Driving Blind

  • Share
  • Read Later
The U.S.S. Greeneville rocketed blindly from the deep like a 6,900-ton black torpedo, spewing ocean foam as its bow rose more than 100 ft. out of the Pacific and crushed the Japanese fishing boat Ehime Maru. "Jesus!" exclaimed Commander Scott Waddle from the attack sub's control room, as his vessel shuddered around him. "What the hell was that?" Some 30 sailors and civilians, crammed into the Greeneville's control room, watched in horror as Waddle brought the periscope around to reveal what they had just done: a television screen displaying the periscope's view suddenly filled with the sickening image of a sinking trawler.

There was even more terror aboard the 190-ft. fishing boat, on a training voyage with students from Uwajima Fisheries High School in southwest Japan. "I saw something come up, and I thought it was a whale," crew member Hideo Okayama said. "All I heard was someone screaming, 'Danger! Danger!'" For the next few minutes, the Americans--unable to render assistance because of 6-ft. waves washing over the sub's deck nine miles south of Hawaii's Diamond Head--watched helplessly as Okayama and 25 shipmates, coated in diesel fuel, struggled into a trio of lifeboats. Nine other people are believed to have died.

The world is transfixed and appalled at the tragedy, demanding to know how a billion-dollar war machine and its highly trained crew could blunder so badly. Beyond the loss of four 17-year-old students, two teachers and three crew members, the Feb. 9 collision has shaken relations between the U.S. and Japan. And it has knocked Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori--who made the mistake of continuing a round of golf after getting the news--into political peril.

At U.S. Navy headquarters, senior officers were flabbergasted by the disaster and privately were quick to blame Waddle. Although 16 civilians were aboard, they did little more than "pretend to drive" the submarine during the rapid ascent drill, Navy officers said. Waddle and his crew were still responsible for scouring the surface with their sonar and periscope before launching the "emergency main ballast blow." The choppy waters and the ship's white color may have made detecting the trawler difficult. But Navy officers said that if, as the trawler's crew said, their vessel was steaming at 11 knots, it should have been generating enough noise to make sonar detection easy.

Determining that the coast was clear at periscope depth of about 60 ft., Waddle directed the sub to dive to about 400 ft. Once there, the skipper ordered the blow. A pair of landlubbers--overseen by sailors--had their hands on the controls that guide the submarine and empty its ballast tanks during the rapid ascent. But it was physics, not civilians, that shot the submarine to the surface. The Ehime Maru--half as long as the 360-ft. sub and only 7% of the weight--didn't stand a chance. The impact only scratched the submarine's hull. Although the public of both Japan and the U.S. were surprised at the presence of civilians on the Greeneville, the Navy routinely invites dignitaries aboard its vessels to bolster public support for its missions. In 1999 the Pacific Fleet's subs hosted 1,132 civilians on 45 trips.

The episode abounded with U.S. and Japanese coincidences: the accident occurred just south of Pearl Harbor, where World War II began for the U.S. The civilians on the sub were largely businessmen who had donated money to maintain the retired battleship U.S.S. Missouri, where the Japanese signed the surrender documents ending that war. The businessmen's visit was arranged by retired Admiral Richard Macke, who was forced to resign in 1996 after suggesting that three U.S. servicemen who raped a 12-year-old Japanese girl should have hired a prostitute instead. And this wasn't the first time a U.S. Navy submarine sank a ship named Ehime Maru: another U.S. sub had sunk a freighter by the same name during World War II.

The Navy has relieved Waddle of command, and plans to survey the sunken trawler and recover the bodies. The service has suspended emergency blows with civilians aboard, and at least temporarily it has barred civilians from manning controls. Navy officers say Waddle will probably never command a sub again, even in the unlikely event he is cleared of wrongdoing. If the Navy suspects negligence, he could face a court-martial. Investigators are eager to determine if the civilians' presence distracted Waddle and his crew. Discovering what happened could be difficult. There was a video recorder aboard the Greeneville that could have taped everything seen by the periscope, before, during and after the accident. But, in keeping with the Navy's luck last week, the device was not turned on.