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Death, valor and questions. The June 2017 collision of USS Fitzgerald (DDG-62) with a container ship off Japan.

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Earlier this year, ProPublica published a long but engaging article with sophisticated graphics (best viewed on a PC) about the collision of the 22- year -old, 7th Fleet, Arleigh Burke-class destroyer "Fitzgerald" with a massive container ship in the shipping lanes 12 miles off the coast of Japan in June 2017. The individual stories of selfless heroism by the crew to save their mates and their ship is inspiring but the bigger picture of dubious manpower and material readiness and poor decision making much higher up the ladder than the ship's unfortunate CO, should be concerning. All charges against the ship's CO, CDR Bryce Benson, who suffered a chronic, traumatic head injury, and Fitzgerald's tactical officer, Lt. Natalie Combs were dropped without explanation in April 2019, after Benson had been charged in 2018 with negligent homicide and those charges reduced later that year to dereliction of duty and hazarding a ship. The OOD at the time of the collision, Lt(jg) Sarah Coppock, who was one of 18 sailors facing NJP plead guilty at her court-martial in 2018 to dereliction of duty and acknowledged her role in the death of 7 sailors who drowned in their berth compartment where they had been sleeping at 0130 when the 39,500 ton container ship ACX Crytal rammed into the starboard side of the 9,000 ton destroyer. Benson had planned to fight the allegations against him during a court-martial trial, but the decision by prosecutors to nix all criminal charges ended the possibility of what likely would have been an embarrassing trial for the Navy. Still, Benson and his legal team penned an 18-page rebuttal to his censure this past April that in closing, summarizes what would have been the theme of his trial defense,


"I do not believe my actions and decisions in command were unreasonable—prudent commanders in the same or similar circumstances would make the same calls I did, facing the same chances for failure. This is because few if any unit level commanders are in a position to accurately foresee, evaluate, and mitigate against the aggregated institutional risks imposed by a force generation model that keeps forward-deployed vessels undermanned, forecloses training for the same of operations, and deprives ships of needed maintenance. These conditions increase and compound operational risk borne by ship commanders and their crews. But at the unit level, accurately evaluating accumulated structural risks, and developing and implementing appropriately-calibrated measures to protect against organizational drift in those conditions, is almost impossible."


Two months after the Fitzgerald collision, another 7th Fleet Burke-class destroyer USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) collided with a Liberian tanker off the coast of Singapore and Malasia, killing ten of McCain's crew. On June 19, 2019 the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released their report on the accident, finding the probable cause of the disaster was a "lack of effective operational oversight of the destroyer by the US Navy, which resulted in insufficient training and inadequate bridge operating procedures."


Earlier this month, the Navy announced that it would not hold a Board of Inquiry against Benson, amid accusations that top Navy brass had conspired to deny him a fair trial. A final decision on Benson's status, as he awaits medical retirement and whether he will be demoted, is expected next month (12/19). The Fitzgerald continues its $327 million repair at a shipyard in Mississippi, expected to be completed next year.






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Thank you for posting the link to this excellent article. I served with the Seventh Fleet and am quite familiar with the waters of Tokyo Wan and the home islands. This paragraph from the article sums up the same situation we were in at the end of the Vietnam War, undermanned and constantly deployed with few replacements. I served as a Radarman (Operations Specialist) in CIC and we were so short handed that I was cross trained as a Quartermaster and Signalman to stand bridge watches and Sea & Anchor details on the long approaches to Tokyo Wan, Hong Kong, Subic Bay, etc., many of the most crowded sealanes of Asia. Our radars often failed or were tagged out of calibration due to lack of spare parts. We always relied on our "Mark 1 Eyeballs" to transit these crowded sealanes and kept a constantly updated navigation plot in the charthouse and CIC updated every three minutes or less as necessary to track vessels and obstacles. We relied on visual bearings backed up by radar ranges when travelling close aboard to other vessels, not the other way around.

Key positions were vacant, despite repeated requests from the Fitzgerald to Navy higher-ups. The senior enlisted quartermaster position — charged with training inexperienced sailors to steer the ship — had gone unfilled for more than two years. The technician in charge of the ship’s radar was on medical leave, with no replacement. The personnel shortages made it difficult to post watches on both the starboard and port sides of the ship, a once-common Navy practice.....

I also served on Destroyers in the Atlantic during the Cold War transiting the Skattegat to Antwerp, Amsterdam, etc, and the St Lawrence Seaway, also very crowded sea lanes with long Sea & Anchor details. On the Navigation Team, even though we were often undermanned, we always had Port AND Starboard lookouts, in addition to a Forward and Aft lookout all connected to the bridge and navigation via a sound powered telephone circuit (no batteries required). Now the Navy relies upon cameras and sensors for these tasks, not a "Mark 1 eyeball".

.....But nobody, it turned out, was standing watch on the starboard side of the ship.
In years past, commanders traditionally posted lookouts on the port and starboard sides of the bridge. The lookouts had one job: search the sea for hazards. But Navy cutbacks in personnel prompted Benson and other captains to combine the duties into a single job. “We just don’t have enough bodies, qualified bodies, to have a port and starboard lookout,” said Samuel Williams, a boatswain’s mate first class.
In difficult passages, especially in night, fog or inclement weather conditions, we would often double the lookouts and watches in CIC and the Bridge. Basic seamanship is just that, respecting the oceans and practicing responsible ship handling to avoid extremis as your primary duty to the ship, it's officers and crew. There are always inherent hazards while serving at sea, during wartime and peacetime, and having trained personnel serving under competent supervision is of the greatest import, even on a calm sunny day.


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Salvage Sailor, when I posted that article I was hoping that a surface warfare sailor with many years in the fleet would provide some first hand commentary and experiences on the manpower, training and equipment issues raised. Thanks for doing that.

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