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Court of Inquiry: Collision of the U.S.S. Greeneville

The U.S. Navy opened a formal investigation yesterday into the fatal collision of the U.S.S. Greeneville and a Japanese fishing boat. Ray Suarez talks with attorney and former Coast Guard legal officer Jay Fidell about the inquiry.

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  • RAY SUAREZ:

    The Navy's court of inquiry opened yesterday at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Named as parties to the inquiry are the commander and two other officers on the submarine that rammed into a Japanese trawler, killing nine. Following the proceedings for us is Jay Fidell, a Hawaii lawyer who served as a United States coast guard legal officer and investigator. Welcome to the program.

  • JAY FIDELL:

    Thank you, Ray. Nice to be here.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    What testimony has the board of admirals heard that may advance the story beyond what we've heard in the press and heard from eyewitnesses to the event?

  • JAY FIDELL:

    The only substantive testimony to this moment is the testimony of Admiral Griffiths, Charles Henry Griffiths, who is the preliminary investigator. He took over from Commodore Bias perhaps one or two days after the event. And he did an expedited report for the benefit of the convening authority– that is Admiral Fargo– between the 12th and the 14th of February. He testified about that report, and it was unusual in the sense that it was detailed. Although the written report apparently was redacted– that is, opinions and recommendations were excluded from the consideration of the members of the court– he testified about opinions yesterday, and it was quite an interesting testimony. I think he told us all things we did not know before, and he made opinions that bear heavily on the future of these proceedings, opinions regarding the level of care and the precise details of what Commander Waddle did and did not do as the commanding officer of this vessel.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    What were some of the things that Admiral Griffiths was able to bring out in his testimony that gave you a feeling of what the situation was like at the moment the accident, and the moments leading up to the accident?

  • JAY FIDELL:

    Well, he did a synopsis of the entire day, that entire day plan, so to speak, and he talked about problems that arose. For example, the first problem that arose was the failure of the sonar repeater, which is a repeater of the waterfall display that shows in the sonar room is present in the control room so that the officer of the deck can see it. He said it was a vital piece of equipment. Shortly after they left Pearl Harbor that morning, it was determined that it was broken. Now, the captain made a judgment call not to turn around, not to have it repaired, but to go forward with the plan of the day and to take the civilians, the distinguished visitors, as it were, on his rounds.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    This broken piece of sonar equipment that you mentioned – did this render a ship inoperable? Does it normally mean you go back? Can a ship operate safely without it?

  • JAY FIDELL:

    It is only a display, Ray. It is a sonar repeater. There's one in the sonar room and the repeater is in the control room. The repeater only shows the OOD, that is the officer of the deck and the captain and the executive officer, what is being shown in the sonar room. According to Admiral Griffiths yesterday, however, it is a vital piece of equipment, and he himself said that if it wasn't working, he would be more careful than ordinarily and he would layer additional levels of defensive safety measures for the lack of that particular piece of equipment. It is a vital piece of equipment, and he said he, as commanding officer, would want it working.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Now, Admiral Griffiths described the resetting of some equipment for its sort of field of vision, field of vision… its range of vision. Maybe you could explain that a little bit to me.

  • JAY FIDELL:

    Oh, yeah. I think in a week or two, everyone in the world will know about target motion analysis, TMA, and there was a target control technician, fire control technician -FTCOW – of the watch who is responsible for plotting all contacts. What happened here is he had a contact, that is, another vessel, at approximately 2,000 yards, give or take. And that's roughly a nautical mile and very close at a speed of 11 knots, which is the speed that "Ehime Maru" was making. He did not advise the captain that he had that contact. Furthermore– and this is the most interesting thing that came out yesterday– he reset the contact to 9,000 yards without telling the captain that he had done so. The result is it was off the chart and no one was tracking it. So the captain did not know, (a), that it was there at the time they were coming up to periscope depth and, (b), that it had been reset. This is a very important part of the case, part of the investigation.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    When you say reset, he stated it at a different distance?

  • JAY FIDELL:

    That's right. He put it at a different distance. He did that himself without talking to anyone else. The issue that came out yesterday – which is very provocative — is when he did that because one of the witnesses that Admiral Griffiths talked to indicated that he had done it before they surfaced, prior to the dive. Another witness indicated that he had done it after the collision. And that is very provocative that he might have reset the contact to 9,000 yards after the collision rather than before the collision.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Was there any testimony given that would indicate that the presence of the civilians on board interrupted or at least made more difficult the operation of the ship in its maneuvers?

  • JAY FIDELL:

    Well, the testimony of the… The testimony of the preliminary investigator, Admiral Griffiths, was to the effect that he did not feel the presence of the civilians affected the accident. And I would add that in the voir dire, in the questioning of the members of the court that took place yesterday morning, each of them also indicated that they felt that the Navy's program of civilian embarkation, of distinguished visitors, was important. So what you have is the senior Navy admirals involved in this matter all feel, (a)" that the program is important, and, (b), according to Admiral Griffiths yesterday, that the presence of civilians did not contribute to the accident. But that issue is yet to be resolved. There will be other testimony, I am sure, on that issue.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    That is one of the main areas of inquiry, isn't it?

  • JAY FIDELL:

    Yes. In fact, Admiral Fargo, the convening authority, ordered this court to look into that, to look into the policy itself– that is, of allowing civilian embarkation– and of the implementation of the policy. They are required to provide him any suggestions on improving the policy or the implementation of the policy in the report they are required to file. But let me go on and tell you more about what happened, if I may.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Sure.

  • JAY FIDELL:

    He testified also that when they were doing their maneuvers for the benefit of the civilians– that is, the entire trip was ostensibly for the benefit of the civilians — they came up in preparation for the main ballast flow. They came up to 150 feet, which was in preparation for going to periscope depth. And there was testimony from Admiral Griffiths that they did not spend enough time at 150 feet to do what he thought was appropriate — namely, two full sonar sweeps at that depth. This was critical testimony, and does not help Commander Waddle at all. It runs against him because he only spent five minutes when Admiral Griffiths felt that ten minutes was necessary at that depth to determine the presence of other vessels. Furthermore, when they did arrive at periscope depth, he had a reconstructed timeline, Admiral Griffiths. It was impressive. It determined that there were only 80 seconds spent at periscope depth, and that, he said, was not enough. It required, in his view, at least three and a half minutes of periscope sweep to determine whether there were other vessels there. So what he portrayed was a submarine, which was hurrying, a submarine which was concerned about making its appointed rendezvous with a tugboat at 1400 hours, and which was late because there had been some additional discussion in the mess deck following lunch that perhaps ate into their time plan. And this resulted in too little time being spent finding the presence of other vessels.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Maybe you could tell us a little bit about a court of inquiry itself. Is it like a trial?

  • JAY FIDELL:

    No, it's an investigation. But it is the most… it's the highest-level investigation that is possible in the military service. It is the most formal level of investigation in the military service. It has lawyers for parties, lawyers for the members of the court. It has experts assigned to it. It is quite a tribunal, and this one is quite a tribunal. This is… this is one that we will remember for many years. It's a very high-level investigation.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    So testimony is taken under oath, a report is generated, and then some action recommended by this board?

  • JAY FIDELL:

    Exactly. Testimony is taken under oath. The proceedings are public unless there's a good reason not to have them public. This morning they're not public because the court is viewing the submarine and looking at a chamber, which will reconstruct what happened. They are going to go back in session this afternoon. It will be public again. The rules of evidence do not apply, and lots of information will come in, which is good. At the end of their taking of testimony and consideration of documents and charts that are being produced, they will make findings of fact, opinions, and recommendations. Among the recommendations will be whether the fault that they may find on the part of the commanding officer and other parties should result in court martial.

  • RAY SUAREZ:

    Jay Fidell joining us from Pearl Harbor, thanks a lot.

  • JAY FIDELL:

    Thank you, Ray.