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Other Views

By Gerald L. Coffee

Saturday, February 17, 2001

Media, Navy brass
earn black marks

IN seeking perspective on the tragic accidental sinking of the Japanese fishing vessel, the Ehime Maru, by the USS Greeneville last week, two issues need to be addressed: the press coverage, which has said more than enough, and the Navy's response, which has said too little about the submarine's commander and crew.

To the Star-Bulletin's credit, its Feb. 12 editorial endeavored to put the incident in perspective, saying that so long as we need an ever-ready military capability, training will be constant and accidents will be inevitable.

The editorial also pointed out that Japan and other Asian nations have been the beneficiaries of the political stability and freedom of the seas resulting from the presence of well-trained American military forces in that part of the world.

In fact, the editorial said, "The Navy routinely takes precautions to prevent such accidents. (There will be) an extensive investigation; it would be pointless to speculate on the cause until the facts are revealed."

Given this stance, why has your newspaper and the Honolulu Advertiser -- especially through the wording of headlines -- been major contributors to the media's speculative feeding frenzy?

Early reports implied the Greeneville's crew was derelict in not attempting an immediate rescue of the trawler's crew. Subsequent information confirmed that, under the specific circumstances, it would have endangered the survivors even more to try to take them aboard the submarine, especially when the arrival of appropriate rescue vehicles was eminent.

Then, a Feb. 14 Advertiser headline read, "2 civilians were at sub's controls." This sensationalized banner implied a grossly irregular situation existed aboard the submarine at the time of the accident when, of course, it has now been clarified that familiarization cruises for civilians during training exercises are common.

Sadly, this early implication that civilians "at the controls" could have been a cause factor has heightened the anger and anguish of the surviving crew members and the entire Japanese community where the Ehime Maru was homeported. Yet the fact that civilians were seated in control stations was most likely irrelevant to the accident.

Then there's the Star-Bulletin's Feb. 14 headline, "Navy may charge submarine skipper." The article contains virtually no basis for such an inflammatory and near libelous headline, only that any such charge (if ever made) would be determined by the commander of Submarine Group Nine in Bangor, Wash.

Now the distraught families of the lost crew and students refer to Greeneville's commander, Scott Waddle, as "the most terrible criminal of them all."

Another Feb. 14 Advertiser headline, "Navy withholds identity of civilians," implied that the Navy is perpetrating some cover up. The headline could just as well have read: "Navy honors civilian requests for anonymity." And why wouldn't these civilians request privacy? They know they will be hounded by the media.

Indeed, CNN (not surprisingly) and the Star-Bulletin (surprisingly) have both sought the roster of civilian guests through the Freedom of Information Act.

One prominent Star-Bulletin columnist even suggested we should feel shame because of this accident. Sorrow and sadness, of course. But shame?

The Star-Bulletin should behave with maturity and forgo instant gratification for the longer term benefit. In this case, the benefit is the truth.

A related issue, in light of the above headlines, is the deafening silence of the Navy brass in Waddle's immediate chain of command. Not one officer with stars has publicly expressed confidence in and support for Scott Waddle.

Waddle has an impeccable record and was often his superiors' choice to escort civilian VIPs through his boat and out to sea. Having spent a day with him and his crew while the Greeneville was at the pier, I can attest that his enthusiasm and professionalism were contagious.

And yet the silence is deafening. Loyalty goes both ways, up and down the chain of command. Ever since the highly politically charged Tailhook incident several years ago, too many senior naval officers have just rolled over rather than shown the guts to stick up for their people. A simple statement of confidence in his abilities and character should have come from one of Waddle's senior officers.

But no -- even in the face of unfair and inflammatory headlines and rumors casting doubt upon his integrity and performance -- only silence. Is it any wonder that mid-level officers are bailing out of the service at an extraordinary rate? Who would want the challenge of increasing responsibility when unexpected and sometimes unavoidable events will result in being hung out to dry, in spite of their best efforts. Today, political correctness or fear seems to preclude any support from up the chain of command.

As a 28-year naval officer, I'm truly sad that no matter the result of the investigation -- even if he's exonerated -- it's likely that Waddle's years of exemplary service will receive little account. And all prophecies of his career being over will be self-fulfilled. That will not only compound the tragedy of the Greeneville-Ehime Maru, but further undermine the concepts of trust and loyalty within our Navy.

Gerald L. Coffee, a retired Navy captain, survived
2,670 days as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam
and now is a motivational speaker based in Hawaii.

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