Remembering the Ehime Maru
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on March 12, 2008 2:03 PM
MOUNT OLIVE -- Scott Waddle's career in the Navy went down with the Ehime Maru.
The nine who perished aboard that Japanese fishing vessel took a piece of the commander with them.
It was Feb. 9, 2001.
Until that day, Waddle was the captain of the USS Greenville, a submarine that had, as a result of his leadership, just been named the best in the Pacific Fleet.
"Life was good," he told those gathered for the Tuscarora Council's Friends of Scouting Kick-Off dinner Tuesday night in Mount Olive. "Life is always good for the captain."
He was respected.
He was valued.
He was trusted.
But that all changed when the nuclear submarine under his command surfaced.
They never even saw the boat floating above them.
"We were performing an emergency main ballast blow," Waddle said. "Our rudder cut a hole 30 feet long and three feet wide into that ship."
The crew inside the submarine were powerless to help those now stranded in the Pacific Ocean 10 miles off O'ahu.
So they waited for the Coast Guard.
When responders arrived an hour later, Waddle's "worst fears were realized" -- the Ehime Maru was on the ocean floor and survivors were fighting to stay alive.
"When the Coast Guard reported that 10 people were still missing, it was devastating to me. I prayed like I have never prayed in my life," he said. "Knowing that there were people still unaccounted for, my worst fears had been realized."
Well, not exactly.
It was not until the ship came to port, greeted by hundreds from the news media, that it really sank in.
Waddle's wife and daughter were waiting, too.
"I still had no idea how grave the situation was," he said. "But then, I find my daughter Ashley, at age 13, identifying the children who perished."
Four high school students were among the nine killed when the USS Greenville sunk the Ehime Maru.
"I didn't know what to do," Waddle said. "I didn't know where to turn."
Waddle told his story to the large group assembled inside Mount Olive College's Murphy Center Tuesday.
It was the Boy Scouts first big fundraiser of the year, bringing Scouts past and present and adding nearly $170,000 to the council's coffers.
Waddle, an Eagle Scout, came to talk about his mistake -- and doing the right thing.
"Before I left I picked up the general announcement system and told my crew, 'Remember what you saw. Remember what happened here and in the days that follow, tell the truth,'" he said. "That can be challenging for a young man. It could be challenging for anyone."
As it turns out, they were not just words.
Waddle later exemplified them.
He told an inquiry board that he alone was at fault for the tragedy.
It didn't matter that a lower ranking officer had noticed something 10 minutes before the wreck and stayed quiet.
"I am the captain. I am responsible," Waddle said. "Well, I am the former captain and was responsible."
His testimony cost him his career.
The once respected sailor was discharged from the Navy.
"My passion was with those sailors," he said. "My passion was with those young men I had helped mentor. They took all that away."
Waddle carries the images of that "fateful day" with him still.
But he came away from the incident clinging to something he will never let go of -- his honor.
So don't ask him if he would have done things differently at that hearing.
The captain goes down with the ship he will say.
Don't talk about the nine who died or the grieving families they left behind.
The former commander sees them every day.
The truth is, tragedies -- and mistakes -- happen, he said.
It is how you handle the aftermath that defines you.
"The incident, as tragic as it was, was completely unexpected. And it killed kids," Waddle said. "But given the chance to go back and do it all again, I would. Now, knowing what I know now, I would change a few things, but what we did that day I thought was safe. It turns out I was wrong."
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