As a third-generation naval officer, people often ask me if I joined the Navy because it’s a “family business.” I never really thought about it too much, even after taking command of USS Rodney M. Davis (FFG 60) 18 months ago. But as we return home from a U.S. Seventh Fleet deployment—my first in the Pacific, family is on my mind. Fittingly, the ship will be in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on Pearl Harbor Day, so perhaps it’s time I thought a bit more about family and service.
My grandfather, Cmdr. Frank Dolan Whalen, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1938. His first assignment was Gunnery Officer on USS Zane (DMS-14), which was at anchor in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. I can only imagine his thoughts that day, under attack, while my grandmother nursed my one-month-old father and watched the bombings from their nearby home. During World War II, my grandfather served in 18 battles in the Pacific and was awarded a Silver Star for heroism during the kamikaze attack on USS Franklin (CV-13). Later, he commanded the destroyers USS Colahan (DD-658) and USS Corry (DD-817). Sadly, “Grampop” passed away when I was only eight years old, but I will proudly wear his officer’s sword at USS Rodney M Davis’ decommissioning ceremony in January.
My father, Capt. Frank Richard Whalen, graduated from U.S. Naval Academy in 1963 and served 30 years as a Surface Warfare Officer, including tours as Commanding Officer of USS Thomas C. Hart (FF-1092) and USS Mobile Bay (CG 53). He was only 26 days old when the attack on Pearl Harbor took place, a few miles from where he was born (he’ll tell you that he remembers every detail). Dad is the kind of guy who would have stayed in the Navy forever if they would have let him. Perhaps it’s some small consolation that I wear his tarnished command-at-sea pin on my coveralls every day at sea.
I guess that makes me the black sheep of the family—I received my commission via NROTC from the University of Virginia in 1995. (Two years earlier, my older brother, Scott, graduated from the Naval Academy.) Initially, Dad wasn’t very happy about my college choice, but in the words of Thomas Jefferson, “the boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave.”
That was 20 years ago, but today I can’t escape tradition—it’s stared me in the face the past six months. During my first Pacific deployment, and when USS Rodney M. Davis joined 48 ships from 22 countries for Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise last summer, it really hit me: I was moored in Pearl Harbor, yards away from where my grandfather was at anchor on December 7, 1941. After RIMPAC, we refueled in Guam, where he was stationed at Commander Naval Forces Marianas. As the ship steamed over 34,000 nautical miles in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, I saw names like Midway, Leyte and Iwo Jima on the charts, in whose waters my grandfather and countless other everyday naval heroes sailed over 70 years ago. The scenery may be the same, but our mission—building and sustaining Pacific partnership—is much different.
So on this Pearl Harbor Day, I am fortunate to be in Pearl Harbor, halfway home to my own family. I will visit the USS Arizona and Battleship Missouri memorials, and I’ll remember the sacrifices of those who came before me. I will also take a few moments to remember my grandfather and snap a picture of evening colors to send to my Dad. At the end of the day, the Navy is still a family business.