Twenty years ago on Feb. 9, 2001, the submarine USS Greeneville, longer than a football field, rocketed upward from a depth of 400 feet nine miles south of Diamond Head, its crew not aware it was on a collision course with a Japanese high school fishing training vessel, the Ehime Maru.
What came at 1:43 p.m. was unthinkable: The big sub smashed through the Japanese ship, with the Greeneville’s steel rudder — reinforced to punch through Arctic ice — slicing through the underbelly of the 190-foot Ehime Maru.
Twenty-six on board survived, but nine others — including four high school students — died. Never in U.S. history had a collision between a nuclear submarine and a civilian vessel killed so many people.
With the 20th anniversary approaching, the former commander of the Greeneville, retired Cmdr. Scott Waddle, who said he is “solely responsible for the accident,” wrote an eight-page “open letter to the families” of those who died in the Ehime Maru collision.
Waddle, now 61 and living in Cary, N.C., said the purpose of the note is to “apologize to the families who lost loved ones, apologize to those aboard the Ehime Maru who were injured,” and apologize to those who knew them.
The former submarine skipper has apologized to the families several times over since the collision, saying that he has “carried the shame, sorrow, burden and remorse every day since then and will do so until the day I die.”
He said he also “wanted to make it clear” that “I alone am solely responsible for the accident. The collision was avoidable and I failed in my duties as the captain to prevent it.”
Waddle said the letter is not intended “to solicit empathy or sympathy from the reader. The families of those that died and the survivors of the accident warrant that and not me.”
Waddle started out by listing those who perished:
Takeshi Mizuguchi, Yusuke Terata, Toshiya Sakashima and Katsuya Nomoto, all 17, were students at Uwajima Fisheries High School.
Jun Nakata, 33, and Hiroshi Makizawa, 37, were instructors.
Hirotaka Segawa, 60, was chief radioman, Toshimichi Furuya, 47, was chief engineman and Hiroshi Nishida, 49, was an engineman.
The Japan-America Society of Hawaii said this year’s Ehime Maru ceremony at Kakaako Waterfront Park, where a memorial is located, is canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings.
“Instead, a private wreath laying ceremony will be conducted by the Ehime Maru Memorial Association staff, which will be filmed and shared with the bereaved families, Ehime Prefecture and Uwajima City officials, Uwajima Fisheries High School as well as our local volunteer groups,” the nonprofit society said. “We ask that the public refrain from visiting the memorial site to comply with the City and County of Honolulu’s Emergency Order regarding gatherings.”
The Japan-America Society of Hawaii said it serves as the administrator of the Ehime Maru Memorial Association “and works to preserve the memory of the lives lost in this tragic accident, and to maintain the memorial in perpetuity.”
For the 10-year anniversary, more than 300 people came out, including families of seven of nine Ehime Maru crew members.
In his letter, Waddle noted that he was born in Japan at Misawa Air Force Base and is proud of that fact. At 27, he climbed Mount Fuji to “marvel at the splendor of the country where I was born.”
“The day nine Japanese mariners on the Ehime Maru died, part of me died with them,” he said. “I felt I had betrayed those that died and their families.”
Twenty years ago this Tuesday, the USS Greeneville was impressing 16 civilian guests south of Oahu with some of the capabilities of a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine.
On the surface, there was open-air time with the Greeneville’s gregarious, cigar-smoking captain, as the vessel powered through the waves.
Underwater there were steep ascents and descents — “angles and dangles” in Navy jargon, at one point reaching a classified depth below 800 feet — as well as high-speed turns.
And finally, there was the demonstration of an emergency main ballast tank blow, an action that forces 4,500 pounds per square inch of air into ballast tanks, causing the 6,900-ton submarine to breach the surface like a humpback whale.
Then came the collision. The Ehime Maru sank within 5 to 10 minutes.
In a book he wrote after the incident titled “The Right Thing,” Waddle recalled watching helplessly and in horror through the periscope as the stern of the Ehime Maru listed, the bow came out of the water, the ship stood vertical for a moment and then it disappeared beneath the waves.
As some crew members clambered into life rafts and others flailed wildly in the water, diesel fuel burning their eyes, Waddle said, he tried to maneuver the Greeneville closer, but the bobbing sub created huge swells that threatened to swamp the rafts.
“Know that my crew and I were not able to rescue survivors due to the rough seas that washed over the deck of my submarine along with the diesel fuel that floated on the ocean surface from the Ehime Maru’s ruptured fuel tanks,” Waddle said in his new letter. “From the bridge of my submarine, I decided not to help to avoid jeopardizing the safety of the survivors and that of my crew.”
The Greeneville was kept out all night partly as a public relations ploy intended to give the impression the sub was involved in search-and-rescue efforts, but in truth the seas were too rough to get anyone on or off that night, Waddle said in his book.
Waddle said in his book that he was fired Feb. 10, 2001, as captain of the Greeneville, and he saw “20 years of hard work” in the Navy slip away.
His own personal hell grew deeper and darker that night when he could not sleep and was reviewing the accident over and over in his head. He said he briefly considered using a ceremonial Russian officer’s dagger to kill his 13-year-old daughter, Ashley; his wife, Jill; and himself.
“It would be so easy to take that dagger, I thought, and go upstairs and put Ashley down and then take care of Jill, and then myself,” Waddle wrote in his book. “Then our family wouldn’t have to endure any more of this ugliness and pain.”
Two days after the collision, Waddle asked for a chance to meet with the families of those who died to offer an apology, he said in his new letter. Navy officials told him no, and said he “was the last person the families would want to see,” he related.
The first apology he gave was via a press release drafted by Navy and civilian attorneys.
“I questioned the word ‘regret’ instead of ‘apologize’ that was used in the release,” Waddle said, adding that, “In my heart, I knew it was wrong.”
He subsequently visited with the Japanese Consulate General, apologized “for the harm I had caused” and offered letters to each of the nine families, he said.
On March 9, 2001, during the Navy’s Court of Inquiry, Waddle said, he met with families for the first time and “bowed before them and apologized communicating with the assistance of an interpreter.”
Waddle was not tried at court-martial, but he was found guilty at an “admiral’s mast” of dereliction of duty and negligent hazarding of a vessel. He was allowed to retire with full benefits after 20 years in the Navy.
He was accused of cutting corners, marginalizing key crew members and rushing through procedures leading up to the sinking.
According to testimony from the Court of Inquiry convened after the collision, Waddle was a charismatic and professional naval officer who was “self-confident in his own abilities and quick to take advantage of opportunities to make his command, the Navy, and himself look good.”
Greeneville’s sole mission on Feb. 9, 2001, was to conduct the “distinguished visitor” trip for the 16 civilians — referred to by retired Navy Adm. Richard Macke as “high-rolling CEOs” — despite guidelines that submarines conduct the outings only during training.
Some of those visitors’ hands were on submarine controls during maneuvers, with crew member’s hands over theirs.
The Court of Inquiry found Waddle “inappropriately disposed” to entertaining the guests, while there was an “artificial urgency” created by the commander to complete the afternoon’s events with the sub running late for a 2 p.m. return to “Papa Hotel,” a rendezvous southeast of the entrance to Pearl Harbor.
The Court of Inquiry “was thorough and identified mistakes and errors that were made,” Waddle said in his new letter. “At the end of the day, it was my fault and mine alone. I am responsible and accountable for what happened and no one else.”
Onboard Navy submarines, those responsible for their safe operation and navigation of subs review the details of the accident once a year, he said.
“The past 20 years lessons from this accident have been taught throughout the Navy, all Navy warfare disciplines, submarine training schools, all phases of the submarine officer training and at the United States Naval Academy,” Waddle said.
The sinking was a public relations disaster for Waddle, the Navy and the United States. The events of that day commanded international news for months to come and led to permanent changes in how the U.S. submarine force trains.
President George W. Bush apologized on national television as Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori immediately requested that the sunken vessel be raised. The families of the dead bitterly criticized Waddle for his actions.
The Navy spent $60 million to recover the Ehime Maru and eight of nine missing crew, $11.47 million for compensation to Ehime prefecture, $16.5 million to compensate families and $2 million to repair the Greeneville.
Waddle remains involved in consulting, executive coaching and public speaking.
“I have shared the story of this accident and my failures/shortcomings to businesses and audiences around the globe,” he said in the letter.
He said he is committed to sharing the story not for personal gain but in the hope of preventing accidents like this from happening again.
“The message to the recipients is clear,” he said. “Mistakes and failure will happen. When they do, do what is right. Be accountable for your actions, tell the truth, atone to those you harm or hurt. Be a person of integrity, be accountable and be responsible for all that you do.”