Weekend Reading: Fight the ship

Weekend Reading is a collation of 3-5 articles that have caught my attention, published on Saturday mornings. Previous editions can be found here.

Only one article this week instead of the usual list — partly because it is a very long read, but also because this is a Pulitzer-prize-winning piece of reporting that, I think, deserves to stand on its own. Writers T. Christian Miller, Megan Rose and Robert Faturechi report on the June 2017 collision between the USS Fitzgerald and a cargo ship three times its size in the South China Sea. It’s gripping stuff.

Part 1. Fight the Ship: Death and valor on a warship doomed by its own Navy (ProPublica)

Underneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean, 12 miles off the coast of Japan, the tidy world of Berthing 2 had come undone. Cramped bunk beds that sailors called coffin racks tilted at crazy angles. Beige metal footlockers bobbed through the water. Shoes, clothes, mattresses, even an exercise bicycle careered in the murk, blocking the narrow passageways of the sleeping compartment.

In the dim light of emergency lanterns, Vaughan glimpsed men leaping from their beds. Others fought through the flotsam to reach the exit ladder next to Vaughan’s bunk on the port side of the ship. Tens of thousands of gallons of seawater were flooding into the compartment from a gash that had ripped through the Fitzgerald’s steel hull like it was wrapping paper.

As a petty officer first class, these were his sailors, and in those first foggy seconds Vaughan realized they were in danger of drowning.

Part 2. Years of Warning, then Death and Disaster: How the Navy failed its sailors (ProPublica)

In the early 2000s, the Navy embarked on a quest for so-called efficiencies. Vern Clark, the Navy’s top military officer during much of the Bush era, brought an MBA to the job and pitched his cuts to the force using the jargon of corporate downsizing. Smaller crews were “optimal” crews. Relying on new technologies to do the work sailors once did was described as “capital-for-labor substitutions.”

The efficiencies even included eliminating a requirement for ship captains to post lookouts on both sides of ships, a cut that would later prove crucial when the Fitzgerald’s crew failed to see a fast-closing cargo ship until it was too late.

In an interview with ProPublica, Clark said these reforms were intended as experiments for a more streamlined and ready Navy and should have been regularly re-assessed.

“Only a nitwit of the highest order would continue down this path without seeing if it’s working,” he said.