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Tuesday, February 27, 2001

Sub accident
eerily similar to
1981 incident

Twenty years ago, a
U.S. submarine collided with
a Japanese freighter,
sinking it

By Gregg K. Kakesako

Bullet Similar to '81 crash
Bullet Culture demands apology
Bullet 'Titanic,' canceled
Bullet Local remembrance
Bullet Raising ship studied

The collision of a Navy submarine with a Japanese vessel that ended with the death of civilians. Protests by the Japanese government that the sub's crew did nothing to help. The career of a promising sub skipper ends abruptly.

That was 20 years ago.

The nuclear submarine was the USS George Washington, not the USS Greeneville .

The Washington, which was deactivated in 1985, was the Navy's first 560-foot Polaris ballistic missile submarine. The 360-foot Greeneville is the newest in the Navy's fleet of Los Angeles-class attack submarines. In both instances, the president -- Ronald Reagan in 1981 and George W. Bush in 2001 -- dispatched special envoys to Japan with letters of apology.

Two people died on April 9, 1981, when the Washington collided with the 2,350-ton freighter Nissho Maru. Thirteen others were rescued by a Japanese warship after drifting in rubber life rafts for 18 hours.

Earlier this month, 26 people had to be plucked from the sea when the 499-ton Japanese fishing training ship Ehime Maru was struck by the Greeneville nine miles south of Diamond Head. Nine people are still missing. The survivors were picked up by Coast Guard rescue vessels.

By August 1981 -- three months after the collision -- U.S. Ambassador Mike Mansfield delivered the final U.S. report on the Washington incident which said that "inadequate command supervision" and "extraordinary" coincidences led to the incident.

Cited as coincidences were bad weather, the closeness of the two vessels and the sub's preoccupation with its training mission.

Similar protests raised

The 1981 incident prompted strong official Japanese protest because the Washington left the scene without attempting to rescue the crew of the 3,500-ton Nissho Maru. The Washington did not report the incident until the following day after 13 surviving crew members were rescued by a Japanese destroyer.

Similar protests were raised by the families of the nine Ehime Maru crewmen and passengers who are still missing and presumed dead.

In the Greeneville accident, the sub's crew radioed the Coast Guard at 1:47 p.m. on Feb. 9 after ramming the Ehime Maru. The ship's crew said it was unable to attempt a rescue because the Greeneville's deck was awash with waves running six to eight feet and survivors would have had to be hauled by a ladder to the top of the Greeneville's sail.

In 1981, a one-man board of inquiry conducted the investigation into the Washington accident.

The Washington's captain, Cmdr. Robert Woehl, was relieved of his command, ending his Navy career. Another officer, Lt. R.D. Hampton, officer of the deck, was given a punitive letter of reprimand and reassigned for failing to maintain an adequate periscope watch. Three other crew members were disciplined with nonpunitive letters of caution.

Woehl was 41 and a 20-year Navy veteran when the accident occurred.

A formal Navy Court of Inquiry -- the service's highest administrative investigative board -- will meet in a Pearl Harbor courtroom March 5 to determine the fate of three of the Greeneville's officers: Cmdr. Scott Waddle, the ship's captain; Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Pfeifer, its executive officer and No. 2 in command; and Lt. (j.g.) Michael Coen, who was acting as officer of the deck when the collision occurred.

Waddle is also 41 and entered the Navy after graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1981.

In the Washington accident, the Navy quickly settled with the Japanese shipping company and paid $374,000 to the family of Capt. Taizo Noguchi, who drowned. Eleven days after the collision, the Navy assumed financial liability and initiated action to work out the Japanese claims.

Settlements were paid

Also receiving another $374,000 was the family of Sumio Matsunoge, the Nissho Maru's first mate, who was the other victim. The United States then agreed to pay an average of $27,000 to each of the 13 survivors of the freighter. Another $2 million claim was filed by the owner of the freighter.

The Nissho Maru, with a crew of 15, had left Kobe and was bound for Shanghai carrying a cargo of 1,200 tons of cotton.

The Washington was preparing for a special liberty call in South Korea.

Press reports note that about 110 miles south of Sasebo, the Washington came to periscope depth in the rain and fog-shrouded East China Sea. The sail of the 6,800-ton ballistic missile sub hit the freighter.

In the report, the Washington surfaced, saw no signs of distress, then submerged and left the area without attempting to rescue the survivors, believing the freighter had survived the impact. The Washington did not report the incident until the following day.

Sub didn't know about hole

What the crew of the Washington did not know at the time was that the submarine's sail had ripped a 3-foot hole in the Nissho Maru's hull. Water was pouring into the engine room. In 20 minutes it had slipped below the surface.

Twenty years later, the USS Greeneville, with 16 civilians as guests, pulled out of Pearl Harbor at 8 a.m. for what was to be only a day cruise designed to give civilians an idea of what a submarine can do.

An hour later, the 190-foot Ehime Maru, part of a fleet of Japanese fishing boats used by 48 public and private Japanese high school vocational marine education programs, departed from Pier 9 at the Aloha Tower.

The Ehime Maru had left Uwajima Fisheries High School, 420 miles southwest of Tokyo, on Jan. 10. With a passenger manifest of 13 second-year high school students and their two teachers, the Ehime Maru arrived in Honolulu Feb. 6 for four days of shopping and recreation.

When it left Honolulu Harbor on Feb. 9 -- a day ahead of schedule -- the Ehime Maru's immediate plan was to fish in an area 200 miles southwest of Oahu before returning home.

Civilians at the controls

Shortly after 1 p.m., as the Greeneville prepared to return to Pearl Harbor, Waddle decided to demonstrate for the civilians how a sub can quickly rise to the surface in an emergency. Visibility was said to be about five miles with moderate seas just off of Diamond Head.

Waddle allowed at least two of the 16 civilians -- all of whom were allowed to observe the operations from the confines of the sub's crowded control center -- to be at key watch stations.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsefeld has said the civilians were not the cause of the accident. But a sub's crew member did tell the National Transportation Safety Board the civilians were a distraction.

After both Waddle and Coen searched the surface for vessels by periscope, Waddle ordered a main emergency main ballast blow, which took the Greeneville from 400 feet to the surface in minutes with the velocity of a torpedo, cutting into the hull of the Ehime Maru.

Most of the Ehime Maru's crew of 35 were below deck, having just completed a noon meal.

Within minutes, the Ehime Maru sank to the ocean bottom, 2,003 feet down. Four 17-year-old students, two teachers and three crewmen are still missing.

The fate of Waddle and other crew members of the Greeneville now rests with a panel of three admirals who could recommend a court-martial.

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