Navy Seeks to Prosecute Top Officers for Crashes

The damaged guided-missile destroyer the Fitzgerald off the coast of Japan in June after it collided with a Philippine-registered container ship.

WASHINGTON — The commanding officers of two Naval destroyers that collided with commercial vessels in the western Pacific last year, killing a total of 17 American sailors, will face court-martial charges that could include negligent homicide, the Navy said on Tuesday.

After the collisions, the commanding officers, Cmdr. Bryce Benson of the Fitzgerald, and Cmdr. Alfredo J. Sanchez of the John S. McCain, along with their second-in-commands, were relieved of their duties. In October, the Navy began looking into further disciplinary actions.

Adm. Frank Caldwell, one of the lead officers assigned to the investigation, determined that the charges could include dereliction of duty, hazarding a vessel and negligent homicide, the Navy said in a statement.

In the coming weeks, the two commanding officers and three other sailors aboard the Fitzgerald will most likely be charged during a hearing that determines whether they will be taken to trial in a court-martial. If found guilty, they could face jail time.

The announcement of a hearing and of court-martial charges “is not intended to and does not reflect a determination of guilt or innocence related to any offenses,” the statement said.

Credit...Us Navy, via Reuters

A chief petty officer from the John S. McCain has already been referred to court-martial on suspicion of dereliction of duty; eight other crew members, four from each ship, face administrative actions.

Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin, the head of the Seventh Fleet, the Navy’s largest overseas, and other senior officers were also relieved last year after the collisions.

In November, the Navy released reports about the June 17 collision between the Fitzgerald and a commercial ship that killed seven sailors off Japan and the Aug. 21 collision between the John S. McCain and another commercial vessel that left 10 dead near Singapore.

The Navy concluded that both collisions resulted from a chain of errors, missed warnings and poor training.

“The collisions were avoidable,” Adm. John M. Richardson, the chief of naval operations, said in a summary of the reports, released in November.

Admiral Richardson and the secretary of the Navy, Richard V. Spencer, are set to appear in front of two subcommittees of the House Armed Services on Thursday, focusing extensively on naval operations.

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