USS Greeneville skipper to retire; crew avoid courts-martial

Tuesday, April 24th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (AP) _ Cmdr. Scott Waddle raised eyebrows in legal circles when he decided to testify without immunity at a Navy court of inquiry into the USS Greeneville's collision with a Japanese fishing vessel.

But Waddle's attorney says the skipper's testimony may have helped him avoid a court-martial, where a conviction could have drawn a prison sentence.

Japanese families had called on the Navy court of inquiry to recommend a court-martial for Waddle, who was in charge Feb. 9 when the U.S. submarine rammed the Ehime Maru during a surfacing drill and killed nine of their relatives.

At an ``admiral's mast'' disciplinary hearing Monday, Waddle was found guilty of two violations of military law: dereliction in performance of duties and negligent hazarding of a vessel.

Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, issued a letter of reprimand to the 41-year-old skipper and took steps to permanently remove him from command. But Fargo decided against a court-martial.

Waddle also received a two-month cut to half salary, but that punishment was suspended _ meaning Waddle will receive full pay until he retires by Oct. 1.

The Greeneville's officer of the deck, Lt. j.g. Michael Coen, and the executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Pfeifer, also avoided courts-martial, drawing mixed reaction in Japan. Five others also face possible disciplinary actions.

``With the measures taken against Waddle and others, their liability has been made clear,'' said Kazuhiko Koshikawa, spokesman for outgoing Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori.

The nine men and boys killed included four students and two teachers from Uwajima Fisheries High School, 470 miles southwest of Tokyo.

``Unfortunately, I cannot help but feel the punishment may be too light,'' said Hirohisa Ishibashi, mayor of Uwajima.

In explanation, Fargo said Waddle ``upheld the principle and tradition of accountability and took full responsibility for his actions.''

``For a naval officer who has served 20 years to his country, I would tell you that this is absolutely devastating,'' Fargo said. ``He has paid dearly.''

Legal experts said Waddle took a risk in testifying after Fargo denied his request for immunity. Waddle admitted some procedures weren't followed and thus provided evidence that could have been used against him in a court-martial.

``It appeared to me at the time that it was a miscalculation because of the way the court responded to it. They were asking him very heated questions and making commentary in the questions that suggested they were very upset with him,'' said Honolulu attorney Jay Fidell, a former Coast Guard legal specialist and military judge.

But Charles Gittins, Waddle's civilian lawyer, said the initiative earned Fargo's respect.

Fargo ``indicated that he was proud of Cmdr. Waddle's decision to testify at the Court of Inquiry absent a grant of testimonial immunity and indicated that Scott had done the right thing by waiving his rights,'' Gittins said in an e-mail to reporters.

Waddle accepted the punishment and agreed to retire by Oct. 1. The Navy said Waddle will receive his pension and full retirement pay.

``While I regret that my Navy career has ended in this way, I know that I am one of the lucky ones because I survived the accident,'' Waddle said in a statement.

In a tearful interview broadcast Monday night on NBC's ``Dateline,'' Waddle said: ``No one individual can hang for this other than me. And when I say hang, be tagged with that responsibility. It has to be me. Because as captain, I am responsible.''

In his findings, Fargo said there was no evidence of criminal intent or deliberate misconduct on Waddle's part. But, Fargo said, Waddle was responsible for the two causes of the collision during the submarine's rapid-ascent drill: an ``artificial sense of urgency'' that led to rushed preparations for surfacing and the failure of the submarine's control room crew to work together and communicate about sonar contacts in the area.

Fargo also said changes were needed for the community relations program that led to 16 civilians being on board the Greeneville during the fatal collision. Three had been seated at the submarine's controls at the time.

While he said none of the civilians contributed to the collision, Fargo urged a review of the Navy's instructions for the program, and recommended that civilians not be at key control stations during critical maneuvers, including rapid-ascent drills.

Fargo said he forwarded to the commander of the Pacific Fleet submarine force the court of inquiry's recommendations that four other officers be admonished for various failures.

They include Pfeifer; the top-ranking Pacific Fleet submarine force chief-of-staff, Capt. Robert Brandhuber, who was escorting the civilians; the chief of the boat, Douglas Coffman; and a sonar supervisor, Petty Officer 1st Class Edward McGiboney.

Fargo also recommended Petty Officer 1st Class Patrick Seacrest face a captain's mast for failing to report a sonar contact within 4,000 yards of the Greeneville moments before the rapid-surfacing drill.