A Captain's Story

For many years, Naval Academy graduates who wanted to sail in submarines had to endure an interview with Adm. Hyman Rickover, the arbitrary, irascible father of the nuclear Navy. Rickover liked to torment his would-be charges with trick questions. Demanding total devotion to the job, Rickover once told an applicant to phone his fiancee, right there, and call off the wedding. When the man gulped and picked up the phone, Rickover snarled that he would never take a "spineless a--hole" into his program and terminated the interview. Yet if Scott Waddle, Annapolis class of '81, was intimidated when he entered the admiral's austere office for his turn, he didn't show it. After a few questions about chemistry, Rickover noted that as a cheerleader for the Academy football team, Midshipman Waddle should do something to demonstrate his enthusiasm for the submarine service. Waddle jumped up and, at full volume, began to perform an acrobatic cheer. Admiring Waddle's panache, Rickover signed him up.

Promoted to captain of a fast-attack submarine, Commander Waddle went on to become a great cheerleader for America's undersea fleet. But his performance as a sub skipper has been under attack since his ship, the USS Greeneville, sank a Japanese fishing vessel off Pearl Harbor on Feb. 9, killing five adults and four teenagers. Waddle has shown a worthy sense of responsibility, tearfully apologizing to family members of the lost Japanese fishermen. He willingly testified last week at the Navy's formal inquiry into the accident, despite the risk that his words could be used against him at a court-martial. He may be the unluckiest sub captain in the world, and he was without doubt let down by his crew. Still, after 33 witnesses and 12 days of hearings, it was hard to escape the conclusion that Waddle focused too much on entertaining a group of 16 "Distinguished Visitors" onboard that day--and not enough on running a tight ship. A NEWSWEEK reconstruction of Waddle's career and his final cruise on the Greeneville suggests that many of the qualities that made Waddle a star in the modern Navy--his eagerness to please, his charm, his PR savvy--contributed to the tragedy.

When he left the Naval Academy for the submarine service 20 years ago, Waddle seemed out of place. The son of an Air Force colonel, he had a fighter jock's cool (though not the perfect eyesight required for aviation duty). "Navy people would always say that he had a pilot's personality," Waddle's wife, Jill, told NEWSWEEK. "They were always amazed when they found out Scott was assigned to submarines." In the nuclear Navy, submariners were regarded as geeks --secretive, bland and obsessed with mechanical minutiae. But the end of the cold war brought a need for a different type, officers with polished "people skills" that could be used to convince a doubting public that the Navy still needed multibillion-dollar submarines. As an up-and-coming officer, Waddle drew the attention of Rear Adm. Al Konetzni, the commander of the Pacific Fleet's sub force, known as "Big Al the Sailor's Pal" for his dedication to his seamen.

Blond, ruddy, with a big smile and a commanding presence, Waddle seemed to step right out of a recruiting poster. "Scott would just go up to people in the street and invite them to come out and see his ship," recalled Connie Los, president of the Navy League, a citizens' booster group in Santa Barbara, Calif. "He would read the local newspaper, and whenever he saw that a student had made the honor roll, he would send an autographed picture of the ship," said his wife, "and he would tell the student that if he or she kept up their good grades, they could someday become the captain of their own ship." With Waddle in command, the Greeneville was loaned by the Navy to the Travel Channel for a documentary on the prowess of America's submarine fleet.

Waddle was a passionate supporter of the Navy's Distinguished Visitors program, which brings influential civilians aboard ship for short cruises in the hope that they will talk up the experience to their friends--and write their congressmen. Waddle was eager to take out the group of 16 civilians who signed up for a one-day cruise out of Pearl Harbor on Feb. 9. The trip had been set up by a retired commander of the Pacific Fleet, Adm. Richard Macke. Waddle's lawyer, Charles Gittins, hinted heavily that Macke, who works for a defense contractor, may have had some financial interest in promoting a junket by a group of Texas oilmen. Gittins characterized the Navy's DV program as "an admirals' protective organization." But no evidence of impropriety has surfaced, and Macke denies self-interested motives. In any case, Waddle needed little persuading to shove off with a boatload of civilian DVs. His only regret was that Admiral Konetzni had bowed out at the last minute. Deprived of the chance to show off--as both sailor and salesman--to his boss, Waddle told an aide that he was "bummed."

The Greeneville sallied forth from Pearl Harbor shortly after 8 a.m. and was expected home at about 3 p.m. Preoccupied with entertaining his visitors, Waddle allowed the brief cruise to fall behind schedule. He smoked a cigar and swapped Texas tales with some guests. An officer gently nudged him to bring the group below, but Waddle replied, "I'm not finished with my story yet." A three-course lunch dragged on; Waddle later admitted he had been "long-winded." Afterward, the captain retired briefly to his stateroom to autograph pictures.

Then it was showtime: the skipper sent the Greeneville diving deep and running fast. The visitors had already been given small glass bottles, affixed with the ship's logo and filled with seawater taken from the depths. (The fact that the exact depth was recorded on the bottles was the source of considerable consternation among the admirals presiding over the Navy inquiry last week. The depth an attack sub can reach is supposed to be classified, not a "coffee table" memento, one brass hat grumbled.) A couple of DVs were allowed to crawl into a torpedo tube and write their names in greasepaint. They were informed that "one of the Kennedys" and James Cameron, director of the movie "Titanic," had been granted similar privileges.

The average day in a sub beneath the waves can be monotonous--"about as exciting as watching the grass grow," Waddle later testified. To liven things up--and sharpen the crew--the captain treated the visitors to some roller-coaster maneuvers known as "angles and dangles," sharp turns and steep dives that made the sub fishtail and buck. The climax was an "emergency blow," a sudden surge up from the depths. A captain is supposed to carefully check the surface of the sea before beginning a maneuver that cannot be stopped. Though Waddle denied that he was in a hurry to return to port, other witnesses reported that he cut some corners. He prodded the officer of the deck, Lt. (j.g.) Michael Coen, who was known for being plodding and methodical, to bring the sub to periscope depth within five minutes. Meanwhile, the crew was listening for the sounds of approaching ships on the Greeneville's sophisticated sonar equipment. In his testimony, Waddle complained that some of the men standing watch had not "met my standards," prompting Vice Adm. John Nathman, the presiding officer, to interject, "Captain, it was your boat!"

As the sub rose to periscope depth, an experienced petty officer, Patrick Seacrest, was supposed to keep the captain and the officer of the deck informed of the location of any surface ships. Seacrest plotted a sonar contact, which he labeled Sierra 13, at 15,000 yards. Sierra 13 was, in fact, the Ehime Maru, with its crew of 35 Japanese fishermen and students. But Seacrest became distracted by another sonar contact, and did not notice Sierra 13 again until it had closed to within 4,000 yards. By his own admission, he failed to alert Waddle or another officer. At first Seacrest told investigators that the civilians crowded into the control room got in the way. But asked by an admiral if he had "got lazy," Seacrest replied, "A little bit, sir." Waddle and Lieutenant Coen, meanwhile, were making sweeps of the horizon with the periscope. The procedure is supposed to take three minutes. Waddle and Coen took half that time. They failed to see the Ehime Maru, possibly because of the ocean swells and haze, possibly because the narrow profile of the bow of a white ship against a white sky was easy to miss. Jill Waddle would later tearfully tell a reporter that her husband had relived looking through that periscope again and again, wondering how he could have failed to see the oncoming vessel. But at the time the captain exclaimed, "I have a good feeling for the contact picture," i.e., the coast looked clear. On his sonar monitors, Seacrest could see Sierra 13 closing in. But, like most of the Greeneville's crew, he revered his captain and deferred to his judgment. He erroneously recorded Sierra 13's sonar contact as 9,000 yards away.

Capt. Robert Brandhuber, Admiral Konetzni's chief of staff, was onboard the Greeneville that day, watching Waddle perform. He was generally impressed, he later testified; the senior officer revised an earlier estimate that Waddle was "more show than go." Waddle was known as a flashy commander. At one point, Konetzni testified, he had taken his protege aside and warned him to be a little more formal and deliberate with the crew. As Brandhuber observed Waddle bring the sub to the surface, he was bothered, he later stated, that Waddle seemed to be rushing a bit. Still, afraid of embarrassing the captain in front of civilian guests, Brandhuber chose to say nothing.

Rocketing to the surface, the 360-foot-long Greeneville suddenly shuddered. According to Susan Nolan, one of the visitors, Waddle turned pale. "Jesus, what the hell was that?" he exclaimed. The video monitor on the periscope soon revealed the appalling sight of the broken and sinking fishing vessel. Jack Clary, a visiting sportswriter sitting in the helmsman's seat, was pushed aside by a pair of crewmen. Waddle quietly but firmly ordered the civilians out of the conning tower.

Rescuing anyone from the sinking Ehime Maru was a hopeless exercise. In the rolling swells, the massive, rounded hull of the sub would have crushed any swimmer who had drawn too close. Yet to the terrified, shocked Japanese floating in rafts and swimming in the oil-slick waters, it seemed that the crew of the American sub was doing nothing more than watching them through binoculars. "We didn't see or hear anything from the submarine," Yousuke Iketani, 17, told NEWSWEEK. Some of the survivors panicked. As they bobbed in their tiny rafts looking at the nearby behemoth, some feared that the Americans would try to kill them to cover up their blunder. "I was shivering, the wind was strong and I was so scared," said Daisuke Shinotou, 17. "We thought they would come back and finish us off. Nobody was trying to rescue us." The first Coast Guard boats did not arrive for 40 minutes.

In the torpedo room of the Greeneville, where the DVs had been banished, there was stunned silence. A crew member dashed in to ask if anyone spoke "Chinese." A moment later he returned and asked if anyone spoke Japanese. No one did.

Haggard and grief-stricken, Commander Waddle appeared a few hours later in the officers' wardroom to apologize to his guests. He probably already knew his career was finished. (Waddle could conceivably be sent to jail for dereliction of duty. The DV program, however, will likely continue, with some restrictions.) "This was supposed to be fun," he said mournfully to the civilians, who had been impressed by Waddle's steadiness after the disaster. They had heard him over the sub's PA system, calming the crew and urging them to follow their training and do their duty. "Remember what you saw, remember what happened, do not embellish," he instructed. "Tell the truth and maintain your dignity." And yet with the civilian visitors he was unable to turn off the PR machine. Despite the tragedy that had just unfolded, Waddle did not neglect his duties as host, handing an autographed photo of the Greeneville to each DV. The photos will become keepsakes, but perhaps not in the way that Scott Waddle imagined.