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Was skipper given bad info?

PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii — When it convenes a court of inquiry Monday into the deadly collision between a U.S. submarine and a Japanese fishing trawler, the Navy hopes to determine what kind of momentary disregard of official procedure caused the sub's captain and crew to make such a tragic miscalculation.

Was the Greeneville's commanding officer, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, given incorrect information from a sonar-tending sailor about the location of the trawler Ehime Maru? And, if so, how could that happen?

Should Waddle have taken more periscope sightings before ordering the emergency maneuver that sent the sub rocketing to the surface, smashing and sinking the trawler? Did Waddle and officer of the deck Lt. j.g. Michael Coen fail to extend the periscope high enough to compensate for choppy swells?

And what kind of commanding officer was the 41-year-old Texan with a 20-year unblemished record?

From the answers to these questions, three admirals will decide whether Waddle, Coen and the sub's executive officer, Lt. Cmdr. Gerald Pfeifer, should face criminal charges for the Feb. 9 incident.

Four commercial fishing students, two teachers and three crewmen of the Ehime Maru are missing and presumed dead. Coast Guard Lt. Christina De Leon said Friday night that no more ships would be sent out to look for them, pending further developments.

The students' school, Uwajima Fisheries High School, and local government officials in Japan said they had no comment on the Coast Guard's decision.

Playing out in the glare of international news coverage, the court of inquiry will be a humiliating experience for the Navy and its highly decorated submarine service.

The court will hear testimony about the paradox of being the commanding officer of a U.S. submarine, one of the most prized and competitively sought jobs in the Navy.

No commanding officer of a surface ship works in such close proximity to the ship's crew as the submarine's commander, whose every mood, comment, decision or moment of indecision is known almost instantly to all aboard.

And yet no surface commander is as removed from the rest of the fleet and from upper echelons' guidance as the submarine skipper.

"Unlike the surface commander, the sub captain is forced to work face to face with his entire crew," said historian Norman Friedman, an expert on U.S. submarines. "But even with that closeness, the captain is alone. He can't look out the window like a surface commander and see friendly ships everywhere or communicate quickly with the fleet commanders."

Waddle's background is typical of modern sub commanders: Naval Academy degree in chemistry, advanced training at "nuke school," tours as an electrical officer, engineering officer and executive officer on several subs and shore duty on the staff of the Pacific Fleet commander and on the nuclear propulsion examining board.

For two years as CO of the Greeneville, he was considered one of the Navy's top commanders, a good bet to make captain and, with luck and hard work, possibly admiral.

On a surface ship, a commanding officer — who spends much of his time on the bridge — can be a remote presence to most sailors, working through layers of subordinates. But in a submarine, which has a control room but no bridge, the CO's personality "permeates the entire boat," Friedman said.

To generalize, surface commanders are taught to delegate authority but sub commanders are trained to have a mania for details, to be "wanderers" through their boat.

With crews of about 125, it is possible for a sub skipper to know virtually all of his men — compared with a surface commander who might have hundreds, even thousands, of sailors on his ship.

On a surface ship, areas commonly are marked as "officer's country," where enlisted sailors are forbidden. On a submarine, officers have their own wardroom and sleeping quarters, but there is not the sense of sharp division between the ranks.

Peter Padfield, in his 1995 book "War Beneath the Sea" — an authoritative examination of submarine warfare in World War II — noted that, "In every navy, the submarine service is a club apart with a particular "esprit de corps," attracting the nonconformist seeking escape from the hierarchy and apple-polishing of a big-ship navy in peacetime."

In the U.S. Navy, all submariners are volunteers. The submarine also is the last all-male vessel in the Navy.

Submariners get higher pay, better food and faster promotions than other sailors. There is also a Hollywood-enhanced glamour to submarine duty.

Romance aside, submariners also endure long weeks of deployment without seeing the sun or feeling a breeze. Given security concerns, foreign port calls are more limited than for many surface ships.

Surface ships also generally deploy in groups. Submarines deploy alone.

For a commanding officer, nearly every decision is made with imperfect information. Sonar does not have the clarity of radar and needs careful interpretation by computers and senior enlisted personnel. At no time is sonar information more vital than during surfacing.

The average commanding officer has 18 years' service before getting his own boat. The U.S. Navy requires sub skippers to have extensive training and experience in engineering and nuclear propulsion.

In 1999, with Waddle as CO, the Greeneville completed a risky practice maneuver off Hawaii — in conjunction with the Japanese maritime force — in which a "downed" sub was rescued off the ocean floor. It is unclear what mention will be made of that success when the court of inquiry reviews Waddle's career and his role in the Feb. 9 disaster.

"There isn't a submariner in the world who doesn't feel sympathy for him," said retired British submarine Capt. Richard Sharpe, editor of Jane's Fighting Ships. "You give an order based on the information you have, and it all goes bad. It's every submarine commander's nightmare."