Like many submariners I was somewhat struck by the title of James Dunnigan's Strategy Page piece on the USS San Francisco (USS San Francisco Heroes and Villians(sic)
). For those who do not know, Mr. Dunnigan is a legendary wargame designiner and the founder of SPI. As such I doubt his intent was to insult anybody, but I still took the liberty of sending him the following e-mail:
Dear Mr. Dunnigan,
While it is an honor to address one whose work (most notably Patrol, Sniper, Mech War ’77 and Foxbat & Phantom) has given me so many hours of enjoyment, I regret that this contact has been precipitated by my contention with elements of your recent Strategy Page article "USS San Francisco Heroes and Villians(sic)".
In this article you allude to "leaks" that the crewmembers awarded non-judicial punishment (NJP) "could have detected the approaching sea mount and taken evasive action if they had followed proper procedures." While I am not privy to the source of the referenced leaks, I find a more accurate conclusion based upon the reports published in Navy Times and other papers is that the crewmembers punished failed to perform duties that may have either routed the ship away from the navigation hazard or may have provided sufficient grounds to warrant greater caution in operations. The first is important, as the most preferable way to avoid an accident such as this is to avoid navigating through the potentially hazardous waters in the first place. The second is important since there is no way to say for sure the grounding could have been avoided, but it is almost certain that had it occurred at a lower bell the loss of life and damage to equipment would not have been as great.
I also feel your assessment of the choice of NJP over Courts Martial is in error. While the decision to charge a service member under Article 15 (NJP) may be driven by a lack of sufficient admissible evidence to successfully prosecute, my experience is that it is usually based upon an assessment of the apparent severity of the offense and an absence of willful malice. For example, had any of the charged members seemed to have actively contributed to the accident (by knowingly withholding key information or intentionally hazarding the vessel) I have no doubt the matter would have been referred to Courts Martial vice NJP.
Further to your observations on NJP, both assessments that "[t]he non-judicial punishment hurts, but does not destroy, the career of a submariner" and that the Navy’s difficulty in "recruiting qualified people for this kind of work" played a roll in the punishments handed down. While junior enlisted members often do weather NJP with relatively little impact on their future careers, the actions taken against the Chief Petty Officer (removal of Navy Enlisted Classification code) and officers (Letter of Reprimand) are coffin nails in the truest sense. While the Chief likely has sufficient time in to continue to serve to full retirement, I would wager a paycheck he will never again be promoted. Neither officer has any viable future in the Navy. And while the Navy indeed is concerned with recruiting, training and nurturing qualified submariners, it has never been prone to coddle or otherwise enable those who demonstrate their incompatibility with the rigors of the service. Just ask any of the multitude removed from nuclear power duties every year for "demonstrated unreliability."
Finally, my greatest discomfort comes from what I feel to be a particularly poor choice of words and most likely stems more from professional pride than any real slight. I refer, as you may have guessed, to your chosen title. The implied characterization of the members charged at Article 15 proceedings as "villains" is completely inaccurate and underserved. While the characterization of an individual such as Sgt. Hasan Akbar, who killed two sleeping officers with a grenade in Iraq, as a "villain" can be understood, this word seems unduly harsh when attributed to those whose "crimes" appear to be more of omission than commission. This may seem trivial to some, but you are speaking of service members who, for the most part, are still part of a crew that performed probably one of the most extraordinary acts of seamanship in recent history. This crew has worked hard and suffered greatly and mischaracterizing these crewmembers denigrates the amazing work done to return the ship to port with the loss of only one soul. They collectively deserve more.