Lesser punishment advised for skipper

Navy court advises against court-martial in Greeneville incident

April 15, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - The three admirals on the Navy's court of inquiry into the collision between an American submarine and a Japanese vessel near Honolulu have unanimously recommended that the submarine's skipper not be tried by a court-martial, senior Pentagon officials said yesterday.

Instead, the skipper, Cmdr. Scott D. Waddle, is likely to face some lesser form of punishment, such as a punitive letter or reprimand that would effectively end his career and could reduce his retirement benefits but would not threaten him with a jail sentence, the officials said.

Waddle was in command of the submarine Greeneville on Feb. 9, when the attack submarine surfaced rapidly in a demonstration of emergency procedures, crashing into and sinking the Ehime Maru, a 174-foot Japanese fishery training trawler.

Nine people, including four teen-age fishery students and two of their instructors, were killed in the accident, which set off an uproar in Japan and complicated the delicate military relations between the two countries.

Deciding what punishment to seek is a delicate piece of diplomacy for Adm. Thomas B. Fargo, the commander-in-chief of the Pacific Fleet, who has to balance concerns about offending Japan, where many of his forces are based and where the American military presence is a constant irritant, against considerations of morale in the fleet, where prosecuting the submarine's skipper would be seen as an exercise in scapegoating.

The Navy panel presented its findings on Friday to Fargo, who under Navy rules will make the final decision on how to proceed. Technically, he has 30 days to decide what to do, but he is expected to act quickly and is unlikely to order a court-martial of Waddle against the recommendations of the panel, the Pentagon officials said.

The court of inquiry, a highly unusual forum that is an investigation rather than a trial, met for more than two weeks last month to take evidence about the accident, which occurred during a day trip by the nuclear-powered attack submarine from Pearl Harbor.

The submarine was carrying 16 civilians, who had been invited aboard for a firsthand look at submarine maneuvers. Among the maneuvers was the emergency drill in which a submarine rapidly shoots to the surface, breaching the water as if in a crisis.

Vice Adm. John Nathman and Rear Adms. Paul Sullivan and David Stone heard from 33 witnesses in the formal, public inquiry, which ended on March 20. Rear Adm. Isamu Ozawa of the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force was included in deliberations with the three American admirals but did not have a vote on their recommendations.

Among other issues, the panel considered what charges might be brought against Waddle and the two other officers who were principally responsible for the ship's operations.

The possible charges ranged from dereliction of duty or subjecting a vessel to a hazard, both relatively minor charges, to negligent homicide, a felony that could have resulted in 10 years in prison.

But Navy officials and civilian experts in military law have said since the hearings into the accident that the panel was unlikely to seek such a harsh treatment of Waddle, who until the accident was seen as a model submariner.

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