No one will be able to stand against you all the days of your life. As I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you.
Be strong and courageous . . . ~ Joshua 1: 5-6a
Ensign Ross Rogers had recently finished his training at Annapolis Naval Academy when he took his first duty station on the U.S.S. Indianapolis. He had grown up in Paris, Tennessee, with solid Christian roots, a close family, and a strong work ethic.
His decision to enter the Navy came from his sense of loyalty to his nation and the necessity to become involved in World War II because of its challenge to our country’s freedom.
Ensign Rogers and his shipmates left the port of San Francisco and headed into the Pacific in July of 1945. Though the ship was delivering parts for the first atomic bomb that would end the war, the crew did not know the details of the trip’s significance. They enjoyed the routine and the peacefulness that comes from the sea while the uncertainties of war were ever present on their minds.
When the challenge of their lifetime came two weeks into their trip, many were not ready. The enemy doesn’t warn its target. Emergencies don’t make appointments, and the great battles of life often take us by surprise. The nightmare began shortly after dropping off the top-secret cargo at an air base on the small, desolate island of Tinian, which is just ten miles long by three miles wide.
On July 30, 1945, at just past midnight, the Japanese submarine spotted the ship through the foggy haze. They had been waiting and hoping for such an opportunity. They moved closer, silently took aim, and torpedoed the ship that housed approximately 1,200 men. With the impact of the direct hit, an estimated 300 men went down with the ship. About 900 men were thrown into the warm but savage Pacific within minutes. Over the next 96 hours, the ocean, the sharks, hypothermia, and salt water poisoning had taken the lives of all but 317 men.
In his early twenties, Ensign Rogers could never have dreamed that he would face such catastrophe. He was possibly several stories up in the crow’s nest when he was thrust deep into the blackness. He remembered being swamped by water.
He started to go down with the ship, inhaling diesel fuel, but miraculously popped up to the surface. He immediately looked for a lifeboat, which saved his life and allowed him to save the lives of many other sailors. The ship sank in only 12 minutes.
Richard Newcomb writes in his book, Abandon Ship, “Rogers was one of the last to leave the ship, and when he hit the water he went down, down, down. He thought he would never come up, but he did, and right in front of him was a raft. He grabbed a hand rope on the side and hung on as the ship reared above him, hesitated a moment, and then plunged. It was unbelievable that anything as big and safe and solid could disappear in a moment, but she did.”
Rogers was the first to climb into that raft and soon pulled in shipmates until it was at capacity. The first one in was badly burned from being thrown against the boiler.
Rogers calculated the situation and tried to get additional survivors to swim for other rafts, but many seemed stunned and immobilized. The wind soon blew the empty rafts one direction, and the current drove the men the other. Over the next few days, Rogers was credited with saving the lives of many men, and was the only officer in his section of the ocean. He received the nickname “Doc.” This was partly due to his quick response (to use his own shirt) to tourniquet the severe burn and cut the loss of blood of the injured sailor.
He became the “commander” of four rafts and 19 men. Dozens were crushed with the panic of those moments, however, “Doc” Rogers used his level head throughout the ordeal and became a hero.
This young ensign was my father-in-law.
Why some leaders panic under pressure and prolonged stress and others make “heroic” decisions is something that has been called “psychological hardiness.” It’s not stubbornness, meanness, or rudeness. It is a resolve to mentally hold steady, think clearly, and act swiftly and accurately.
There are three key standards these leaders quickly adopt when faced with pressure and stress:
- They feel a strong sense of control, believing that they can beneficially influence the direction and outcome of whatever is going on around them. They don’t waste time lapsing into powerlessness and feeling like a passive victim of circumstances.
- They’re strong in commitment, believing that they can find something important, interesting, or worthwhile in whatever they’re doing. They’re unlikely to engage in denial or to feel disengaged, bored, or empty.
- They feel strong in challenge, believing that personal improvement and fulfillment come through the continual process of learning from both negative and positive experiences. They feel that it’s not only unrealistic but also numbing to simply expect, or even wish for, easy comfort and security.
Psychological hardiness is a condition in which stress does not promote sickness or bad decisions, but instead promotes clarity and success.
As leaders, we understand that when times are stable — and the sea is calm and secure — no one is really tested.
When things are going along routinely and life seems peaceful, few take the opportunity to dig within themselves and discover the courage and deep “soul” character that is at the heart of who they are. In contrast, hardships, business crises, church or ministry conflict, etc. force us to come face to face with who we really are and what we can become.
You are a gifted leader; remember this promise: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).
Always know that I am . . .
Your friend and servant in Christ,
Wayde Goodall, D.Min.
Dean, College of Ministry