JULY 6, 2016, MEDITERRANEAN SEA (NNS) – For nearly three centuries of its existence, the U.S. Navy has kept tradition at the core of its daily operations. The knowledge and know-how of sea farers has been passed down from generation to generation, ensuring that the greatest naval force stays true to its roots.
USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69) (Ike) recently gained a wealth of this knowledge when Senior Chief Gunner’s Mate Robert Hyatt, the “Old Tar,” stepped on board.
“Tar” is traditionally used as slang for a Sailor. Some say that the word is short for tarpaulins that Sailors used to keep things dry; others say it’s for the tar they used to grease their long hair before battle. While many disagree on where the term came from, it is widely known that an Old Tar is an experienced mariner.
In today’s Navy the term is given to the Sailor who has held the Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist (ESWS) qualification for the longest.
“The original process was much different from today, it took me a year to earn ESWS,” Hyatt said. “I stood every watch on the ship, from lighting off boilers to driving the ship. When you stood in front of the commanding officer for your final board, you had to have a detailed knowledge of every component on the ship.”
In 1979, when ESWS was originally introduced, it was a qualification that set Sailors apart. It was required to be an E-5 to even begin the program and it was not incorporated in the normal work day.
“There were no group trainings, no one held your hand,” Hyatt said. “When working hours ended and you were dog tired, that’s when you studied. It was something you really had to go out of your way to strive for.”
The original purpose of ESWS was to create a group of Sailors aboard the ship who were specialists in every department outside their designated field. It’s the same reason every Sailor is required to be qualified in damage control, in the case of an emergency a Sailor qualified for ESWS could fill in for any position on the ship. They even had an entirely separate duty section so that in a dire situation, there would be enough specialists aboard to pull out of port and take the ship to sea.
When Hyatt received his pin he was one of only 15 Sailors qualified out of a crew of 175. With nearly 30 years of service to his country, Hyatt has been all around the world and accomplished a great deal. He was aboard guided-missile frigate USS Stark (FFG 31) when it was hit by an Iraqi missile. He was deployed to Iraq where he came face-to-face with war and was lucky to come home alive. Out of all of his achievements, he stated that receiving ESWS was one of the proudest moments of his career.
“I’ll be honest with you, todays ESWS is not the same program that I went through in 1988,” Hyatt said. “When I went through the process, it was about making a small group of Sailors specialists in every field. Nowadays the focus is on giving every Sailor aboard a general knowledge on the ship they live and work on.”
Hyatt explained changing the standard of the qualification was a double edged sword. In pushing to qualify more Sailors, it lost a bit of the depth of knowledge. However, it’s not feasible for 5,000 Sailors to stand every single watch onboard an aircraft carrier. The most important aspect for Hyatt was that the pride behind earning the right to wear ESWS remained.
As the Navy progresses into the future and Sailors rely more on technology and less on the human factor, heritage and traditions are beginning to dissipate. Hyatt explained, unless an effort is made to keep them alive, they could disappear and the Navy could lose a lot of the customs that have been practiced for hundreds of years.
“To this very day, I still have my original ESWS pin,” Hyatt Said. “It’s a source of pride for me. I believe it’s our duty to keep these traditions alive because we owe it to the men and women who made this the great Navy it is today.”
To Hyatt, the pride in being named Old Tar doesn’t come from the glory he receives, but the ability he has to impart on younger Sailors the wisdom he has worked for so long to achieve.
“I’m getting old,” Hyatt said. “I’ve done a lot in my time, but my main goal before I get out is to bring back the enthusiasm for ESWS. A respect for naval traditions needs to stay with us because it’s what connects us with the past and us apart from any other Navy in the world.”