Asia Pacific

U.S. Navy drops criminal charges against USS Fitzgerald officers in case of 2017 fatal collision

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

The U.S. Navy said Wednesday that it will drop charges against two former USS Fitzgerald officers accused of criminal negligence in the warship’s deadly 2017 collision south of Tokyo Bay.

Former Fitzgerald commanding officer Cmdr. Bryce Benson and the destroyer’s former tactical action officer Lt. Natalie Combs will instead receive secretarial letters of censure from Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, the navy said in a statement. The two were previously dismissed from their jobs and received nonjudicial punishments, the navy said.

Benson and Combs had been charged with dereliction in the performance of duties through negligence resulting in death and improper hazarding of a vessel.

The June 17, 2017, collision with the ACX Crystal, a massive container ship, left seven sailors dead, and heavily damaged the ship, which at the time had been homeported at the U.S. Navy base in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture.

That collision was followed just over two months later by the second such incident, this one involving the Fitzgerald’s sister ship, the USS John S. McCain, and another container ship off the coast of Singapore and Malaysia. The McCain collision resulted in the deaths of 10 sailors and saw the commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet at the time, Vice Admiral Joseph Aucoin, relieved of his position.

Official post-collision reports have pointed to a culture of negligence, exhausted crews and a lack of training and communication as factors in the collisions, according to the navy.

In its statement Wednesday, the navy said the “comprehensive program” to improve readiness and training to ensure that accidents like the Fitzgerald and McCain will not recur “remains on track.”

“The Navy continues to strive to achieve and maintain a climate of operational excellence,” it said.

But a recent media investigation into the nighttime collision of the vessel, reportedly heading toward a secret mission in the disputed South China Sea, revealed several warning signs leading up to the tragic accident.

ProPublica, a nonprofit media outlet that produces investigative journalism, published a series of reports in February on the collision that revealed multiple troubling mistakes made by navy leaders — some of which were previously undisclosed — as well as courageous actions and heartbreaking choices by the ship’s crew.

GET THE BEST OF THE JAPAN TIMES
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5