Young sailor who became an understanding admiral gains rare fourth star

November 12, 1991|By Richard H.P. Sia | Richard H.P. Sia,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When Mike Boorda was a teen-ager and his world at home and school began to crumble, it was the U.S. Navy that took him in, even though he had to lie about his age and use a phony birth certificate to enlist.

He was just 16. His parents' marriage was breaking up, and he decided to quit high school just outside Chicago and strike out alone. "I was cool. I was tough. And in truth," he says now, remembering that time, "I was scared to death. Hell, I was 16 years old, and I had nobody to help me."

And when he got some liberty and took off again from a Navy training school in San Diego for two days -- of romance, his friends say now -- it was the Navy that set him straight. "I was so young that they looked at me and said, 'OK, you do good in this school, and we'll suspend all this,' " he says. "And I worked my tail off."

It paid off. Today, Adm. Jeremy Michael Boorda, the boy of 35 years ago, makes Navy history when he gets his fourth star, the rank he will use as commander in chief of allied forces, Southern Europe, spanning NATO's southern flank in Italy, Greece, Turkey and the Mediterranean. The promotion by President Bush, approved by the Senate Thursday, also puts him in charge of all U.S. naval forces in Europe.

In a fraternity of admirals laden with Naval Academy and ROTC graduates, Admiral Boorda becomes the first person to have risen from the lowest enlisted grade to the Navy's highest rank, ++ and he did it in large part by taking care of his men.

A relentless worker and taskmaster, his disdain for procedures and red tape is well known. But his penchant for breaking rules and using unconventional methods to get things done is legendary, and he is famous for his efforts to make the Navy a more humane experience for enlisted men and women.

"He knows how to move out in this bureaucracy and surmount any obstacle," said retired Adm. James D. Watkins, the Bush administration's secretary of energy who, as chief of naval operations, gave Admiral Boorda a crucial career boost by naming him as his executive assistant in 1984.

"Some guy will come up to him and say, 'I've got orders to go here, and I don't want to go for the following reasons,' and he'd say, 'Don't go; I'll change your orders,' just like that," another senior officer said. "The sailors love him."

It was as a young sailor that he was hauled before a captain's mast, a disciplinary proceeding that resulted in a fine and a 45-day restriction to the base for disappearing from the San Diego training school on his first evening of liberty.

After the commanding officer chewed him out, his chief petty officer pulled him aside.

"I thought he was just going to take me and yell at me again," Admiral Boorda said. "He didn't just yell at me. We sat down and tried to figure out how I was going to get my high school fTC diploma, and how I was going to take these courses. He really taught me that succeeding was something special."

He married his wife, Bettie, in April 1957. Their son David, 33, their first child, will go to live with them in Naples, Italy. He was born severely disabled. At age 18, Mike Boorda began to settle down. "That was almost overwhelming," the admiral said. "You don't have to be very old to grow up fast."

Admiral Boorda attended Officer Candidate School in 1962, avowedly without ambition.

"When I was a seaman, I wanted to make [seaman] third class," he said. "When Bettie and I got our first apartment, I wanted to buy her some nicer furniture. I don't know if I ever had a grander plan than that."

But he had a different way of doing things that brought him notice.

As a destroyer squadron leader in 1981, then-Capt. Boorda added the "Commodore's Surprise" to enliven naval training. Sometimes that meant ordering sailors to ignite oil drums stuffed with wood and paper, then calling a nearby ship to put out the fire.

On other days he would declare large numbers of crewmen "dead" to see how the ship would run or simply order everyone to take a nap. Later, when he headed a 42-ship combat force that included the USS Saratoga, he launched a mock aerial attack on another aircraft carrier.

"You knew you were going to go out and do some interesting things," said Capt. John Craine, former air operations officer for the Saratoga battle group. "You wouldn't be bored."

As his flagship stood alongside an oiler that was refueling an aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean in 1982, Captain Boorda decided to practice emergency defensive measures by suddenly firing his ship's 5-inch guns and ordering the oiler to break away from the carrier.

"So here's this gun going boom, boom, making horrible loud noises, with all this echoing between these big ships," he recalled. "The only thing is, I'd forgotten to tell this admiral that was on the carrier . . . and a lot of people on the carrier were going, 'Whoaaa. What's happening here?' "

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