Bitter Passage

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STEVE LISS FOR TIME

A Sailor's Farewell: Waddle watches the U.S.S. Greeneville, the sub he once captained, return to sea for the first time since the tragic accident

Dressed in his officer's whites, Commander Scott Waddle stood motionless on the grass last Wednesday, staring into the waters in front of his house inside Pearl Harbor Naval Base. Commander is an empty title at this point. Waddle was relieved of his command of the U.S.S. Greeneville immediately after the nuclear attack submarine collided with the Japanese fishing boat Ehime Maru on Feb. 9, an accident that killed nine of the people aboard that vessel. For Waddle, it has been two months of public humiliation and recrimination. Yet even after the Navy put him through a wringer of an inquiry, Navy men found a way to confer dignity on him. On Wednesday, Waddle had dressed in uniform and come out to the waters for a rendezvous.

The Greeneville's crew knew he would be standing there as they took the sub out of dry dock and to sea for the first time since the tragedy. As they approached in the narrow channel, they sounded the whistle, in tribute to their former skipper. On the bridge the replacement captain, Tony Cortese, waved to his predecessor, barely 200 yds. away. Waddle was standing on his own, his right arm raised in stiff salute. It was a sailor's leave-taking, barely noticed by anyone else on the shore. When the ship had passed, Waddle slumped, his head bowed, and turned back toward his house, his eyes teary. "That was the hardest thing I have done in my life," he said. "It was like the last nail in the coffin."

Scott Waddle's rendezvous with his submarine contrasted sharply with the celebratory reception, also in Hawaii, of another Navy man, Lieut. Shane Osborn, whose actions saved the lives of a crew of 23 after his EP-3 spy plane collided with a Chinese F-8 fighter jet, killing its pilot. With China, a budding rival for power in the Pacific, Washington adopted a hard line, waging a diplomatic battle for more than a week to avoid an apology to Beijing for a crash the Pentagon claims was caused by the Chinese pilot in the first place. The U.S., of course, apologized profusely to Tokyo over the Ehime Maru. The ship was on a harmless holiday cruise, and Japan is the main military ally of the U.S. in Asia. And so now, while Osborn is hailed for his cool-headed actions, Waddle, once expected to be a model of the Navy's new heroes, faces still more ignominy.

The official report from the three admirals who took testimony from 33 witnesses at last month's court of inquiry into the sinking of the Japanese ship has now been handed to Admiral Thomas Fargo, chief of the Pacific Fleet. On the basis of their report, Fargo must decide whether to submit Waddle to a court-martial or give him some lesser form of Navy punishment. One possibility: an administrative proceeding known as an admiral's mast, which carries a maximum penalty of 30 days of confinement to quarters, 60 days of restricted duty and forfeiture of a month's pay. At the inquiry, Waddle was informed he was suspected of dereliction of duty, improper hazarding of a vessel and negligent homicide, all of which could carry jail terms at a court-martial. In any scenario, Waddle's once brilliant career is over. And while his legal battle with the Navy may end, his battle with himself will continue.

For the past two months he has replayed the series of events surrounding the collision a thousand times in his mind. His sub had gone down to 400 ft. and shot back again in a rapid-surfacing maneuver known as an "emergency blow"--directly underneath the Ehime Maru. As it broke the surface, the Greeneville's HY 80 steel rudder, specially reinforced to punch through ice, ripped open the stern of the Japanese ship. "When I put up the periscope after the collision and increased magnification, I saw all those little people tumbling in the water. I felt disbelief, regret, remorse, anxiety, rage, denial... This was something I had no control over. I couldn't change what happened. As a man who exercised control over my ship, suddenly it didn't matter what I did--I couldn't change the outcome.

"I didn't cause the accident. I gave the orders that resulted in the accident. And I take full responsibility. I would give my life if it meant one of those nine lives lost could be brought back." He doesn't sleep much at night, and when he does, he is plagued with nightmares. His hair has turned gray, he has bags under his eyes, and he has lost weight. Every waking moment is a struggle to keep himself together. During a series of interviews with TIME last week, Waddle broke down several times, showing a depth of grief that was wrenching in its rawness. "I am not tired of apologizing," he said, tears streaming down his face as he sat in his rocking chair at home. "But I am tired of crying. It kills me that nine people died because of an accident."

The sinking of the Ehime Maru resonated around the world. It was the first major foreign policy challenge for the newly installed Bush Administration. In Japan it contributed to the fall from power of Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori, who shocked public opinion by continuing a golf game even after he heard of the accident. The Pentagon fretted about damage to the already fragile military alliance with Japan. The Japanese families of the nine dead were left in shock and grief. But at the center of the affair has been the tragic figure of Scott Waddle, a complex character who exudes self-confidence but craves approval, a man who was trained to fight a war that could end the world, but whose own world ended when he hit a Japanese fishing boat on a leisure cruise.

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