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Water Ways

By Ray Pendleton

Saturday, February 17, 2001

Don’t blame civilians
for sub accident

THE headline in Thursday's Star-Bulletin declared: "Civilian pulled levers for ascent."

It was referring to one of the circumstances under scrutiny in the disastrous collision between nuclear-powered submarine USS Greeneville and Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru on Feb. 9. The impact resulted in the fishing boat's sinking. Nine passengers remain missing.

When I read the story, my stomach lurched, and memories of a special day some four years ago flooded my mind.

As I wrote about it in Water Ways then, it was one of the most memorable events in my life -- and as a retired firefighter, I think I've had more than my share.

About 20 Navy League members and I had the rare opportunity to take an offshore cruise aboard the USS Charlotte, which, like Greeneville, is one of the Navy's Los Angeles-class attack submarines.

We had boarded the sleek, football-field-long vessel in Pearl Harbor and, after being led below into its windowless hull, spent the better part of the day cruising above and below the surface of Oahu's offshore waters.

With no visual plane of reference, the only noticeable difference in being submerged was in the loss of the vessel's slight rolling motion.

Likewise, its forward motion and speed could only be detected by watching a knot meter.

Even though Charlotte measures 360 feet long, all of its various compartments had limited space, so our visitor party was broken up into smaller groups of five or six.

In the sonar compartment, where sophisticated sound identification is relied on to replace vision, no more than two of us were admitted at the same time.

There, we watched -- and listened in -- as crewmen, with the aid of oscilloscopes and computers, worked to identify anything making noise in the proximity of their vessel.

All ships make unique sound-signatures with their engines and propellers, they told us, so even individual ships can be recognized. And unlike the "pinging" of active sonar, passive listening doesn't give away the "Silent Service" sub's position.

There were only two times when we were allowed to get hands-on during our voyage. One was for a quick look through the periscope and another for a brief turn at the "Con" -- the airplane-like controls for the diving planes and rudder.

WITHOUT question, it was exciting to think I was actually steering a nuclear sub, but it was also reminiscent of going flying with a friend of mine. He might let me take the wheel, but his hand was right there making sure we maintained level flight.

Unlike the Greeneville's recent explosive, "emergency ballast blow" return to the surface, ours was slow and methodical. Nevertheless, it was very apparent that coming anywhere near the surface was the most dangerous part of our voyage.

To a man, the control room crew's demeanor quickly changed from a relaxed vigilance to intense attention to every aspect of safely surfacing their vessel. We visitors suddenly faded into the bulkhead.

Later that day, as we disembarked, I felt I had met some of the brightest and best personnel in the U.S. Navy. And my guess is the Greeneville's crew was no different.

Why the Ehime Maru wasn't identified, either visually or by the sub's sonar operators, we may never know. But there's one thing I feel sure of: the visitors aboard Greeneville did not play a significant role in that tragic collision.

Ray Pendleton is a free-lance writer based in Honolulu.
His column runs Saturdays in the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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