping the Navy credible as keeping the Commodore and Type Commander on glide slope to promotion or retirement.

          • Ah, but you see… They’ve sublimated the concept that what’s good for them, two levels up, is what is good for the organization. Quite like the old saw about “What’s good for GM is good for America…”

            People taking part in an organizational hierarchy are generally blind to all that is going on within it. I don’t know why, but they are. Even decades after, they don’t realize the effects of the things they did, the decisions they made, the ones that they told themselves lies about. I ran into one of the most destructive leaders I knew while on active duty awhile back, and he was all “Hail, fellow, and well met…” To this day, I don’t think he realizes how much damage his self-centered approach to command did, or how many people’s lives he damaged. The oddity was being able to finally recognize just how delusional he really was, and how little I saw that in him while I worked under him. At that time, I just thought he was an ass; an effective ass, from his own selfish perspective, but an ass nonetheless. It was really dissociating to realize that he was still the hero of his own story, that he’d been telling himself for years.

            I think one of the things that we’ve done wrong in all of our training and leader selection/assessment process is that we don’t really emphasize having them try to comprehend how things really work, and to look at the organization they’re put in charge of as being an entity in and of itself, that they’re being entrusted with temporary authority within. Too many officers (commissioned and non-commissioned) see the organization that they’ve been placed within as being theirs to use for their own self-aggrandizement and career enhancement… They don’t see the organization as being anything other than an instrument of their own vanity and ambition, and you can tell by how they behave.

          • Very well said. I don’t really have anything to add or dispute in what you said, but it reminded me of a semi-related point. A boss who was actually an excellent leader in many respects decided that a certain acquisition program was vital to the success of the whole Navy. Instead of letting honest feedback get it unfuct when he encountered it (early enough in the process to do so economically), he deflected or rationalized any constructive criticism of the program until it became big and unsalvageable.

          • I’ve seen that scenario play out far too often… Sunk cost fallacy as applied to personal commitment/ideology. Once some people are past a certain point of investment in an idea, they stop any and all critical evaluation of it. They also try to apply it everywhere, even places it has no business being applied…

          • Ran into this on one of my jobs. This was an effort at automation. The computer components selected, to do an in-house build from scratch system, cost lots of money, took too much electrical power for the conditions under which they would be used, and had trouble with getting safety certified. Lots of money went into the effort.

            I found an off-the-shelf plug-and-play solution that had a lower cost per unit, had energy requirements that matched the use conditions, and had already been safety certified. But no amount of showing that the money spent by using this new equipment would be less than the cost of continuing in a failed direction could get the managers to take new direction.

        • Perfect example, from the Royal Navy.

          See also the failures in analysis after Jutland, and the whole Singapore debacle. Whose brilliant idea was it to build Singapore without shoreward defenses, and then send two unescorted surface warships into harm’s way absent air cover…?

          All of this is typical human behavior, when you cluster enough of us together into groups.

    • The comment was made that things on the deck were getting blown overboard. Maybe the people on deck were sent there to keep this from happening. In that case, things took precedence over people and that confused the issue.

    • “(…)what happened(…)after Stannus’s death so that Ian’s friend ended up with(…)the medal?”
      To my understanding award was given after death, so according to https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/14/2743
      In case an individual who dies before the making of any award to which such individual may be entitled, as authorized in this chapter, the award may be made and presented within five years from the date of the act or service justifying the award to such next of kin as may have been designated by the individual, or in the absence of such designation, or if the designated individual is not alive at the time of the award, or the relationship between such individual and the serviceman shall have been terminated before his death, then to such representative as the President designates. In the event of a posthumous award when the award will be made to the parents of the deceased and the parents have been divorced or separated, a duplicate award may be made to each parent.
      so I presume it was delivered to person who he has designated as next of kin.

      • You got the start of the trail correct. But which of Stannus’ relatives got the medal, and presumably the pistol? When did they (or whomever they passed it along to) decide to sell it?

        • There’s also a good bit of finish wear and scarring on that pistol, so I doubt it spent most of its life in the original box, on someone’s shelf.

          Pistols and other things awarded like this one tend to go one of two ways: Either they get put up and stored, never to see actual use, or… Someone uses the ever-loving snot out of them. I saw a revolver that was awarded to a Texas Ranger for something near the start of his career as a Ranger, and he apparently carried that thing for most of his time as a Ranger; it was beat the hell up and you could barely make out the award engraving, that had been done in beautiful ornate detail. I’m not too sure what the full provenance was, but it was interesting. The other Texas Ranger pistol this collector had was beyond pristine, and still with all of its original boxes and paperwork.

          I personally haven’t seen anything in between the two extremes… I’m sure there are some out there, but I’ve never seen an example.

          • The wear on the pistol was initially a bit unsettling. Why would someone use it so roughly, considering its history?

            But you are correct about the two extremes. A neighbor won a really nicely engraved 45-70 rifle at a event for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. All of her family wanted to use it on their next hunting trip. She said “no way” and is keeping it pristine on the wall rack.

            For me, I see no point of “pretty guns”. Guns are made to be used, not just looked at. So somebody along the way got the pistol and used it. Maybe it went to a relative in the military or law enforcement. These two options would account for the extreme wear.

  2. A brave man indeed . I am no expert on military legal procedures but the USS Iowa turret explosion case makes for some pretty harrowing reading

  3. I like the various comments about hierarchical organization dysfunction. Points to the endemic human failings and the need for better leadership training. Experienced this sort of garbage in private businesses.

    “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”
    Act III, Scene 2 A Midsummer Night’s Dream
    Corollary: you can’t fix stupid

    • I think it’s inherent to humanity; we just don’t do organization well, over the long haul. Short-term ad-hoc stuff… We tend to do that really well. Look at the effort NASA put in to get us onto the moon, as an example, and then contrast that with the following fifty years of senescent bureaucratic sloth they fell into, once the various careerists wormed their way in.

      I’ve been a student of the organization as it exists, outside in the real world, not in the various org charts and theoretical textbooks. None of them seem to be well-understood by their participants, or the documentation wouldn’t be so bad. Nine times out of ten, if you go to ask someone inside a hierarchy “How do I get this done…?”, they’re going to give you the rote answer out of the policy handbook. When you go to apply that, you’re going to really find out how things “get done”, because I can almost guarantee you it won’t be what’s documented. You’re gonna have to go find Edna, over in accounting, and then she’s going to be the final arbiter on whether or not your thing gets paid for… So, you’d better a.) find out who she is, b.) make her happy, and c.) account for her shadowy presence behind the written org chart that’s on display in the lobby. Every organization has its Ednas; either that, or they’ve got Floyd, the guy who’s been there forever, who does a half-dozen critical things that nobody knows about and which have never, ever been documented. The day Floyd drops dead on the job, or retires? Company is screwed, because not only does nobody know what Floyd did, they also don’t know that the things Floyd did were critical to the company’s success…

  4. I suspect that the command changes may have been routine pending the inquiry. Both the Captain and the Executive Officer were personally involved in the loss.

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