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National Perspective | UPDATE

Morale Likely a Factor in Decision on Sub Crew

April 04, 2001|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The acting secretary of the Navy said Tuesday that he believes it would hurt morale in the Navy if Cmdr. Scott Waddle is court-martialed for the deadly collision between his submarine and a Japanese fishing trawler.

Robert B. Pirie Jr., a former submarine captain, said he will support Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the Pacific Fleet, if Fargo decides that a court-martial "is required" for Waddle or other crew members aboard the Greeneville.

But Pirie, talking to reporters aboard the 3rd Fleet command ship Coronado, said he expects Fargo to consider such big-picture factors as morale before making his decision.

"The reason we have a guy like Fargo in charge is he's able to put these things in perspective," Pirie said. "We can't simply divorce ourselves from the outside while we make a judgment. . . . I'm entirely confident Fargo is going to bring all the factors together."

Fargo will make a decision on possible punishment for the sub's captain and crew after he receives recommendations from three admirals who heard 33 witnesses during a 12-day court of inquiry at the naval base in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

It is exceedingly rare for Navy officers to be ordered to court-martial, which carries the possibility of imprisonment, for peacetime accidents, even those that result in loss of life.

Pirie said he feels some sympathy for Waddle, the submarine's skipper who appeared destined for promotion to captain and greater responsibility in the Navy before the Feb. 9 collision off Hawaii in which nine Japanese were killed.

The crash occurred while the Greeneville was executing an emergency surfacing maneuver to impress a group of civilian visitors.

Testimony during the court of inquiry indicated that Waddle made a series of errors, including allowing unqualified personnel at sonar stations and making a periscope check that was too cursory.

The final mistake was made by a sonar analyst, a senior enlisted sailor who failed to notice that the trawler Ehime Maru was bearing straight toward the Greeneville.

"I haven't talked to any commanding officer of any ship who hasn't said, as I did, 'There but for the grace of God go I,' " Pirie said. "Being c.o. [commanding officer] of a ship is hard business--a lot of things can go wrong. . . . Scott Waddle was a great skipper with a wonderful reputation. I think this incident is really tragic because of the possibility that the Navy will have lost Scott Waddle's services."

Pirie is a holdover from the Clinton administration who will be replaced when the Bush administration's nominee wins Senate confirmation.

That could be months, however, and Fargo's decision is likely within six weeks.

During the hearing, Waddle said that he hoped he would not be "sacrificed" and subjected to a court-martial to appease the Japanese.

Some polls have suggested that the American public does not support a court-martial.

Asked whether he expects an adverse public reaction if Waddle is ordered to stand trial, Pirie said:

"I think the American public is pretty smart and appreciates these things pretty well. Depending on what Adm. Fargo decides to do, I think his review of facts and his logic will support it. I would be surprised if we were driven to that position."

Pirie called the collision "a terribly tragic accident, a one-in-a-billion kind of chance."

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