USS Fitzgerald Editorial - gCaptain has stirred the hornets nest

My gCaptain editorial on the USS Fitzgerald sparked a firestorm of both negative comments (mostly from US Navy officers) and praise (mostly from mariners and journalists)… making it THE single most controversial article I’ve ever written. Here is my official response:

Why The USS Fitzgerald Is At Fault, Part 2 – Questions And Answers


There are some examples of cooperation. Remember this article…
Cadets / Navigation

They should also include more experienced merchant mariners for ride-alongs and get more out of it. Bet you could find s few volunteers from the ranks of the retired and semi-retired.

Nice article, John.

You brought up a sore subject that needed to be brought up. Thanks!

Closer ties and communication between the US Navy and US Merchant Marine would be a very good thing, I think.


Good articles, John. Very thoughtful and objective. Thank you.

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I actually liked this article better then the first. It brought up a number of important points. I would love to see better cooperation, communication, and engagement between the USN and the MM. The USN often isn’t familiar with how things work in the MM. I’d say MM officers are more familiar with how USN works if anything. Those of us who went to the Maritime Academies have a score of classmates who commissioned, participated in ROTC, CivMars at MSC, SSOP, etc. It’d be nice to see more support from the USN and the Governemnt to fulfil our role as the 4th arm of defense.

As some one who HAS stood a watch on the bridge, on the deck, and in CIC of a U.S. Navy DDG, I think your assessment was SPOT ON.
…for what it’s worth.


First of all I want to say I have immense respect for Captain Konrad’s experience as a master mariner and his contribution to the maritime world as a whole. His vast experience and expertise in the maritime field far exceeds my own. I am a maritime academy graduate who sailed for a few years as a mate on container ships, and who later decided to sign up and serve my country as a Surface Warfare Officer aboard navy ships. I have served extensive time aboard different destroyers deployed to both the Middle East and the Far East. During my shore tour I taught navigation and COLREGS at the Naval Academy and wrote the new celestial curriculum which they decided to bring back as part of their coursework. During my time in the Navy I have tried to be a harbinger of change and provide perspective much needed to a community that is often much isolated from the wider maritime community. I am an advocate of requiring third mate licenses for OODs and meeting basic STCW requirements and certifications which are obtained by Naval Officers of most other countries. I do believe that our lack of comparable training that the rest of the industry is required to have is a large reason for many of the Navy’s accidents. And it certainly could have played a factor for the Fitzgerald collision. I take no issue with the final conclusion of the article that both ships violated the Rules of the Road and were at fault. As a teacher of that very subject to young Midshipmen I attempted to drill this very truth into their heads during classes day in and day out. One thing the Navy has done right is hire former master mariners such as yourself to run all simulators, navigation, seamanship, and Rules of the Road classes for the entire community of Surface Warfare Officers who compose almost all of the bridge watchstanders in the entire fleet. These Merchant Mariners take training our Navy extremely seriously and do their absolute best to ensure that the fleet receives the very best education and training possible within the limited confines of the courses they teach. We don’t currently have the time, funding, or facilities to provide all of our Naval Officers with the education and training necessary to pass a third mates exam, however, I think the Merchant Mariners entrusted to train up these young Naval Officers do a damn good job all things considered.

All that being said, many of the descriptions of how things work on the bridge of a naval vessel were factually inaccurate and others I thought deserved explanation and context:

  1. Claim: Bridge to Bridge Comms are answered by a radioman who passes them to a Communication Watch Officer who then passes it to the OOD.

Discussion: Bridge to Bridge Communications are in fact answered by the Officer of the Deck (OOD) who is in charge of the navigational watch. The Junior Officer of the Deck (JOOD) is not a required watch position, but is essentially an OOD in training. The comparison onboard a merchant ship would be the Deck Cadet. The mate on watch might allow the Deck Cadet to make a Bridge to Bridge call, but it would be under heavy supervision. The same would happen with the JOOD. The OOD would make most Bridge to Bridge calls, however, if the JOOD was competent enough the OOD might allow him to make the call. The Captain of the naval vessel would only be called if CPA was small enough that he warranted a call. The Communications Watch Officer referenced in the article oversees all tactical communications are up and running. He is not involved in Bridge to Bridge communications at all.

Conclusion: There is no more loss of information on a naval vessel for Bridge to Bridge communications then there is on any merchant vessel.

  1. Claim: Operating a radar requires you to have been selected for a school wherein you are taught to operate the radar.

Discussion: Radars are in fact operated mainly by the OOD who does not have to attend any school for the RADAR. The only other person monitoring the radar would be the JOOD just as a deck cadet might. The OOD monitors RADAR relative and true vectors and CPA’s and makes traffic encounter decisions in the same manner as a Third Mate. He requires no inputs or reports from any other watchstanders.

There is a RADAR school that an Electronics Technician might attend as part of their “A” school. However, one must understand that some of these naval surface RADARs such as the SPS-67 also double as fire control RADARs. So when they go to a school yes they do learn how to tune the RADAR like a third mate, but it also has to do with the ability for the ship to tune the RADAR sufficiently in order to maintain fire control quality track data on high speed inbound craft that will facilitate the ability to put rounds on target. Finally, for a merchant ship if your RADAR breaks you will no doubt have to wait until the vessel reaches port at which point a technician will come out and fix your RADAR. On warships we seek to maintain the ability to repair the RADAR underway so that in a naval battle we can return that RADAR to operating condition and support vital ship’s weapons systems.

Conclusion: The main operator of the RADAR is the OOD. There is no enlisted operator, only a technician. The OOD is encouraged to use his watch team in the same way that we are taught as Merchant Mariners in our Bridge Resources Management (BRM) course, however, the OOD requires no reports from any other watchstation to operate his RADAR and make traffic encounter decisions.

  1. Claim: [On a merchant ship] "with the help of one officer he (the mate) has to watch the RADAR and AIS, plot the relative courses of nearby vessels, communicate with the Engine Room, talk with other ships on the VHF radio and issue orders.

Discussion: In fact, the OOD does all of the things discussed above and does not have to rely on any other watchstanders to receive reports. As previously discussed OOD monitors RADAR directly along with AIS, and normally makes all VHF radio calls himself just as a mate might. If he has a report to make to the engine room the OOD will call the engineroom directly. There are no other people who have to be involved. If he were so inclined the OOD could allow the JOOD to communicate with the engine room the same way a Deck Cadet might call down for the mate.

Conclusion: In reality, this process for me on a Navy ship operated much the same for me whether I was a third mate on a container ship or an OOD on an Arleigh Burke class destroyer. Only on the navy ship there were four other people on the bridge with me. To me it only felt like having two deck cadets (Conn and JOOD), and an extra person helping to plot and fill out my log book. Otherwise watch in the middle of the ocean felt much the same. I don’t argue that the extra three people have potential for clutter and confusion, but it is not near the issue that many make it out to be.

  1. Claim: “On a navy ship each of these jobs is performed by a small team of sailors who report changes to, and obey orders from, the officer of the deck (OOD).”

Discussion: In reality, the small team of people the navy might have on the bridge of a common warship during an ocean transit would be as follows:

OOD: Officer in charge of the navigational watch
JOOD: Assistant to the OOD, essentially an OOD in training.
CONN: Usually a brand new Ensign who is beginning his bridge watchstanding training and getting his bearings. While he observes the behavior he gets some hands-on training giving helm commands to the helmsman.
Quarter Master of the Watch (QMOW): While the OOD plots the first and last position of the watch, the QMOW will most often plot any other fixes during the watch along with DR’s, and fill out the log book. The OOD will oversee the accuracy of his work. Due to many of the extra duties placed on the OOD of a warship he has the QMOW to help him maintain the navigational picture, however, he is overall responsible for its accuracy, and the QMOW is not a part of traffic encounter decisions.
HELMSMAN: Steers the vessel. Equivalent is obviously your Able-bodied Seaman on watch.
Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch (BMOW): This watch really has no impact on daily bridge operations as it pertains to a navigational watch in today’s navy. He pipes announcements throughout the day, rings bells, and maintains the order and discipline of any enlisted watchstanders on the bridge.

Conclusion: Really there are five watchstanders on the bridge that have any impact on the navigational watch. You might say well that’s 3 more than I ever have on the bridge. You would be correct, however, we have lots of young Officers who require training and we have to cycle them through. We generally have about a year or longer to train them up to be a qualified OOD. In order to get them to that point, we have to get them on the bridge and learning. The JOOD and CONN positions provide us that opportunity, but the OOD does not need to rely on them to receive reports.

  1. Claim: " Merchant Captains prefer true bearings based off the compass but Navy Captains prefer relative bearings based off the centerline of his own ship."

Discussion: This is in general not true. We use true bearings and relative bearings just as merchants do depending on the application. I found no significant difference operating on a Navy ship or a U.S.-flagged container ship in this regard. In the merchant marine we speak in points (on the compass) when referring to the relative location of ships nearby. We sometimes do the same in the Navy only we may say the relative degree number instead. Either way, both communities use relative and true bearings as needed for their intended purpose.

Conclusion: I would argue that both the Merchant Marine and the Navy use relative and true bearings similarly. There is no significant difference that I observed in years operating on both platforms.

  1. Claim: The navy has a hull mounted sonar array tied into an Electronic Warfare Suite capable of tracking objects of small size moving at a high speed in real time.

Discussion: The two are not tied together. The former is not used for navigation, and the latter is not an accurate summary of the suite’s capability. We have other systems that can track objects at high speed in real time.

Conclusion: This was brought up in the article to make the argument that we had more resources at our disposable. While we certainly had more engine power and the ability to change course and speed quickly, those other systems play no part in navigation of a warship and place no additional resources at the OOD’s disposal. The SPY Radar also mentioned is an air fire control radar and not for tracking ships.

  1. Claim: The Navy uses yards instead of nautical miles like merchant ships.

Discussion: I would be lying if I said this was not a massive source of frustration for me as well during my first few months on a naval vessel, but as I spent more and more time on a Navy bridge I began to see some of its usefulness. In general we would use yards only when the distances being reported are shorter, changing fast and in small increments. It also makes for quick math using the three minute rule and radian rule that can be useful occasionally. When giving navigation reports, or reporting lateral distance to an oiler while performing an underway replenishment alongside it makes much more sense to use yards when you need to report lateral separation from the oiler as it is changing constantly from 180 to 185 yards etc. Can you imagine shouting, “Captain, .09 nautical miles from the oiler … .095 nautical miles from the oiler!” Sometimes yards as a unit of measurement makes sense when reporting small distances that are changing rapidly.

Conclusion: As long as they are not using yards in communications with other non-navy vessels I don’t think this is an issue.

  1. Claim: Navy ships don’t answer to their hull number.

Discussion: This is exactly what we are trained to answer to. I would submit that if an American warship is not answering to their hull number they either don’t hear you due to some sort of VHF failure or there is a tactical reason not to answer up. Under normal circumstances this is how most ships contact us and even how we often communicate with each other on bridge to bridge.

Conclusion: The issue comes up because of the fact that Navy ships often don’t transmit AIS (we definitely listen passively) so that foreign countries can’t use it to track our ships movements. We do have the name of the vessel on the transom just like a merchant ship or you can use the big white hull number on the side. Or you can just go out over bridge to bridge to us with your location relative to us the same way as a mate I might have went out to a container ship at the entrance to a certain channel in the vicinity of buoy such and such. There are of course a myriad of ways to skin the cat. If ships aren’t answering to their hull number its highly likely that there’s a practical reason.

Overall, I would like to reiterate that like every other merchant mariner I believe that our Naval Officers should not be exempt from license and STCW requirements imposed on every other mariner in the world. However, the Navy does not operate the way that it does due to mere incompetence or poor procedures. There are advantages to not specializing our officers the way some navies do, and there are advantages in making them proficient in combat operations, engineering, as well as navigation and seamanship. As stated above we currently don’t have anywhere close the amount of funding it would take to train all of the bridge watchstanders in our Navy sufficiently enough to enable them to pass license. Its just not possible with our current funding and the size of our Navy. So we do the best we can within those constraints. And we rely HEAVILY on Merchant Mariners to get them up to speed and educate them. While sometimes a naval vessel’s strange or seemingly reckless behavior might be due to inexperience or incompetence, often times I can assure you there is a sound reason for their behavior that maybe just needs some context. Perhaps the carrier sped up and turned quickly because it needed to launch jets and it was trying to get proper apparent winds over the flight deck. Perhaps it did not want to advertise to all foreign warships in the area that it was about to conduct flight ops. Or perhaps the Naval vessel couldn’t turn as much as it should have because it was deploying an acoustic listening device for subs that it didn’t want anyone to know it was deploying. There are a myriad of different reasons a Navy vessel might be behaving in a way that appears negligent to a merchant vessel. I would only contend that not all are due to insufficient training or lack of comprehension of basic rules of seamanship. I would also contend that probably like many of you I served with some mates who were themselves hazards to navigation. Not all who hold a license are great mariners. I have also while acting as a husbanding agent in between ships observed a Phillipino-flagged ship that had Officers of one nationality and crew of another. The Captain communicated to his helmsman via hand signals. I personally observed this, talk about a recipe for disaster! It is because of all of this and the things I have discussed above that I won’t discuss who is more likely at fault. There are too many unknown variables at this point and I refuse to malign the reputations of either party without more facts. Certainly as Captain Konrad pointed out both vessels will stand at least partially at fault in the end.

I understand Captain Konrad has found this to be the most controversial article he has ever written. Praised by merchant mariners and criticized mostly by Naval Officers. Having been part of both communities for years, I have critiqued this article not for the overall point he was trying to make, but for the factual inaccuracies concerning operations on the bridge of naval vessel. As a former merchant mariner, I have many issues with the way we do things on naval vessels in the pilothouse, however, if we are going to call out the Navy for poor error inducing procedures we need to ensure that that we are not publicizing false information.


Quoted from the article:

If correct, why is gCaptain the only publication with these opinions

We are not the only publication. There are several editorials (some written by former Naval Officers) in other media outlets assigning some degree of blame to the USS Fitzgerald. The U.S. Naval Institute has provided excellent coverage of the incident including articles from naval commanders calling on the US Navy to adopt the technology and practices used aboard civilian ships.


There seem to be some groups who are incapable of self-criticism, and even more incapable of receiving external criticism. Individuals from these groups will lash out emotionally at perceived attackers, even though their actions frequently contradict the best interests for both themselves and the group they represent. There is no reason to believe that this collision was not preventable. Critical analysis is how you discover the cause of such an incident. Sometimes though, finding the cause isn’t enough to prevent the same thing from happening again, that’s one more way that the press can help; by generating noise and hopefully causing people and groups to be held to account publicly. In my opinion it would be much more disrespectful to the survivors of those who’ve lost their lives if this were not to happen, and I question the motives of those who would hide behind sentimentality or a faux respect for the dead to protect their own egos from harm.

Read the article reply linked above and enjoyed it.

As far as teaching the Merchant Marine about things like encrypted comms, tactical maneuvers and convoys, there are units stood up within the Navy called Naval Cooperation and Guidance for Shipping (NCAGS) detachments. There are several detachments in the country and their job is to effectively integrate merchant ships into Naval Operations during a time of war or if necessary during times of piece as well. It is not just a Strategic Sealift Officer (SSO) initiative, but the detachments include Sailors from all backgrounds. They hold classes with our allies on how to teach merchant ships to maneuver in convoys at close proximity. I actually took a navy class with the German navy on how to operate multiple merchant ships in a convoy back when I was in the reserve. They teach tactical communications as well, though for security reasons they must be unencrypted. In general, maneuvering signals are passed in code on an open circuit and decoding books are given to the bridges of merchant ships. This integration will mostly happen in a time of war when there is a need to place a merchant ship in a convoy. When this happens the NCAGS detachments will work directly with merchant ships to ensure there is seamless integration. Specific torpedo evasion maneuvers are classified, but an NCAGS unit would direct via the signal book discussed above on how to maneuver if there was ever a need. Maneuvering through a mine danger area would have to be cleared by a minesweeper and they would likely escort you through.

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This was very informative and interesting. Thank you.

I’m a little disturbed that you don’t think the current crop of naval officers could pass a license exam though. Third Officer competency should be the bare minimum required to be an OOD. I’m also curious why you say the OOD and JOOD do not have radar training, yet are in charge of monitoring them for collision avoidance. I won’t let a new officer on my ship take a watch until I verify that they are trained on our specific radars, but they all hold Radar Observer certificates and 5 year refresher training.

Really well thought out addition to the discussion though.

I absolutely agree.


Damn Yankee, your welcome! I am absolutely positive that they couldn’t pass all of the license exams. A Rules of the Road exam, you bet! They use the same USCG bank that we do in the merchant marine and are required to take monthly ROTR tests and must score a 90 or above. At every Surface Warfare training stop in between tours they are taught ROTR again by a merchant mariner and required to pass a test with a 90 or above. Deck Safety and Deck General they might know a good deal of it, but a fair amount of it might not apply due to differences in equipment and irrelevance of cargo knowledge for them. While the Damage Control Assistant in the Engineering Department deals especially with stability calculations, bridge watchstanders are not taught stability with great detail, but is less of an issue for a naval vessel as they are not loading and unloading cargo constantly like a merchant. Most of their stability numbers stay the same. They would likely do fairly well in the Navigation exams EXCEPT for Celestial and Sailings. None of them know the sailings, and the Navigators are starting to be taught Celestial again (also by Merchant Mariners in Nav School), but not to the level required for license.

As far as OOD and JOOD getting RADAR training they would get some training during their Basic Division Officer Course, but it is not a course specifically for handling a RADAR. I was more speaking to the fact that they don’t go to a specific school for that type of RADAR like the technician. During the Basic Division Officer Course they will learn ROTR for the first time, MOBOARDS, do a little BRM, drive the ship in a simulator and learn to apply their recently learned ROTR knowledge in traffic situations. I just took the RADAR observer course last year for license maintenance and I would say that what the Naval Officer get during their Basic Division Officer Course is definitely comparable to what is offered during that class.

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@BK05, thank you for responding and for your professional insight!

Some of these points I need to think about more before replying but…

I am very happy to hear this, it sounds like a great program. When I took my first ECDIS class I was the sole civilian in a classroom of JOODs (or similar). I think we learned a lot from each other and not just in class but in sharing sea stories over lunch and in the hotel bar at the end of the day.

I admit, I was wrong here and updated the original article (some government IT networks are still showing the old cache… so the new version does not show up for all). I was given that information by two sources who were wrong and I apologize. The reason for researching the topic (and getting wrong information) was based on two primary factors. 1) Frequent delays between responses during a conversation (i.e. when asking a question about intent or maneuvering the response would be “let me check” then a long delay). 2) A general lack of confidence in the voice over the radio. It’s hard to mask uncertainty in the voice and when a bridge officer hears uncertainty or lack of confidence over the VHF it makes them very nervous.

Yes that’s more than I’ve sailed with but don’t you also have lookouts? And what about the CIC? Many of the comments from Navy personnel are that the CIC is not involved with navigation and I have trouble with this for two reasons.

  1. How can the cic not get involved when they notice a dangerous target. The answer might be that “They know the bridge is handling the situation” but that answer is also troubling and points to a lack of effective communication. This happens in the civilian world too (a tugboat with full ecdis/radar/ais and a licensed captain allowed herself to be dragged into the Oakland Bay bridge by the Cosco Busan) but it still sounds like a problem to me.

  2. Since the Cosco Busan new thinking about BRM is that it needs to move off the bridge and encompass all parties of interest (e.g. engineers, VTS, tugboats, off duty watch officers, etc).

And one more thing… while I don’t have hard evidence to support this general rule here at gCaptain is that the people, like yourself, who take the time to respond with well thought out answers are generally not the same people who are having collisions at sea (or any other problem communicating with vessel around them). What throws us off (and some people deem a bit arrogant) is that civilian captains keep the talk about their way of doing things, their observation of the way other ships do things and the best way to do things… separate. Are operating procedures really that similar between different navy bridges? Are their not major differences in captain and OOD’s levels of experience and personality traits (if so I might join the Navy!)?

I guess my biggest point is that we look different - even if they are of identical build and have identical procedures and jobs - very differently. And we rarely take offense when another ship is criticized. The feeling I’m starting to get is that the Navy looks at the way each ship in the fleet operates as basically the same so criticism against one ship feels like criticism against all.

Of am I totally off base?? (I very well might be)

I have no doubt that the Navy has a plan for this but, being the captain I am, I like to have a say (or at least full knowledge) of the plan and conduct basic crew training before leaving the dock. And if they do have a plan for us and do have a mandate to distribute this information… then I’d think gCaptain would be a good place to start.

It may have been something as simple as the OOD allowing the JOOD to try answering the Bridge to Bridge and him not handling it very well. Perhaps it could have been an OOD that the CO should not have qualified. CO’s are of course the final decision on qualifying an OOD. As with anything, we can’t get them experience if we don’t let them try. In the Navy this probably happens often because we have a fair amount of Officers who we need to qualify and we have to get them all experience.

During an ocean transit we do not. Just as on a merchant vessel if you’re on the bridge everyone’s a lookout, but no watches specifically dedicated to that purpose unless there’s heavy fog. Now during a restricted waters transit entering or leaving port there are still Navy ships who perform visual piloting using 3 or 4 visual LOP’s every 3 minutes. To do this accurately and quickly, it of course requires more watchstanders. However, they do this not so much because they have to but so that they maintain the skills to navigate in this way if ever an enemy force jams GPS and RADAR.

CIC is in fact normally involved. Operational Specialists (OS) are an enlisted rating that are taught MOBOARDS and even RADAR piloting who work exclusively in CIC. They have to take Rules of the Road tests in fact, just like the bridge watchstanders. Before the Navy’s shift away from paper charts while the bridge was conducting visual piloting, the OS’ in CIC would do the same on a paper chart using only RADAR fixes. They would listen into the Navigator’s periodic reports via a headset and simply report whether their RADAR fixes concurred with NAV’s fixes on the bridge. It didn’t involve a lot of extra communication, only a “CIC concurs”, or “CIC does not concur”.

In the event of a traffic encounter CIC with a close CPA, OS’ routinely pass up MOBOARD solutions, however without a recommendation. The bridge watchstanders normally report whether or not they concur with the OS’ MOBOARD solution.

The Tactical Action Officer (TAO) who is normally a Surface Warfare Officer Department Head is the senior Officer in CIC and routinely gives guidance to the OOD in traffic encounters. He cannot tell the OOD what to do, but his opinion is often given weight as he has normally spent significant time on the Bridge as an OOD in previous tours. The TAO on his console is constantly monitoring the traffic situation via RADAR mostly and also has a camera that he can use to slew and zoom in on various contacts. He will be able to see CPA and even conduct trial maneuvers on his display. He also normally has an ECDIS nearby with AIS overlay that he can see at any time.

I think its great that it is developing in this direction. OOD’s are definitely taught to use CIC as a resource, and they are actively required to be a part of traffic situations. I have never seen a CO be okay with the bridge simply handling the situation without CIC involvement. The TAO’s have significant bridge time and experience and they are always weighing in and asking about reasons for certain actions on the bridge.

I would say operating procedures are generally very similar between navy bridges. The Navy has standard commands when speaking to the helm that date back a long time. You’ll find them on every Navy ship. Navigation reports required by the NAVDORM (Navigation Department Organization and Regulations Manual) are standard throughout the fleet and required watchstations are listed therein. There are, of course, significant differences in Captains and OOD’s levels of experience and personality traits of just as on all merchant ships. We do have some ships such as the Navy’s new Littoral Combat Ships who only have an OOD and a JOOD and no helmsman. Special allowances are made for these vessels. They do not give standard NAV reports like the rest of the fleet and operate very differently. Otherwise bridge watchstanding procedures throughout the fleet are extremely similar.

Since we operate so differently from the Merchant Marine and our procedures are so similar throughout when one critiques the way a bridge operates on one naval vessel, it is logical that same critique would apply to almost every naval vessel.

There is certainly a fierce pride that is instilled in Sailors in the Navy, and I have found that sometimes its hard for them to take criticism or understand that there is a better way of doing things.

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Some good points made, however having stood both OOD and OOW, I can say everything sounds good on paper from the navdorm/ Navy’s point of view, but can be largely combersome and incredibly hard to deal with basic situations at some points. I would also say I have seen a huge amount of basic mistakes and misunderstandings on the OOD side that just shouldn’t happen.

While the article was not precise in many things, I would largely agree with the point of it, having seen both sides first hand.

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Thank you @BK05 that was an insightful and well written response! I learned a lot from your comments.

Happy to help if you have any questions let me know!

Can you give any specifics?

In 1962 I attended the Rules of the Road school at Newport RI. Along the walls there were pictures of Naval vessel collisions. In every case the Navy was found partially at fault. They were saving a special place of honor for the first Naval vessel that was found to be “not at fault”.
I don’t know if that classroom still exists, but I don’t think that that place of honor was ever filled.

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