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Commanding Carrier: Just One Mistake Can Torpedo a Navy Career

February 26, 1986|GLENN F. BUNTING | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — They are the chosen few--14 of the Navy's most daring and highly decorated war heroes, who each day play judge, jury, jailer, father figure, fire chief, treasurer and mayor aboard a floating city of 6,000.

Few jobs in America can match the power and prestige of a commanding officer of an aircraft carrier, the largest ships in the Navy. But along with the authority comes the peril that a freak accident such as a fire or an oil spill could end an illustrious military career. Seven commanding officers have been disciplined during the past 3 1/2 years for carrier mishaps, ranging from collisions at sea to the death of a sailor in the brig.

These cases include Capt. Phillip R. Wood, who relinquished command of the Kitty Hawk in San Diego last week. Wood was admonished with an "administrative letter of caution" in October for his role in improper supply purchases. He will retire March 31 after 31 years of service.

Capt. Robert Leuschner was replaced Jan. 27 as skipper of the Enterprise after the ship struck a rock 100 miles west of San Diego in November, causing $17 million in damage to the hull.

Collided With Tanker

The Navy is also investigating the possible grounding of the Coral Sea in the Eastern Mediterranean in December, which caused the ship's water condensers to ingest large amounts of sand. A Navy spokesman said the ship's commanding officer, Capt. Robert Ferguson, is not likely to be disciplined. Ferguson took control of the Coral Sea from Capt. Gene Tucker, who was removed as commanding officer in May after the carrier collided with an Ecuadorean oil tanker.

The recent string of disciplinary cases has led a number of top Navy officers to reconsider their career goals of commanding an aircraft carrier. Recently, several senior officers have declined commanding officer jobs in favor of bureaucratic jobs in the Pentagon, Navy sources said.

Working in Washington is "a hell of a lot safer than being commander on a carrier," said Eugene J. Carroll Jr., a retired Navy admiral who is deputy director of the Center for Defense Information in Washington. "You're not at the mercy of some seaman or fireman in an aft boiler room turning the wrong valve . . . or a storekeeper who fiddles with the computer."

In a related development, the Navy last year began selecting management personnel for promotion to admiral, without making them compete with veteran combat officers.

"Now, pursuing a career in procurement . . . provides a path to promotion all the way to four stars that is as attractive as (sea duty)," Navy Secretary John Lehman Jr. told the House Armed Services Committee this month.

Promotions Schedule

Carroll warned that since the new promotions schedule for its management personnel in Washington was introduced last year, the Navy is beginning to lose some of its highly qualified leaders at sea to desk jobs.

Nonetheless, most Navy captains continue to strive for command positions on aircraft carriers. For example, Capt. David Hoffman, who succeeded Wood last week, said he did not hesitate to accept the opportunity to become commanding officer of the Kitty Hawk.

"This is what I've wanted to do since 1958, when I went into the Naval Academy," said Hoffman, a decorated Navy fighter pilot who flew 200 combat missions over North Vietnam and was a prisoner of war for 15 months. "I recognize the risks. . . . I'm far more interested in going ahead and taking the challenge and seeing if I can meet up with it."

Wood said that when a captain has trouble like the supply department problems that preceded his departure, other captains sympathize.

"But that's the way it is. He didn't do something right. Maybe he could have avoided that, you know," he said.

In addition to Leuschner, Wood and Tucker, four other commanding officers of carriers have been formally disciplined by the Navy since 1982:

- Capt. Dan Pederson retired after he received his second letter of censure in October, 1982, for the reported abuse of prisoners in the brig aboard the Ranger.

- Capt. Robert E. Taylor received a reprimand and was not promoted to admiral after the Kitty Hawk collided with the Canadian destroyer Yukon off the Washington coast in January, 1983.

- In a particularly embarrassing episode in April, 1983, thousands of cheering relatives were waiting to greet the crew of the nuclear-powered Enterprise on its return home from an eight-month cruise when the carrier ran aground in San Francisco Bay.

Navy officials immediately announced that they were conducting an inquiry into the grounding that could have "catastrophic career implications" for the ship's commander, Capt. Robert J. Kelly.

Kelly accepted full responsibility for the grounding and was reprimanded. However the incident apparently did not jeopardize his career. Although the Navy probe concluded that "human error" caused the accident, Kelly was promoted two months later to commodore and is now a rear admiral.

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