Death and valor on a warship doomed by its own Navy

Death and valor on a warship doomed by its own Navy. - ProPublica

A very good article, what happened on the Fitzgerald, hard to read in places.

How We Investigated the Navy’s Twin Disasters in the Pacific

The USS John S. McCain was brought to Yokosuka, Japan, in December 2017. (The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

We set out to reconstruct the accidents in which the USS Fitzgerald and the USS John S. McCain collided with cargo vessels within a few months of each other in 2017, the deadliest accidents at sea in the Navy in four decades. We sent out a team of reporters to interview scores of current and former sailors, officers and commanders, as well as family members and friends. We conducted dozens of interviews with current and former Navy admirals and senior civilian leaders, including the former secretary of the Navy. We attended courts-martial and military hearings. We spoke with experts in ship construction, maritime law and military justice. Many sources were interviewed multiple times. Interviews were conducted in Japan, Virginia, Maryland, California and Washington, D.C.

We obtained two confidential reports on the collisions that included more than 13,000 pages of documents, photos and transcripts of sailor interviews. The material included ship logs…,


*Thanks for posting. Very interesting and moving. For some reason I lost it before I got to the end so I haven’t been able to read the whole thing.

The Navy any Navy is an alien world to me which I don’t understand. I have met and worked with former Navy people. I get the enlisted much better. The commissioned are an alien species. Some adapt to my world better than others. Some I grew to like and respect after a suitable period of adaptation. Some not so much.

Even so while I found the stories of the crew getting out of the compartment and trying to help thier ship recover very moving and at times hard to read.

I found the stories of the young officers on duty hard to read. I know people died as a result of the errors made. I still found it hard to read. Thier lives have been wrecked by this event, they will never get over it. Their future wrecked.
The young lady on duty along with her watch. Had been on duty for almost 22 straight hours.
The Capt was exhausted and went to bed leaving her and others supporting her.


For some strange reason. I now work for a lot of ex Navy. The most difficult thing to get through to thier minds. Sometimes the f ing Admiral is wrong. Just because the Admiral says go do it. It might not be a good idea.

Officers need to be able to say to Capt. We have a problem we need to get this fixed.

Somebody has to be able to say. Officer, Capt, Admiral or maybe even the Comander in Chief.
Excuse me Sir, This is a really bad idea. Without fear of the response.

My boss is ex Navy he isn’t stupid. In fact he is pretty smart. Not sure exactly what he is qualified to do. He commanded nuclear powered ships. He ain’t stupid.
He just doesn’t think the way we do. They are an Alien species.

I irritate the hell out of him. At least he hasn’t fired me yet. Took a while for him to grasp this concept.
After many conversations starting with “In the Navy” followed by “ this ain’t the Navy” which would go down hill from there.
We gotten used to each other. If not actually understanding each other.
We still mention the Navy from time to time.

Thier have been several occasions. I was very glad somebody said

“excuse me Jack that’s a really bad idea”

Just maybe one of these Officers, this Capt or even the Admiral wish somebody might have said
“excuse me sir this might be a really bad idea”

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On duty 22 hours straight… amazing…

I talked to a former Navy EW (Electronic Warfare Technician, job merged with another some years ago…) who said he regularly worked 20+ hours in his shop/control center with a break for three or four hours, then he went right back on duty climbing radar masts to do maintenance/repairs for a few more hours. ALOFT WORK with that little of a rest period!!! Fixing billions of dollars worth of equipment!

The absurdity of this blew my mind. I don’t care about “combat readiness” or that it is a military vessel… how can one remain combat ready or even efficient if A.) The equipment is serviced by someone so overworked/underslept they may not even know what they are doing or cause even more damage, or B.) Their people are so sleep deprived/overworked they may end up useless in action as it is.

If the U.S. Navy manned a standard merchant vessel they’d pack it with probably 7 times the number of crew and still find a way to fuck their rest hours up. Un-fucking-real.

End of rant…

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In all the analysis of Navy accidents nobody raises this point except merchant mariners. The question basically why doesn’t the Navy operate complex warships like merchant mariners operate box boats.

Navy destroyers, cruise ships and drill rigs for example are not operated with 20 people but box boat are.

Imagine if the discussion of the DWH had been mostly mariners claiming that the crew should have been 20 instead of 120+. It would have been a low-quality discussion.

I guess I’m more puzzled by the majority of currently serving sailors and Navy veterans who told me that despite having a crew ranging from 200 to as many as 5,000 people there are folks serving in electronics/engineering/navigation divisions working upwards of 30 hours without sleep and performing highly technical work during that time in precarious positions… it makes it a no brainer to me then as to why they are having all of these accidents they magically cannot explain.

Then again, I was never in the Navy, so their world is foreign to me.

They seem really good at using the manpower and equipment they have when it comes to damage control or in other cases firefighting, but much less so in day to day ops. It’s as if even very complicated and intense tasks can be handled well but it doesn’t always fit together into a coherent whole.

Sadly I don’t think we can talk too proudly about doing more with less given the numerous civilian incidents recently that involve oversized ships with undersized crews. We’re just forced to try to muddle through as the ship slowly falls apart around the edges over the years.

Why so many crew on a warship? A warship must be able to fight the ship and fight the enemy after loosing half the crew. People forget that’s why there’s so many.

In other words, imagine how many crew a box boat would need if it had to be able to load and discharge containers, while simultaneously fighting multiple compartment fires/flooding caused by incoming torpedoes, missiles, bombs or artillery while also providing triage medical care to the half of the crew that isn’t already dead.

That would require more than twenty people…

When there’s a fire on a commercial ship half the people run to the lifeboats and wait to be saved. Or they take a boat to shore to direct operations from there.

I think the issue isn’t WHY they have so many, but why with so many there are people working that many hours to the point of being dangerous to have around on duty in any capacity.

They acted recently as if modifying work/watch schedules to allow for more rest was an unheard of innovation.

I wish I could have read the whole article but it kept going back to the beginning so I think I made it half way through.
I have a lot more sympathy with the young women who had the watch than I did earlier. Talk about being thrown under the bus.
My first observation is that at action stations every single person on a warship has a job or they are not onboard.
The period at action is usually and sometimes brutally short. The Battle of the River Plate, in which my father participated lasted about 80 minutes.
A warship is required to stay at a high standard of readiness for long periods and this is why there should be sufficient trained and experienced personnel to form a Port and Starboard watch. Thus alleviating fatigue.
To have a warship that I had previously regarded as representing the cutting edge of US technology having equipment operating in such a degraded state should have those at the top of the command censured.
The OOW of most of the Merchant ships would have had a better appreciation of the surface picture.

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Maybe, I am very familiar with that area, there’s no way I’d trust most new third mates alone in the bridge crossing that line of traffic.

That’s basically the level those officers, difference being the navy officers are backed up by the ratings and CIC.

Well I have read the whole article now.
It’s not an investigation report. Even so it is enlightening. I wouldn’t claim to be familiar with the area. Having last been to Yokohama about 30 odd years ago.
I do recall my own near miss approaching the pilot station for Yokohama. I was a 3rd Mate. It worked out. Local authorities didn’t give a rats ass when we reported it.
The other vessel’s name is still emblazoned in my memory. I won’t mention it JIK.
It’s a very busy area and my recollection, there is a competitive aspect to getting there.

Crossing busy traffic lanes is a challenge anywhere. The article refers to the poor performance of 3 Radars, I found the story of the poor guy with the button to push interesting but strange.
The other radars also failing to detect a container ship due to clutter in clear weather and a 3ft sea state. Is odd.
Overtired people failing to keep an effective watch on the radar and missing something. Might be a bit more likley. They may even truly believe the radar was the problem. I ha ma doubts.

The communication and delegation of duties mystifies me. Why the references to distance or range are all in yards also confuses me. Along with speed in knots. I am used to miles. Or cables.
The Navy is a different world.

Why orders restricting the OOD from deviating only 1000 yards would be issued is strange. This must creat an disincentive to make a bold alteration early and readily apparenti. Instead accepting an apparently minimal CPA as tolerable.

The aproachingbship was seen but dismissed as passing astern by a distance I would refer to as less than acceptable condsiering both ships speed.
Turns out this passing distance was not monitored again until to late.
Confusion about lights aside.
Failure of the OOD to monitor traffic the ship was crossing was a critical failure. Which was not questioned, even as doubts arose.

“Three years later, the Fitzgerald would set sail with many of its computers and software out of date. For instance, its primary navigation system, known as the Voyage Management System, was running on Windows 2000 — the oldest version among ships based in Japan. Sailors would say that the navigation system would wrongly plot their position or the position of other ships.”

Windows 2000!?!?

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But in sight of land so why not use the basics. If they were plotting positions using the land with a radar then they would have noticed whether it was working correctly or not.

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One important aspect is the overall complexity of warships. At a rough guesstimate, a simple 100’ coast guard cutter has ten times as many systems on board as a 300’ tanker, and keeping those systems happily integrated bears little resemblance to “keeping the lights on and the shaft turning”. I can only guess how these things scale, but I imagine that since warships are crammed full of equipment, overall systems complexity should be roughly linear to LOA cubed, whereas your 1000’ tanker needs basically the same systems as a 300 footer, only bigger.

Furthermore, a lot of the systems on a warship are bespoke or stem from very short production runs. Need a new main board for a Decca BM2? You can have one pretty much anywhere in the world. Malfunctioning main board on your one-off missile tracking radar? Now you’d better understand the equipment down to the single component level, and have the time to chase down the fault instead of just swapping assemblies.

On top of all this, box boats and tankers are built and operated on a ten year renewal cycle, which is a major part of the reason why manning levels have gone down as far as they have. I’m not sure exactly how long our navies expect a new built destroyer to last, but it’s definitely not treated as disposable in the same manner. At the time of the accident, the USS Fitzgerald was over 20 years old, and this would be reflected in the amount of maintenance work.

Now add a twist of rigid organizational culture and a good dollop of train-hard-fight-easy doctrine, and we’re getting close to explaining the manpower discrepancies.

Anyhow, back to the article…

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When shit goes down, even on commercial vessels it can result in similar situations. Twice with MLL we lost all power and went dead in the water (on two different vessels) and the engineers went well into the red on their rest hours, but it was corrected. Many times watches and cargo operations came so close to gear tests and it ended up with an officer on deck going well over their work/rest hours… heck, just last year I pulled a 22 hour day in Mumbai because of the perfect storm consisting of watch, inspectors and departure all lining right up.

They are trying to set up schedules that allow for more rest, which comes a little late as it seems the submarine and aviation communities have been doing this for a long, long time already. As stated in a previous post, sending a man aloft to work on billions of dollars worth of equipment after being awake and on the go for over a day without rest is just insane. He recounted the mast waving a little with the motions of the vessel and eating tons of stack exhaust on the way up and not even remembering doing the work he logged because of exhaustion. These divisions have more than enough people to do the work safely, and if certifications are an issue, they should have gold and blue crews like the submarines (if they don’t already) and use their “off” time while ashore/off patrol to get everyone up to speed.

A few years ago on USS PONCE (MSC/USN mixed crew) the bridge radars were using some crappy, old Windows version. I’d go to the bridge every now and then and there would be a Blue Screen of Death. So no radars. This was common enough that it was a running joke.

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The way the Navy breaks down tasks in the bridge is a little different then the merchant side but the principle is the same.

As far as yards, 1000 yds ~1/2 mile.

My guess is that the captain expected that the ship was clear of traffic when he went below. I’ve had a couple captains that didn’t understand the pattern of the lines of traffic off Japan and expected once the traffic thinned out away from the port that the ship was in the clear.

I think there was CPA limits, evidently disregarded? I’ve seen that on the merchant side. "Call me but “wink wink” don’t call me for cpa under 2 miles…

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I am assuming that the ships in the area were on the same time in which case the second officer would have had the watch on the Crystal Ace.
Like most masters approaching this area I would have been on the bridge for the 8 to 12 and dozed fully dressed for the other watches.
My own ship when I was last in these waters would have the AIS information displayed on the ECDIS and one of the two 3 cm radars. The 10cm radar being used for navigation and longer range monitoring of traffic.
The Fitzgerald would have appeared at about 10 miles on the 10cm radar without a AIS label and the ARPA giving a speed of 20 knots would mean that it could be deduced that it was no fishing boat.
I wonder if the Japanese investigation of the incident (if there was one) interviewed the OOW of the ship’s that were in the vicinity?


Yes, I miss read your post. Having experience in traffic is the key to seeing the patterns in the traffic you need to see to be able to handle it with little effort.

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The Propublica version is difficult to finish, as my emotions prevent me from finishing. Emotions of rage & sorrow. Because I was a radarman on destroyers in the early Seventies, I have intimate (yes, and dated) knowledge of a CIC. I spent too many hours on a SPS-10 surface search radar & a SPA-25 PPI scope to understand how the operators on FITZ were incompetent in basic radar use.

We were all required to know how to tune the radar (the officers were not that good at tuning, but they knew when the picture sucked. And it was a performance factor for RD3 & RD2!! We also knew what pulse-width (short or long) to select for conditions. We knew what the range resolution and bearing resolution was for a give PW. That no-one on watch in FITZ CIC or the bridge knew the radar was set at long-range detection is unfathomable.

What isn’t mentioned in this reading, was the discovery of bottles of urine and weight-lifting equipment in CIC when the ship docked. (FROM NAVY TIMES, 14JAN19 - "Nothing captures the disarray aboard the destroyer better than this detail of a visit by Rear Adm. Brian Fort, who oversaw the investigation, to the vessel’s combat information center: “He saw kettlebells on the floor and bottles filled with pee”. Clearly a sign of poor leadership!!

The OOD, Ltjg Coppock committed the most grievous of errors: 1) She passed too close to two other vessels without calling the Captain in accordance with the night/standing orders. 2) She didn’t tell the Captain about an incident in May when she miscalculated distance to a fishing boat. 3) She didn’t pay attention to the SPS 73’s radar contact with a 3/4 mile CPA on the stern. 4) And didn’t sound the collision alarm, which undoubtedly would have saved those 7 sailor’s lives.

Yes, the captain is responsible. Yes the squadron commander is responsible. Yes COMSEVENFLT is responsible. But in the end, it’s the OOD who failed. She had a chance to stop the ship (assuming the article is correct that ABurkes can stop in 500’ to from 20kts).

I’m going to try and finish reading the article. But not now, I’m still fuming mad.

While I have strongly condemned the OOD, and the CO, and the admirals, I also congratulate and salute the crew who saved the vessel. They were true sailors & heroes.

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