By LT Lydia Ellen Bock
USS Nassau Public Affairs
Not many people would say that they chose an undergraduate degree in physics because it was easier for them than any other major, but when U.S. Navy captain Samuel Norton was asked why he chose a degree in physics, that was his response. Since he received his Bachelor of Science in physics from Hampton University in 1986, Norton has been able to apply his knowledge of physics at almost every step of his naval career.
Norton, a U.S. Navy Surface Warfare Officer, is currently serving as the executive officer aboard Tarawa-class amphibious assault ship USS Nassau (LHA 4). In July he will become the ship's commanding officer. This tour is the latest in a career that has reaped the benefits of an analytical way of approaching problems.
“The study of physics fostered a logical way of approaching problems. In the Navy, these problems ranged from mechanical to personnel issues,” said Norton. “It gave me the frame of mind to tackle all problems in a systematic manner and set the foundation for my naval career.”
As a newly commissioned ensign, Norton was assigned to the Wichita-class replenishment oiler USS Kalamazoo (AOR 6) as the damage control assistant (DCA). Anyone who has ever spent a day aboard a Navy vessel knows that the DCA must be a master at solving any repair, stability, or engineering problems aboard the ship. For Norton, this was the perfect place to begin.
“Being in engineering and obtaining a steam engineering officer-of-the-watch qualification as an ensign, it was good to have the physics degree because I really understood a lot of the theory and how and why things worked,” said Norton. “It made it easier for me to be a fairly good engineer on my first tour.”
After completing his tour aboard Kalamazoo, Norton went on to be a detachment officer-in-charge at Assault Craft Unit Four (ACU 4) followed by another engineering-intensive tour as the chief engineer (CHENG) aboard Avenger-class mine countermeasure ship, USS Pioneer (MCM 9). His tour aboard Pioneer was only trumped for its technical difficulty by his follow-on tour as the DCA on Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71).
“Once you become an engineer in the Navy, you tend to stay in those type jobs and build on your experience. For me, a physics degree established a thought process that was one of those things that allowed me to be successful in the Navy,” said Norton.
He has done more than just play a role in the engineering side of the house at sea. Norton has worked with the Steam and Gas Turbine Training Teams at Engineering Training Group in Norfolk, Va. as well as serving as one the primary assistants to the training assistant chief-of-staff to the Commander Amphibious Group Two and Deputy Chief for U.S. Joint Forces Command’s J3 and J4 Resources and Process Improvement Branch J38. Additionally, Norton received a master’s degree in national security strategy from the National Defense University’s National War College.
Norton took this knowledge and analytical approach to problem-solving to sea again, this time as the commanding officer of a U.S. Navy vessel. His first command-at-sea tour was aboard USS Pioneer (MCM 9) followed by a second command tour aboard Austin-class amphibious transport dock ship USS Trenton (LPD 14).
When asked what lighted the spark that sent him down this career path, Norton replied with a smile that it was just a lot of fun. It was only after taking more advanced courses that he realized that it wasn’t just fun or easy, but it took a lot of hard work. Looking back on his career, Norton commented that studying physics actually trained him to work hard and work through problems; traits he still boasts is at the core of his success.
Norton also added that the dedication his professors gave during college inspired him to work even harder. Their commitment to teaching and helping him as long as he was willing to do his share of the heavy-lifting was one of the most rewarding experiences he has had.
“I think that a lot of the professors at Hampton University, especially Dr. Demitrius Venable played a big part in fostering a strong work ethic,” Norton said. “He took a lot of time with the students who were physics majors, was always concerned that we understood the concepts, and drove us to study more and often. He compelled me to work harder.”
Norton’s advice to aspiring physics students, “Study early, study longer and study more” resonates with his logical, hard-working approach to solving problems at all levels.
“Overall, I think that studying physics, going to Hampton University and my time in the Navy – all of the knowledge and experiences, coupled with hard work – have helped make me successful,” said Norton. “I am very fortunate to be in the Navy this long and move up in the ranks and responsibility, all the while doing something I truly enjoy.”