Mad Marcus: Vietnam's War's Real-Life Captain Queeg?

By Bonner, Kit | Sea Classics, March 2011 | Go to article overview

Mad Marcus: Vietnam's War's Real-Life Captain Queeg?


Bonner, Kit, Sea Classics


Combining a ship with a dubious reputation and a captain of questionable sanity creates a ven real recipe for disaster

The Allies built 563 destroyer-escorts in six classes, including the Edsall-class. At one time, these ships were all that stood between Nazi U-boat victory and Allied defeat. The Edsa/J-class was 306-ft in length, 37-ft wide, and displaced 1590-tons full load. Her flank speed was 21-kts, powered by four Fairbanks-Morse model 38d81 diesel engines which generated 6000-shp. She was armed with three 3-in/50-cal weapons with a Mark 51 gunfire director. She also earned three 21 -in torpedo tubes and, for anti-aircraft defense, there was a twin 40mm mount, and eight 20mm weapons. ASW consisted of two DC tracks, eight DC projectors, and a non-trainable hedgehog mount with a total of 144 weapons.

For a small ship that could be quickly assembled, she was adequate to fight and defeat a U-boat. As to ride of these ships, they were rough, even in harbor. She carried 220 enlisted and eight officers.

The keel of the Vance (DE-387) was laid on 30 April 1943. She was launched on 16 July 1943 and commissioned on 1 November 1943. The Vance ultimately was selected to be a DER after the Korean War on 1 October 1955. This was part of an interim method for detecting Russian missiles and bombers. It also included a "deep freeze" assignment where the ship was required to operate in the coldest regions of the globe. For a ship designed for tropical warfare, this was very difficult on the crew.

The Vance was like most destroyer-escorts, and performed a yeoman job for the Allies. The Vance assisted in the kill of the U-61 6 on 14 May 1944. To rival this first action, the Vance captured the U873 on 11 May 1945. The USS England (DE-635 Buckley-class) captured or sank some six Japanese I-boats in an Imperial Navy patrol line in early 1943.

Unfortunately, in December 1965, the Vance was assigned a commanding officer who fashioned himself a heroic figure along the likes of John Paul Jones, David Farragut, and Clive Cussler's fictional hero Dirk Pitt.

Lieutenant Commander Marcus Aurelius Arnheiter took command on 22 December 1965. Arnheiter had graduated from the US Naval Academy with midclass standing. As his career progressed, he received some less- than-outstanding fitness reports, which delayed his promotions. When he was assigned to Vance at age 41, he was one of the oldest officers in the Navy at his rank, and he had a burning ambition to rectify that situation.

Arnheiter came from a distinguished family. His grandfather, Baron von Arnheiter, was an aviation pioneer, and his father was an accomplished musician. Marcus himself had written the novel Shadow of Peril, published by Doubleday & Company, that dealt with incidents aboard a Soviet submarine.

Arnheiter was promoted to lieutenant in 1956. He spent the early 1960s in the Pentagon, working on antisubmarine warfare plans. He had a reputation for brashness. He also had a flair for verbal criticism and was known for his stubbornness and considerable ego.

Based on a superior report in his personnel file and the endorsement of his former commanding officer, Capt. Richard G. Alexander, the Navy's Ship Command Board cleared Arnheiter for command. However, the chief of Naval Operations endorsed the approval with the proviso, "The board having decided in your favor, albeit with reservations." It seemed clear that Arnheiter's superiors considered him capable within certain limitations.

Vance sailed for the Vietnam coast on 28 December 1965. Although the ship was cramped and the crew was tired, her new commander was ambitious. Lieutenant Commander Arnheiter appeared competent enough to the crew, though he exhibited some eccentricities. Early on, he ordered the replacement of a black toilet seat in his quarters with a white one. For some reason, the ship's executive officer, Lt. Ray S. Hardy, was embarrassed by the order, and that started a series of jokes circulating around the ship. …

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