U.S. Navy is getting that sinking feeling

I joined Navy ROTC in college, and spent six weeks one summer on the USS Severn, an oiler stationed in Newport, R.I. When I came aboard in early June, the ship had just gotten a new captain.

A month before, the Severn had run aground in Narragansett Bay while returning to port. The officer of the deck (the OOD, meaning the officer in charge of keeping the ship

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on course) had misread a buoy and ordered a wrong turn.

The result ended in career-ending reprimands for the captain, executive officer (second in command), the OOD and a few others.

A few years later while on active duty with the USS Eldorado, we were tied up to the pier in San Diego early one morning. I was shaving when suddenly the bulkhead (wall) five feet from me buckled inward and then snapped back into place. A minesweeper had been turning around in the harbor, and hit the Eldorado. I’m lucky it was a minesweeper, a relatively small ship.

Those memories came back to me with the news that the USS John S. McCain had collided with an oil tanker shortly after dawn on Aug. 21, resulting in the death of 10 sailors. This follows the deaths of seven sailors aboard the USS Fitzgerald two months ago when it collided with a freighter.

Those two collisions bring to four the number of U.S. Navy ships damaged in accidents in 2017 alone. The difference is that most accidents don’t result in the loss of life, and that the Navy has now decided to review all of its operations to determine if it has a systemic problem.

As a former naval officer, I’m having a hard time understanding how the collisions of the Fitzgerald and McCain occurred. I have a better understanding of how the first two accidents happened, those involving the USS Antietam and the USS Lake Champlain, both guided missile cruisers.

On Jan. 31, the Antietam was anchored in Tokyo Bay, near its home port of Yokosuka, Japan. The wind was blowing at 30 knots (about 33 mph) and the Antietam began to drag its anchor. The ship’s engines were started, and the crew tried to maintain the ship’s position, but it ran aground first, damaging both of the ship’s propellers. Unlike the Severn’s grounding, the Antietam’s was caused primarily by bad weather.

On May 9, the Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing boat in international waters. The fishing boat had no radio and no GPS system. The Lake Champlain made repeated attempts to warn off the fishing vessel to no avail.

I understand how the accident happened because when I served, we went into ports like Bangkok and Hong Kong, and dozens of these so-called “junks” were going every which way in the harbor – not unlike a Minnesota lake filled with jet skis, pontoons and speed boats on a holiday weekend. I can believe that the fishing vessel had no radio or radar and wasn’t paying any attention to the warship.

The fatal collisions of the Fitzgerald and McCain are a different story. In the Fitzgerald’s case, the captain, executive officer and chief enlisted man have all been removed from their posts. At 1:30 a.m. on June 17, the ship was about 56 miles out from Yokosuka when it was hit by a container vessel. At this writing, only a preliminary report has been issued on what happened after the collision — nothing yet on what happened before. The hit was on the starboard side which suggests that the merchant vessel had the right of way. More importantly, a destroyer has much more maneuverability than a cargo ship. Under normal circumstances, it should have been able to evade or outrun the merchant vessel. Weather was not a factor.

The report says that 35 sailors were asleep in their berthing compartment on the starboard (right) side of the ship, when the merchant vessel pierced the side of the compartment below the water line. The report makes for compelling reading, describing how it only took 90 to 120 seconds to completely flood the berthing compartment.

Some sailors had to be shaken awake, even after the collision. Two unnamed sailors helped others up the ladder out of the berthing compartment until the water was up to their necks, then climbed out, and reached under the water to pull two more sailors out.

On Aug. 21, shortly after dawn, the McCain collided with the oil tanker near Singapore. The McCain was hit on the port side, suggesting it had the right of way. It has been alleged that a steering malfunction occurred. It’s also said that where the accident occurred, upon entry to the Strait of Malacca, is a narrow chokepoint for maritime traffic. Coming on the heels of the Fitzgerald’s accident, it’s worth asking if it was more than a coincidence. The commander of the 7th Fleet, under which all four accidents occurred, has been relieved of his duties, so more eyebrows than mine are being raised.

I can remember days at sea when we did not see a single other ship. When we did, we tracked them all to make sure we avoided collisions. Standing watch can often be as boring as watching paint dry, but every sailor knows – or should know – the importance of staying alert. The lives of their crew mates depend on it.


Tom West can be reached at [email protected]