The U.S. Navy opened a formal inquiry on Monday into the ramming of a Japanese trawler
by a nuclear sub
marine, trying to answer questions about an accident that killed nine people and marred America’s relationship with Japan. The navy’s Court of Inquiry could also lead to a court martial for three or more officers of the USS Greeneville who will be asked to explain how they failed to notice the 190-ft. (58-m) fishing boat before surfacing off Diamond Head near Honolulu. The fast-attack sub is equipped with state-of-the-art sonar, and published reports have said the Greeneville’s crew was aware of a ship in the vicinity before surfacing.
The Greeneville was practicing emergency maneuvers on Feb. 9 when it shot out of the water and plowed into the Ehime Maru, sinking the trawler
-- which was packed with Japanese high school students. Nine people were killed and 26 people on board the vessel were rescued.
The tragedy sparked a furor in Japan that intensified after Navy officials disclosed that 16 civilians were on board the Greeneville at the time of the collision. Two were operating the submarine’s controls.
Hundreds of reporters, many of them Japanese, were expected to crowd a courtroom and an overflow area at Pearl Harbor -- site of the Dec. 7, 1941, sneak attack by Japan that brought America into World War II.
Some analysts think the Court of Inquiry will be key to restoring good relations between the United States and Japan. The hard feelings have yet to fully mend despite apologies by President George W. Bush and his envoys.
The Japanese were expected to closely monitor the court of inquiry and accommodations were being made in the courtroom for families of the dead, who include four teen-agers from Uwajima Fisheries High School.
The incident has so upset that nation that Japanese television stations have canceled broadcasts of the movies “Godzilla” -- in which the monster attacks fishing boats -- and “Titanic” to avoid further traumatizing viewers.
The accident has prompted U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to temporarily ban civilians from the controls of all military equipment until lingering questions about the Greeneville incident are resolved.
Three of the Greeneville’s senior officers -- the submarine’s captain, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Pfeifer and Lt. Michael Coen -- have been named as subjects of the inquiry, which the Navy has repeatedly stressed is a search for the truth and not a criminal prosecution.
Ambassador Shunji Yanai, Japan’s envoy to the United States, said on Monday that Waddle had not adequately apologized for the accident, and asked for a formal apology.
“He expressed his apologies in front of the Japanese officials in Hawaii. But what we need is that he -- he will explain thoroughly what ... really happened,” said Yanai on CBS “The Early Show.”
The ambassador also pressed for the fishing boat to be raised from the ocean floor.
“Nine people are still missing, and they (are) supposed to be caught in the, still caught in the, the vessel. So we have to raise the ship in order to recover the remains,” he said.
But the hearing, which is expected to last several weeks, could end with a recommendation of discipline against the three men, ranging from a letter of reprimand to court martial.
That recommendation will be considered by Adm. Thomas Fargo, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet
. Navy officials have said that other officers could be held accountable as the hearing wears on.
Also expected to face tough scrutiny are an enlisted man who reportedly detected the Ehime Maru on sonar and failed to warn his superior officers and Capt. Bob Brandhuber, the chief of staff for the Pacific Submarine Forces, who was hosting the civilian guests.
Brandhuber ranks above the three officers named so far in the inquiry. Waddle, 41, will likely give his first public accounting of the tragedy, after declining to speak to investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board. He will be defended by civilian attorney Charles Gittins, who specializes in military cases and who previously defended U.S. Navy Cmdr. Robert Stumf at a court of inquiry into the U.S. Navy Tailhook scandal. — (Reuters)