By Jay Fidell
Navy commander Scott Waddle went to mast, i.e., he received non-judicial punishment, on April 24, 2001, just seven years ago. If you remember, Waddle was the commanding officer of the Nuclear Submarine Greeneville, a Los Angeles Class Fast Attack submarine out of Pearl Harbor, which sunk the Ehime Maru, a Japan high school training ship, off Waikiki, killing nine on board, including four high school students.
The collision took place on February 9th, 2001. Somehow, it touched all the icons, Japan, Waikiki and Pearl Harbor. It made us look at the Navy and the relationship of Hawaii and the U.S. with Japan. It made us examine the “apology practice” - when Scott Waddle apologized people wondered if it was sincere, so he apologized again, and after a while some people felt he was getting closer to sincerity.
The Navy Court of inquiry, which I covered for PBS, was high ranking. It was designed to respond to pubic opinion and concerns about why an American nuclear submarine could be so clueless as to sink a surface vessel off Waikiki. Isn't our technology better than that? Didn't we have the systems that could have avoided that? Is the nuclear Navy as good as we thought? For some people, it was a turning point on that question.
The biggest issue was the Distinguished Visitor ("DV") program. Some fourteen DV's were on board that day. The trip off Waikiki was a grandstand for them, organized on short notice and at the behest of someone big in Washington. In fact, many of the crew were off the vessel in class that day, leaving the vessel shorthanded in the sonar department.
At the moment of truth, the DV's were crammed into the tiny control room, effectively obstructing the crew. A Fire Control Technician (First Class Petty Officer Seacrest) had been tracking the Ehime Maru. Scott Waddle was grandstanding for the DV's - he took the periscope, and in so doing took the "con" from the officer of the deck, and he swept the horizon only once (twice would have been better) at a depth that wasn't clear of the waves.
He didn't see the Ehime Maru, even though it was certainly there. He announced that there were "no close contacts". He ordered the submarine to dive and then come up in an "emergency ballast blow" calculated to impress the DVs. Impressive, yes, but the Greeneville came up right under the Ehime Maru at breakneck speed and sank her immediately.
Waddle said as commanding officer he "accepted" responsibility for what had happened. But in his testimony, he laid the blame on a number of his crew, saying they had let him down. Seacrest, of course, could have warned him, but was intimidated by all those DV's. Was he to disagree with the captain in front of all those DV's? Instead of contradicting the captain, Seacrest just reset the fire control system and took the Ehime Maru off the screen. The tragedy then followed.
Amidst cries for court martial, Admiral Thomas Fargo (now himself retired and CEO of the Hawaii Superferry) let Waddle off with a rap on the knuckles. The net effect of it was only that Waddle was forced to retire, and retire he did, with full pay and benefits and then the royalties he earned from the book he wrote to justify his actions and bemoan his travails following the incident.
Today he's a professional speaker and gets as much as $15,000 for speaking engagements on the subject - see http://www.speakersrus.com/espeakers/5150/ScottWaddle.html?gclid=CJOY4pqNs5MCFScuagodcSGVog and http://www.goldstars.com/speakers/waddle_scott.html.
How did Scott Waddle avoid the general court martial that the New York Times and so many others had called for? I think he got off because, through his attorney Charlie Gittens, he made the Navy believe that if a court martial were ordered, the DV program itself would go on trial. The Navy didn't want to take that chance, and the rest of course is history.
The bottom line for many people is that Scott Waddle did not meet the standards of the Navy in his command or in the inquiry. Many people feel that justice was never done. But the DV program goes on, Scott Waddle draws his retirement and his royalties, and the incident has slid under the waves along with its victims. All we can say now on the seventh anniversary of his mast is that he was lucky to walk away. Nine others weren't so lucky.