DAHLGREN, Va. – Jimmy Smith recounted his time aboard 14 different submarines as a government civilian engineer and how his experience under the sea influenced the design and construction of Virginia-class submarines.
Path to Naval Service
“I’ve got more sea time than a lot of submariners do,” said Smith, keynote speaker at the 2020 African American History Month Observance sponsored by the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division (NSWCDD) at the University of Mary Washington Dahlgren campus, Feb. 18.
The Department of the Navy Office of Small Business Programs director regaled the audience of military, government civilians, and defense contractors with riveting stories about his career, including his time at sea as a civilian crewmember.
It began when Cmdr. Paul Sullivan – who later retired as a vice admiral and Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) commander – gave Smith a sea bag, instructing him to board a submarine at Naval Station Norfolk in three days. Smith didn’t know at the time, there would be another submarine to board in New London, Connecticut. The underway time would continue as Smith worked on his submarine warfare qualification while crossing the equator, the Arctic Circle, and the international dateline.
“I am still in my 24-25 year-old age group and there’s nothing you can tell me about submarines,” said Smith, who earned his submarine warfare qualifications in the same manner as active duty submarine warfare officers and enlisted Sailors. “I know how they work, I know how they operate. I know how to fix them when they break and, oh by the way – we’re designing a new class of submarines.”
At that point in his career, it was little known to Smith that he would play a crucial role in the design, development, and construction of the U.S. Navy’s Virginia-class nuclear-powered cruise missile fast-attack submarines, incorporating the latest in stealth, intelligence gathering and weapons systems technology.
“I made sure the challenges I saw in the fleet would not show up again in real-life when we designed this new submarine program,” said Smith. “So, at a very young age, I was the voice of the fleet and the voice of reason,” while telling senior engineers, “I’ve been there. I’ve done that – you can’t design it that way.”
Smith told riveting stories spanning his childhood to his work as a member of the senior executive service at NAVSEA.
As the audience listened “on the edge of our seats” as one NSWCDD senior engineer described it – Smith spoke about the day he came close to running out of gas twice on a 300-mile trip while flying a plane solo at 15 years-old. Smith began taking flight lessons at 14. He was permitted to fly solo at 15 and obtained his pilot’s license at 16 – three days before his driver’s license.
It was Smith’s ability to remain “calm, cool and collected” under pressure as well as his “great attitude toward life” that made the difference in his interview with Sullivan who interviewed 28 candidates while searching for an engineer to be his only subordinate working on a new design program for the Virginia-class submarine 29 years ago.
The ability to speak from an authoritative viewpoint when it comes to the operation of submarines coupled with his calm demeanor served Smith well when he explained to senior scientists and engineers how the submarine should be designed. Later in his career, Smith would make major decisions affecting the surface fleet.
“That was the foundation of my work in the Navy – learn everything there is to know about what you are doing,” said Smith. “Put yourself into the experience that folks have to live with because you’re making decisions that will affect the future. And own it. You have the authority, you have the responsibility, and you’re accountable. You own it. That foundation laid true throughout my career.”
As Smith told sea stories about his underway time aboard submarines, his time serving in technical and managerial positions within NAVSEA and the Program Executive Office for Submarines, and his time as a member of the senior executive service since 2010, he encouraged the audience to get a mentor and to never compromise morally.
“Lock in your morals,” he said. “If you compromise yourself anywhere along the way, that means you will compromise yourself again later. Lock yourself into your morals.”
An audience member asked Smith what he advises those who do not have a mentor with Sullivan’s level of experience and resources, pointing out that new hires need guidance navigating their career paths while senior employees may be focused on seeking a promotion.
“It has to be a mutually reciprocal relationship. Sully and I got together by happenstance. We struck that chord – flying. He wasn’t able to fly in his career due to eyesight,” said Smith. “Go out and meet folks. Seek people out because of what they do, their responsibilities, and make an office call. You need to be memorable when you introduce yourself. There needs to be something about you and that person – that potential mentor – where you get along on a whole different level than just walking in there.”
History of Noteworthy African Americans Serving in the U.S. Navy
In his welcome remarks, NSWCDD Commanding Officer Capt. Casey Plew reflected on this year’s theme – “Honoring the Past – Securing the Future” – for African American History Month.
“As we look back 75 years ago, World War II was coming to an end,” said Plew. “We are grateful for our nation’s African American service members who helped bring it to an end – service members such as U.S. Navy Mess Attendant 2nd Class Doris ‘Dorie’ Miller.”
Last month – on the Jan. 20 holiday marking the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. – the U.S. Navy officially named its newest aircraft carrier, the future USS Doris Miller (CVN 81).
“Dorie Miller saved the lives of his shipmates and then fought valiantly in combat against attacking enemy forces during the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor,” said Plew. “Miller was awarded the Navy Cross for his bravery — the first African American to receive this honor. Almost two years after his valor at Pearl Harbor, Miller gave his life for his country when his ship was sunk during battle.”
Plew referred to retired Adm. Michelle Howard – “who has been to Dahlgren for a tour and technical briefings prior to her retirement as the 38th Vice Chief of Naval Operations” – as one of the most compelling success stories.
Howard is recognized for many first accomplishments, including recognition as the first female U.S. Naval Academy graduate to be promoted to the rank of admiral; the first black woman to command a combatant ship; and the first black woman promoted to two-star, three-star, and four-star admiral.
‘Throw Away the Rule Book’
“On a personal note, I would like to tell you a story about one of my great mentors, Dr. William Bundy,” said Plew regarding the retired Navy captain who rose from sonar technician to command a submarine. “Over the years, I spoke with Dr. Bundy about every other month. He always pushed me to become better because he’s a mentor, a leader. The last time I spoke with him in December, I asked him about strategic plans and artificial intelligence. He gave me three books to read and said, ‘call me when you’re done and I’ll help move you to the next level, we’ll get together.’ Sadly, on Dec. 15, Dr. Bundy passed away.”
Bundy was one of the Centennial Seven African-American submarine skippers who served during the first 100 years of the Navy's submarine service.
Bundy – who was U.S. Naval War College professor and associate provost – was also a guest lecturer at Dahlgren on several occasions.
At a Surface Warfare Innovation Workshop held at the NSWCDD Innovation Lab in 2017, he encouraged workshop participants to “throw away the rule book,” “think out of the box,” “think without a box,” “imagine,” and perhaps most of all “have fun” throughout the workshop.
“I really believe that diversity and inclusion is about leadership from the top," said Bundy in his keynote speech at the 2016 African American History Month Observance. "It is about accountability throughout the chain of command. It's about human development. We need everybody. We are in the fight for our lives. There are countries out there that are able to produce faster than us. They know what we do. They are trying to push us out and we need every one of you, and others who are still playing Xbox at home to come join us in this fight.”
After the 2016 observance, Bundy toured the NSWCDD electromagnetic railgun and directed energy facilities.
"My tour reinforced my belief that Dahlgren remains a center for innovation and development of credible combat capabilities," said Bundy at the time. "The research and development progress that was shared with me on the railgun and directed energy systems was very reassuring. Those capabilities will certainly deliver advantages for our maritime forces. It was absolutely encouraging to witness first-hand the remarkable effort and work that is continuing today at Dahlgren."
“I tell you these stories of Dorie Miller, Michelle Howard, and Dr. Bundy because it’s a story of diversity and inclusion, about mentorship, leadership, and followership,” said Plew. “It’s about a rich and awesome naval heritage. African African-Americans continue to serve with distinction, now comprising more than 17% of our active duty Navy total force end-strength. We need a diverse workforce and positions in the Navy to operate successfully and protect American interests both domestically and abroad.”