There is a story I once heard about Frederick II, called “the Great”, of Prussia. According to the story in the midst of battle Frederick, who unlike many military commanders rode at the head of his army, and while wearing a uniform without identifying insignia, rested in a haystack. Next to him in the haystack was a sergeant. As they got to talking the sergeant proposed a game. He asked Frederick if he could guess his rank. “Private?” said Frederick. “Higher yet” replied the sergeant. “Corporal”. “Higher yet” replied the sergeant. “Sergeant?” “That’s it” said the sergeant, satisfied. Frederick then asked the sergeant to guess his rank. “Corporal?” “Higher yet”. “Sergeant?” “Higher yet”. “Lieutenant?” “Captain?” “Major?” “Higher yet”. “General?” “Higher yet”. The sergeant began to tremble. “Your Excellency is, a, a, Field Marshall?” “Higher yet”. The sergeant threw himself to the ground. “Your majesty! Forgive me! I did not recognize you”.
You may recall that back in 2017 there was a collision between the guided-missile destroyer Fitzgerald and a private vessel off the coast of Japan that took the lives of seven sailors. At the time I suggested a greater lapse of discipline. Well, the report has leaked out and it confirms what had concerned me about the story. From the Navy Times:
Obtained by Navy Times, the “dual-purpose investigation” was overseen by Rear Adm. Brian Fort and completed 11 days after the June 17, 2017 tragedy.
It was kept secret from the public in part because it was designed to prep the Navy for potential lawsuits in the aftermath of the accident.
Unsparingly, Fort and his team of investigators outlined critical lapses by bridge watchstanders on the night of the collision with the Philippine-flagged container vessel ACX Crystal in a bustling maritime corridor off the coast of Japan.
Their report documents the routine, almost casual, violations of standing orders on a Fitz bridge that often lacked skippers and executive officers, even during potentially dangerous voyages at night through busy waterways.
The probe exposes how personal distrust led the officer of the deck, Lt. j.g. Sarah Coppock, to avoid communicating with the destroyer’s electronic nerve center — the combat information center, or CIC — while the Fitzgerald tried to cross a shipping superhighway.
When Fort walked into the trash-strewn CIC in the wake of the disaster, he was hit with the acrid smell of urine. He saw kettlebells on the floor and bottles filled with pee. Some radar controls didn’t work and he soon discovered crew members who didn’t know how to use them anyway.
Fort found a Voyage Management System that generated more “trouble calls” than any other key piece of electronic navigational equipment. Designed to help watchstanders navigate without paper charts, the VMS station in the skipper’s quarters was broken so sailors cannibalized it for parts to help keep the rickety system working.
Since 2015, the Fitz had lacked a quartermaster chief petty officer, a crucial leader who helps safely navigate a warship and trains its sailors — a shortcoming known to both the destroyer’s squadron and Navy officials in the United States, Fort wrote.
Fort determined that Fitz’s crew was plagued by low morale; overseen by a dysfunctional chiefs mess; and dogged by a bruising tempo of operations in the Japan-based 7th Fleet that left exhausted sailors with little time to train or complete critical certifications.
To Fort, they also appeared to be led by officers who appeared indifferent to potentially life-saving lessons that should’ve been learned from other near-misses at sea, including a similar incident near Sasebo, Japan that occurred only five weeks before the ACX Crystal collision, Fort wrote.
LtJG Coppock has already been found guilty of dereliction of duty. The trials of the commanding officer and the officer responsible for the operations room of the Fitzgerald are still pending.
My reaction on reading this story was “higher yet”.