The Navy will present its argument early next month for why the captains of two warships involved in fatal collisions last summer should be held liable for the deaths of 17 sailors who were crushed and drowned in the disasters.
That case against the skippers of the destroyers Fitzgerald and John S. McCain will be made at public hearings that will for the first time reveal the service’s rationale behind the unprecedented charges.
It will also offer new insight into what happened in the disasters, which took place about two months apart in the West Pacific waters of 7th Fleet.
The collisions and sailor deaths have shaken the Navy’s surface fleet to its core, prompting congressional scrutiny and questions about the community’s training and readiness.
The Fitz’s skipper at the time, Cmdr. Bryce Benson, and McCain’s then-leader, Cmdr. Alfredo Sanchez, also face dereliction of duty and hazarding a vessel charges, according to the Navy.
Three other unidentified Fitz officers face the same trio of charges, and the Navy plans to pursue dereliction of duty charges against a McCain chief petty officer.
But before a court-martial can begin, the Navy will hold Article 32 hearings, where an officer will hear the prosecution’s evidence and rule on whether the case is strong enough to go to trial.
The Article 32 hearings are scheduled for early March — Sanchez’s on March 6 and Benson’s on March 7 — at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C.
The three unidentified officers will be the subject of a joint hearing on March 8. The Navy has not yet specified when proceedings against the McCain chief will commence, as the decision on the forum remains pending.
The Fitz was steaming off the coast of Japan on June 17 when it was struck on its starboard side by the hulking Philippine-flagged ACX Crystal merchant ship, flooding a section of the ship’s living quarters below the surface and drowning seven sailors.
On Aug. 21, the McCain was entering busy sea traffic in the Straits of Malacca near Singapore when it collided with the Alnic MC tanker. Ten sailors were drowned and crushed in their racks.
Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson released a comprehensive review in November that laid out what went wrong in each incident.
Later, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer released a strategic review that pointed out cultural problems and the normalization of shortcuts over a span of decades in the surface community.
A review board led by Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran recently held the first meeting of a Readiness Reform and Oversight Council that is tasked with assessing the recommendations for change in both reviews and charting a future path.
Moran said last week that some of the recommendations are relatively quick fixes, while others that involve changing the Navy’s culture could take years.
Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at email@example.com.