The Navy's ruling just came down on the USS Fitzgerald's top leaders — and it isn't good
The commander of the destroyer USS Fitzgerald and the executive officer have been permanently detached from the ship and face non-judicial punishment over the deadly collision in June with a container ship, the Navy announced August 17.
Cmdr. Bryce Benson, commander of the Fitzgerald, and Cmdr. Sean Babbitt, the executive officer, are "being detached for cause," meaning that the Navy "has lost trust and confidence in their ability to lead," Adm. Bill Moran, Vice Chief of Naval Operations, said during a press conference.
Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the 7th Fleet, has also decided that the top enlisted sailor aboard the Fitzgerald and several other sailors on the watch crew at the time of the collision on June 17 will also face non-judicial punishment, Moran said.
YOKOSUKA, Japan (June 17, 2017) The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) returns to Fleet Activities (FLEACT) Yokosuka following a collision with a merchant vessel while operating southwest of Yokosuka, Japan. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Peter Burghart
Aucoin ruled that "serious mistakes were made by the crew," Moran said.
The Fitzgerald was hit nearly broadside by the ACX Crystal cargo ship in the early morning hours of June 17 in Japanese waters. Seven sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Fitzgerald were killed.
The service members, whose bodies were found in flooded berthing compartments, on August 17 were posthumously promoted.
The top enlisted sailor on the Fitzgerald was later identified as Chief Petty Officer Brice Baldwin. He, Benson, and Babbitt were all in their berths when the collision occurred.
Honoring the seven Sailors assigned to the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Fitzgerald who were killed in a collision at sea. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Raymond D. Diaz III
However, Aucoin found that all three bore chief responsibility for the watch crew on the bridge losing "situational awareness" as the destroyer was proceeding at about 20 knots on a clear moonlit night in relatively calm seas, Moran said.
When asked if the non-judicial punishment against Benson, Babbitt, and Baldwin would be career-ending, Moran said: "Look at what happened here -- it's going to be pretty hard to recover from this." Moran said investigations were continuing but he declined to speculate on whether courts martial might be pursued against any of the Fitzgerald's crew.
Since the accident occurred, naval experts have pondered how a fast and agile destroyer carrying some of the world's most advanced radars and proceeding on a clear moonlit night in calm seas could have been hit nearly broadside by a slow and plodding cargo ship.
USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) sits in Dry Dock after sustaining significant damage in the June 17 collision. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Leonard Adams.
The speculation has centered on whether the bridge watch crew was either poorly trained or simply not alert. Moran said only that collisions should not happen in the US Navy -- "We got it wrong."
A "line of duty" investigation released by the Navy earlier August 17 on actions following the collision gave evidence of the enormous damage inflicted on the Fitzgerald and the heroic actions of the crew in saving the ship and their fellow sailors.
Berthing Area 2, two decks below the main deck where 35 sailors were sleeping in three-decker buns, was exposed to the open sea, the investigation said. The bulbous nose of the ACX Crystal had ripped a 13x17 foot hole into the side of the Fitzgerald.
Repairs to a hole punctured into the side of the USS Fitzgerald after colliding with a merchant vessel on June 17, 2017. Navy photo by Daniel A. Taylor.
"As a result, nothing separated Berthing 2 from the onrushing sea, allowing a great volume of water to enter Berthing 2 very quickly," the investigation said. The seven sailors killed in the collision were all in Berthing 2. They were "directly in the path of the onrushing water," the investigation said.
The force of the collision knocked the Fitzgerald into a 14-degree list to port before the ship rocked back violently into a seven-degree list to starboard. "One sailor saw another knocked out of his rack by water," the investigation said.
"Others began waking up shipmates who had slept through the initial impact. At least one sailor had to be pulled from his rack and into the water before he woke up," the investigation said.
The sailors were in water up to their necks as they scrambled to reach a ladder to safety. The last rescued sailor had been in the bathroom at the time of the crash. Other sailors "pulled him from the water, red-faced and with bloodshot eyes. He reported he was taking his final breath before being saved," the investigation said.