Minding social graces on a nuclear submarine

What really happens when civilians enter the tight confines of a vessel of war? The Navy captain who wrote "Run Silent, Run Deep" gives his account.

Published February 23, 2001 12:00PM (EST)

Did the civilians aboard the USS Greeneville distract crew members and inadvertently cause the collision that killed nine people aboard Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru?

It seemed easy to draw that conclusion after the latest announcement from the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the accident. The agency revealed Wednesday afternoon that the Navy had notified its investigators that the submarine's fire control technician said he was unable to do his job because the control room had become overcrowded with civilians. That technician's job is to plot sonar data on a large paper chart used by the captain and crew members to make navigation decisions.

The revelation was no small matter, coming as it did after the Navy had revealed earlier in the week that the Greeneville had detected the Ehime Maru an hour before it accidentally sank the boat, which was carrying high school students.

As a result of the accident, President Bush has ordered a temporary suspension of civilian ride-alongs on submarines and other Navy vessels. And Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is expected to issue a moratorium on allowing civilians near the controls of any military vehicle. He is also expected to call for a review of safety procedures for carrying nonmilitary passengers.

Though critics have questioned the safety of the ride-alongs in the wake of the Feb. 9 accident, others remain supportive of the Navy's program, which they believe fosters better relationships with civilians, shedding light on the inner workings of our national defense while at the same time building public support for it.

Among those who support bringing civilians aboard Navy vessels is retired Capt. Ned Beach. A Navy legend, he served in the service for several decades, and his bestselling book "Run Silent, Run Deep," a classic novel about World War II submarine officers, has become an important part of the canon of naval literature. Hollywood liked the novel, too: In 1958, Clark Gable and Burt Lancaster starred in a silver-screen adaptation.

In a phone interview Thursday from his home in the Washington neighborhood of Georgetown, Beach defended the Navy's policy of allowing civilians on its nuclear submarines and proffered a new theory for the cause of the deadly accident.

Following the accident, many are questioning whether civilians should be taken on Navy submarine cruises. What are your thoughts about these trips?

I have no doubt that the business of taking civilians on a cruise does have an impact on the crew. It can't be avoided. Of course, the officers in charge do their best to instruct the crew on how to handle these people. By and large, they've been successful. This, however, is an example of where it apparently wasn't.

A submarine crew member has gone on the record saying that the civilians on the USS Greeneville kept him from doing his work in sonar plotting, which is essential to submarine navigation. Based on this information, what exactly do you think might have happened?

Chances are that this sonar man is a young guy, probably in his very early 20s. Here you've got a young kid who's trying to do his job, and he doesn't realize he's being blocked. He may feel it, but he doesn't do anything about it. You work around it. That happens 100 times a day for everybody. Here's a case where just out of the confluence of circumstances, it happened to come at just the right time and place for it to be, perhaps (we don't know that for sure), a contributing factor to the crash.

But here's another possibility that I haven't seen reported: The fishing boat has a sonar system that is built for the purpose of detecting schools of fish and determining where the fishermen should drop their hooks or nets. If this trawler were out with a bunch of young kids trying to find the fish, they might have misread the sonar and mistaken a submarine for a school of fish. It is conceivable that they wouldn't have realized that what they had actually detected was a submarine.

What I think they should investigate is what the log of the fishing boat shows. Did it change course in that period? It's conceivable that in putting up the periscope and looking around there was nobody heading toward [the submarine] -- everybody was quite far away and [there was] no sign of danger. However, how much time transpired between the last look through the periscope and the time the sub actually hit the trawler? My hunch is that it was on the order of 15 minutes. The Navy said maybe 10 minutes. This is critically important now.

One retired Navy officer I spoke to said he felt that 16 civilians on a submarine was an awfully large number, and that he hadn't seen groups that big in his day. What's your recollection from your time as a captain?

I remember taking a group of 50 out on a submarine, with as many as 165 crew members. They were not in the way, but they were a concern because I was trying to figure out how to deal with them and deal with the ship.

In fact, we were coming back into harbor and we were in a deep fog, and I had to slow way down. We were two hours late getting into port, which caused problems because we had women onboard whose husbands were waiting for them and they were concerned. I couldn't take the time to comfort them or go down to explain what was happening. I told my exec to go down and do that. I was trying to steer the ship back into harbor. We even had a near miss at one point, so it was a good thing I was there.

In my case, I felt that because I did what I felt I needed to do, I was being remiss in my social graces. What do you do? In the case of the Greeneville, it was a little more subtle, and it was conceivable that things were going on under the captain's nose without his awareness. Did he know that the sonar man was trying to plot but couldn't because someone was standing in his way? Did he know that the sonar man decided for whatever reason not to complain?

Is there a lot of pressure from top brass to bring civilians on Navy submarines? And would you feel that pressure as an officer?

Yes, I would. In my case, I volunteered to do it. They took up my proposal so fast that it became mandatory. I was a little bit taken aback by the way people jumped on the idea. That was on the USS Triton nuclear submarine in 1961. I couldn't have backed out of it after I suggested it.

The programs were institutionalized, but I believe they're still unofficial. I don't believe any submarine skipper would be ordered to take a crew out if he objected, and he would have to have a little bit of horsepower to object. If he said he didn't want to do it and when asked why said, "I'm afraid," then that wouldn't be a good answer. If he said, "Well, I can't do it because I'm doing this drill and that drill," then they'd cancel. He just has to make a good case.

What happened in this instance, as far as I can see, is that the Greeneville was a highly thought-of submarine. She was one of the top running submarines, so [retired Adm. Richard Macke] or someone in his name asked for the crowd to be taken out and the captain said sure. He probably didn't feel any pressure at that time, but he also realized it meant that he would have to get underway on a day that he otherwise wouldn't have had to.

How does someone go about requesting a trip on the Greeneville or any other submarine?

You would ask the highest guy you know in the Navy.

So it would require a connection of some sort?

Yes, and in this case [the connection] was Adm. Macke, who put their names into some system to which he has both access to and awareness of. Most people wouldn't know how to do it, but he obviously did. And he did fulfill all the rules, I'm sure.

Then it was known that the ship was going to be underway that day and other people could apply. So applications were made, and finally they said, "Let's go with these 16 people and that's all we should carry."

Should civilians be allowed to be at the controls of these submarines, as is alleged to have happened in the Greeneville accident?

Well, they weren't at the controls. They pretended that they were. My wife participated in exactly such an affair. She was aboard a submarine with Capt. Skage a number of years ago, and they put her in the main control station. Suddenly, to her surprise, the ship's announcer said, "Mrs. Beach is now surfacing the submarine." She didn't have the foggiest idea what she was doing. She sat there while these sailors took her hands and put their finger on her finger and pushed the buttons.

In effect, they did their thing as they always did. Of course, she was embarrassed a little bit, and she didn't want anyone to really think she was surfacing the submarine for fear of anything going wrong. That's the general reaction of the civilian, who just goes along with what he or she is told and hopes and thinks for sure they're not going to let anything go wrong -- as it was in this case until the sub hit something.

But it didn't hit it because a civilian was on the controls; they did everything the way they're supposed to, but just happened to have a ship there. You can't blame this on civilian control; that has nothing to do with it. Making a fuss over that is really a red herring.

If the NTSB determines that the accident happened in part because the sonar man was unable to do his job properly, do you think the Navy should permanently end its civilian cruise policy?

They're reevaluating it right now based on the accident. My guess is that the decision will be that they have to stop it -- simply because of the huge embarrassment that resulted in this case. As far as we can tell, that was not the cause of the accident. The only thing that's come out, so far, is the possibility that someone was standing in the way of this sailor getting to his plotting board.

If that's the case, then should the Navy eliminate its civilian ride-along programs -- or should it just implement stricter policies about when and where civilians can be on submarines?

Whenever there's an accident, somebody always tries to set up a rule to make it less likely the next time around. They say that every subway under the railroad tracks was paved by somebody's life. The question is this: Is it a good idea to take civilians out in submarines at all? And for that matter, what about taking them out on aircraft carriers?

Maybe the Navy ought to look at that. But the Navy's been doing this for many years -- as many as 50 or 60. It's all been well received and everyone has been pleased. The good of it is to show the Navy to the people. Of course, if a disaster happens, then you have to cope with it.

I would be unhappy to see the Navy greatly reduce the opportunity to take civilians out on cruises like this because of this one incident. But nine people lost their lives, and how do you take that into account? The monument to these nine lives may be to restrict the Navy's operational capability to do these things. That's what the Navy may have to do to pay for the accident.

By Daryl Lindsey

Daryl Lindsey is associate editor of Salon News and an Arthur Burns fellow. He currently lives in Berlin and writes for Salon and Die Welt.

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