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Navy Sub Captain Is No Victim

by Steve Chapman

The Navy's investigation left no doubt who was to blame for the collision
"He has paid dearly," declared Navy Adm. Thomas Fargo on Monday. He was not referring to one of the Japanese civilians who died when their fishing trawler was abruptly hit and sunk by an American submarine on Feb. 9. No, Fargo was talking about the man who killed them, Cmdr. Scott Waddle.

After a full investigation, the Navy decided that the commander of the USS Greeneville won't be court-martialed. He can look forward to an honorable discharge and retirement next fall on a full pension of $34,741 a year, annually adjusted for inflation. Fargo elected to dock him half his pay for two months but then, in a gesture of touching magnanimity, suspended that sanction. The only real penalty for Waddle is that his Navy career is over.

Let's put these items on the scale. On one side, nine innocent people, including four teenage students, lost their lives. On the other, Waddle lost his chance at becoming a captain or an admiral. Maybe it's because I was never a whiz at math, but I somehow can't make the account balance.

The military used to hold commanding officers responsible when things went wrong. When the cruiser USS Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese torpedo during World War II, sending hundreds of men to their deaths, its captain was court-martialed merely because he had failed to zigzag. But the "no excuses, sir" culture is a thing of the past. Nowadays, officers can commit gross, stupid errors that lead to catastrophe and find all sorts of people willing to make excuses for them.

When the USS Cole was blown up by terrorists in Yemen, killing 17 sailors, the Navy scolded the commander for doing too little to prevent the attack -- but didn't file charges. When a Marine pilot's plane cut the cables on an Italian ski gondola, killing 20 people, he was found not guilty of manslaughter. When Air Force fighters shot down two Army Blackhawk helicopters in Iraq, killing 26 people, the Air Force said several officers had blundered, but it court-martialed only one -- and he was acquitted.

Waddle was not the victim here. The accident didn't occur because of events or circumstances beyond his control. He made one unforgivable mistake after another while in command of a 5,500-ton nuclear-powered submarine -- a job in which he had near-absolute authority over his subordinates. In the civilian world, his actions might well have landed him in jail. Drunk drivers get less forgiveness than Waddle got.

The presence of 16 civilians on board has been blamed for what happened, but other commanders have been able to manage such visitors without drowning bystanders. The problem was that Waddle let a lunch with his guests run late, and then rushed to get back on schedule. To do that, he abandoned the normal tedious safety precautions and pressed on with reckless haste.

A maneuver to hurtle the ship to the surface was carried out in five minutes instead of the usual 8 to 10. A conference with subordinates that the commander normally holds before surfacing was eliminated. Waddle took over the periscope for what was supposed to be a careful three-minute examination of the water around the sub -- and gave the matter just 80 seconds before deciding he was clear to rise.

Waddle portrayed himself as a conscientious officer who was ill-served by his subordinates. He was "surprised it took two years and a horrible accident" for him to find out that sonar equipment was often manned by inexperienced operators without the supervision required by Navy regulations. He blamed sailors for trading jobs without his knowledge and failing to keep track of surface ships.

But if his crew broke rules, failed to inform him and generally failed to do their jobs, whose fault is that? Waddle trained them, supervised them, decided what tasks to entrust to them and established the climate in which they operated. During the court of inquiry set up to investigate the collision, Vice Adm. John Nathman had to tartly remind Waddle: "Captain, it was your boat!"

The Navy's investigation left no doubt who was to blame for the collision. Waddle, concluded Adm. Fargo, "created an artificial sense of urgency in preparation for surfacing when prudent seamanship, the safety of his submarine and good judgment dictated otherwise." All that was needed to prevent the disaster was "simply following existing Navy standards and procedures in bringing submarines to the surface." He found that Waddle was guilty of negligence and dereliction of duty -- which used to be considered serious lapses.

The sub's commander knew the grave risks of what he was doing and consciously chose to do it anyway. The direct and foreseeable result was that nine blameless people died. For that, Waddle lost his command, a punishment Adm. Fargo describes as "absolutely devastating."

Waddle will leave the Navy by Oct. 1. He's already had several job offers.

© Creators Syndicate

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Albion Monitor April 28, 2001 (

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