ABOARD THE USS NIMITZ — Half a world away from two deadly U.S. Navy accidents, sailors on America’s massive USS Nimitz aircraft carrier reflect on the shipmates they knew who are gone. Their commanders want to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen again.
The wrenching deaths of sailors, drowned this week while trapped in their bunks on the USS John S. McCain, have reverberated around the American fleet. The Navy has found the remains of two of 10 who were declared missing after the ship crashed into an oil tanker, and the search goes on for others in coastal waters off Singapore. Just in June, seven sailors died when another destroyer, the USS Fitzgerald, hit a container ship off Japan.
Out in the blazing Persian Gulf heat on the Nimitz’s flight deck, fighter jets line up to launch for surveillance, intelligence and bombing missions in Iraq and Syria. Up to 10 times a day, a wave of aircraft blasts into the sky to support the U.S. military’s fight against the Islamic State group in Raqqa, Syria, and Tal Afar, Iraq.
But those battle flights off the Nimitz will soon pause for a day.
Adm. John Richardson, the top U.S. Navy officer, has ordered that ships around the world stop and retrain, relearn and focus on proper procedures and safety precautions to prevent more collisions or mishaps.
“It’s important for all of us to take a knee,” said Rear Adm. Bill Byrne, commander of the carrier strike group that includes the Nimitz and six other ships in the Persian Gulf and surrounding region. “It makes all of us appropriately ask ourselves, ‘Are we ready if it happens to us?'”
In response to the McCain and Fitzgerald accidents, Richardson, who is chief of naval operations, removed the commander of the Navy’s 7th Fleet and ordered all ships to pause while they ensure safe operations. Among the questions they’re supposed to answer: Are sailors standing watch with vigilance? Are they communicating with commanders when problems arise? Are commanders responsive or asleep at the wheel?
There has been a renewed focus on even the simplest of things, Cdr. Dave Kurtz, executive officer of the USS Nimitz, said. These include asking sailors if they have a safe, rapid way out when they’re in their bunks, or if anything is blocking their path.
The Navy hasn’t said on what day the pause in operations will happen.
And the Nimitz is in a unique situation, conducting combat operations in two countries. A large ship like an aircraft carrier can’t simply be shut down for a day, so the pause will have to be planned and coordinated carefully.
“We have to find a way to do the pause,” Kurtz said. “It’s important to do it.”
Byrne said the entire air wing will try to do it all in one day. He said the wars make it difficult for the wing to just shut down operations, so the pause will have to be planned for a day when airstrikes aren’t needed from the carrier.
Visiting the Nimitz and another Navy ship this week, Gen. Joseph Votel, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, offered condolences for the lost shipmates. He called the incidents a “heavy reminder” of what comes with “service to our nation.”
On the USS Vella Gulf, Votel met one young man whose friend was among the missing in the McCain collision.
“It was very difficult for him,” said Votel, who returned to the U.S. this weekend after an 11-day trip through the Middle East and Afghanistan.
American troops, he added, must be “absorbing lessons learned, paying attention to what’s out there.”
Both of the recent Navy accidents are being reviewed. An initial investigation into the Fitzgerald collision found that poor seamanship and flaws in keeping watch contributed to the collision. The ship’s captain is being relieved of his command and other sailors have been punished. And Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the Navy’s 7th Fleet based in the Pacific, was relieved of duty “due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command.”
It appeared to be a message to commanders in the Pacific, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere.
“The thing that we try to emphasize with our folks is that you’ve got to be careful of complacency,” Votel said. “Complacency kills out there.”