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Tears — and questions — on the ramming of USS Fitzgerald

One night too long ago to mention, I lay in my bunk aboard the destroyer USS Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. watching condensation bead up on the hull and realizing suddenly that there was scarcely a half-inch of steel between me and the ocean.

At age 19, it was my first intimation of mortality.

But while that half-inch didn’t seem like a lot, it was a fact of life in the Navy’s so-called tin-can fleet. Destroyers, then and now, are light, fast and maneuverable, but not particularly good at absorbing punishment.

Destroyer crews understand this and practice incessantly at damage control — the art of defending the ship in the face of the most appalling challenges.

So whatever else happened last Friday, 50-some miles at sea off the Japanese coast, the damage–control parties of USS Fitzgerald seem to have gotten it right. The brass called them heroes over the weekend, and I’m not going to argue.

Fitzgerald, at 8,900 tons, was struck directly in its forward starboard quarter by a massive container-cargo freighter, the 29,000-ton ACX Crystal, at about 2:30 a.m. Some two-thirds of the crew would’ve been off-duty, presumably sleeping, when the impact occurred, causing substantial hull damage and massive flooding. Seven sailors died.

It’s far too early to draw even speculative conclusions about the collision, but the question is inescapable: How could a nimble warship like Fitzgerald allow herself to be run down by a lumbering, cargo-container laden freighter?

Several things stand out.

  • The collision occurred in an extremely busy shipping lane — some 400 ships per day pass through it — so Fitzgerald should have been on heightened alert.
  •  No matter the formal rules of the road, as a practical matter a 29,000-ton freighter always has the right-of-way so far as a thin-skinned destroyer is concerned.
  •  Presumably the freighter was equipped with a transponder, and should have been squawking its position, speed and other relevant data automatically; Fitzgerald…

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