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Rocks and Shoals

By Captain Donald I. Thomas USN (Ret.)

Shipmate 54, no. 7 (September 1991): 31. Reprinted Courtesy of United States Naval Academy Alumni Association

One Sunday morning of each month, before compulsory Chapel services, our Battalion of Midshipmen was marched to Memorial Hall for the required reading of the Articles for the Government of the Navy, better-known as "Rocks and Shoals." There, under those wonderfully inspiring paintings of bygone sea battles, we heard the dire consequences to those who "suffered any vessel of the Navy to be stranded or run upon rocks and shoals, or improperly hazarded;" or who, "when engaged in battle, treacherously yields or pusillanimously cries for quarter." We were enjoined to "guard against and suppress all dissolute and immoral practices." Court-martial punishment was provided for any person "who is guilty of profane swearing, falsehood, drunkenness, gambling, fraud, theft or any other conduct tending to the destruction of good morals." We learned that any officer" who absents himself from his command without leave may be sentenced by a court-martial to be reduced to the rating of seaman second class."

This wonderful prose and those thundering admonitions made a strong impression on this young Midshipman despite the fact that our Battalion Adjutant was expected to read as many of the Articles as he could within his allotted 15 minutes. This didn't leave much time for their provisions to sink in, although its more stirring ones still remain in my memory. Nowhere else would you hear such rarely-used and interesting words and phrases as "pusillanimous," "dissolute and immoral practices" or "scandalous conduct tending to the destruction of good morals."

In due course I reported to my first ship and soon became a part of the Naval justice system; first as recorder of a three- officer Summary Court Martial ("Special Court" in today's Uniform Code of Military Justice). The Bible for these legal proceedings was the Manual for Courts-Martial, a voluminous, tan-colored, loose-leaf book. In it, each step from beginning of the trial to its conclusion was spelled out, word for word. On my first case the accused (a.k.a. "the accursed,") agreed to plead guilty, sparing me my first go at being the prosecuting attorney. Fortunately, also, the accused didn't wish to be represented by counsel, which would have been appointed from the wardroom had he so requested, or else by a civilian lawyer if he chose to employ one; rarely practicable on a seaman's monthly pay of $54. The tone of court- martial proceedings-to-be was perhaps set by our crusty two- stripe senior member with his announcement at lunch that his summary court would meet at 1300 "to dispense with justice."

Justice under the Articles for the Government of the Navy was speedy and fair, with the rights of the accused properly safeguarded. Speedy justice was enhanced by the nonavailability of peremptory challenges of members of the Court by the accused, and challenges "for cause" based on prejudice, prior knowledge or investigation of the case, etc. were rarely invoked. Only a simple majority vote was required for a guilty finding in all but capital cases, where a two-thirds majority was required. Unlike civil law, there were no mistrals based on hung juries. In reaching a sentence, the Court was enjoined by Article 51 that it was its duty "to adjudge a punishment adequate to the nature of the offense." Convening Authorities were quick to point out in their approval remarks on the court-martial record any failure in this respect. There was no independent judiciary or a JAG Corps in those days, and any undue leniency in sentencing could bring down upon the Court a scathing denunciation from the Convening Authority-usually your Commanding Officer-and possible adverse comments on your next fitness report.

Periodically, the Fleet Commanders published in pamphlet form their "Court Martial Orders" in which were digested the findings and sentences of officers tried before General Courts- Martial. These made popular, albeit vicarious, reading in every wardroom. Usually they included some contemporary who had lost a highly-classified publication or some junior officer who "in a public place, to wit, the Pacific Coast Club in Long Beach, California, was grossly drunk and conspicuously disorderly. " Other cases might include an occasional collision at sea or a running aground, or an embezzlement of government funds by a paymaster or postal officer. Here again the long shadow of the Convening Officer would be manifest in his remarks on the record that "the punishment awarded in this case was entirely incommensurate to the seriousness of the offense committed and the members of the Court were thereby admonished" for their collective failure to perform their duties as The Admiral expected them to do in dispensing justice.

Some years later, at Newport, in 1944, while a member of a precommissioning detail of a new ship, I was one of several officers appointed as Senior Member of summary courts convened by the Base Commander Commo. Cary W "Red" Magruder '09. With a war on, there were some enlisted men among the thousands being assembled in precommissioning details who weren't all that gung-ho to go off to war and would therefore go AWOL. Calling us new senior members into his office, he made it abundantly clear to us that (a) there wasn't the slightest doubt as to the guilt of the offender, and (b) that the only reason for our appointment was to adjudge a punishment more severe than that allowable to him at "Mast." We got the message loud and clear that we were expected to throw the book at the accused and leave leniency, if any, to him. This well-understood command influence remained until 1951, when the Uniform Code of Military Justice came into being. One of its provisions was that "no Convening authority or commanding officer could censor, reprimand or admonish any court or member with respect to findings and sentence adjudged by the Court and may not attempt to coerce or influence action of a court in reaching its finding or sentence."

With the enactment of the Uniform Code, the Articles for the Government of the Navy together with the Army's Articles of War faded into oblivion. For the Navy, those wonderful words "treacherously yielding and pusillanimously crying for quarter;" "scandalous conduct tending to the destruction of good morals" and "suppression of all dissolute and immoral practices" were lost forever. More mundane and less spectacular wording was introduced into its punitive articles. The administration of justice took on more of the characteristics of civil law; not surprising since it was drafted by members of Congress, many of them lawyers who had served in the Armed Forces during the War. Under the Uniform Code, greater latitude was given to peremptory challenges, and the finding of guilt required a two-thirds majority in all but capital cases.

One happier provision of the Uniform Code eliminated the requirement that it had to be read to the troops every month. Mercifully for the Brigade of Midshipmen, this ended that monthly reading of the Articles for the Government of the Navy in Memorial Hall .

Published: Wed Nov 08 16:45:33 EST 2017