USS John McCain crew rated it 'below average' before deadly collision

By James LaPorta
Damage to the portside is visible as the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain steers toward Changi Naval Base, Singapore, on August 21 following a collision with the merchant vessel. File Photo by MC2 Joshua Fulton/U.S. Navy
1 of 5 | Damage to the portside is visible as the guided-missile destroyer USS John S. McCain steers toward Changi Naval Base, Singapore, on August 21 following a collision with the merchant vessel. File Photo by MC2 Joshua Fulton/U.S. Navy | License Photo

Dec. 29 (UPI) -- Crewmembers serving aboard the USS John S. McCain were overworked, unprepared and unhappy in the year leading up to its collision with a merchant vessel in the Pacific that killed 10 Navy sailors, according to a report obtained by UPI.

In a 163-page report detailing the results of a mandatory climate survey aboard the Navy destroyer, its 142 crew members rated 17 of 18 major categories "below service average." The survey, conducted July 21, 2016 -- 13 months before the Aug. 21, 2017 crash -- included questions on exhaustion, job satisfaction, organizational effectiveness and leadership prowess.


Meanwhile, a Government Accountability Office report requested by Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., shows the McCain -- and the USS Fitzgerald, which was also involved in a deadly crash in the Pacific over the summer -- had several expired certifications for weapons and guidance systems.


Seven sailors died aboard the Fitzgerald, when it collided with a container ship off Japan on June 17. The McCain ran into a merchant ship east of the Straits of Malacca and Singapore. The Navy concluded both accidents were "avoidable" and caused by multiple human errors. Crew fatigue was a factor in the Fitzgerald crash. The two top commanders on both vessels were relieved of duty.

The new reports outline the depth of some of the known problems on board the ships in the months leading up to the collisions.

A spokeswoman declined to comment on the specifics of the climate survey or the GAO report, but said the Navy is working to prevent future accidents.

"Through the Operational Pause, Comprehensive Review, Strategic Readiness Review and the immediate actions taken in the Pacific Fleet, the Navy is making substantive changes to prevent the tragic events of this summer from happening again," Lt. Marycate Walsh said.

Exhausted at sea

In the survey, 110 of the 142 sailors aboard the McCain gave unfavorable responses when asked if they felt "mentally worn out." Additionally, 98 reported feeling "physically worn out" and 97 felt "emotionally worn out."

In September, the GAO said some sailors were working 100 hours a week.


"Under the current criteria they actually expect the sailors to actually work 81 hours -- 70 hours on-duty and the 11 hours for the other things," John Pendleton, director of defense capabilities and management at GAO, said in a Sept. 19 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.

Officials have said the long hours are the result of a drawdown of sailors in the Navy, leaving an increased workload for a smaller force.

Onboard leadership, morale

In the survey, the McCain's crew were narrowly split in its assessment of onboard leadership, with more than 50 percent reporting that their leaders work well together, communicate efficiently and are consistent in enforcing policies.

More than 49 percent, however, gave unfavorable responses.

Questions on job satisfaction, organizational performance and trust in leadership produced a similarly split response.

One of the biggest separations surrounded organizational cohesion. On the question of whether "members trust each other," 79 of 142 crewmembers gave unfavorable answers.

More than 95 crewmembers, however, gave a favorable response for support of fellow service members in order to "get the job done," in addition to working as a team and "members looking out for each other's welfare."

Overall, the poll on organizational cohesion was almost 62 percent favorable and 38 percent unfavorable.


More than half, 55 percent, responded unfavorably to the statement "most days I am enthusiastic about my work." Thirty-four percent said they don't like their jobs.

Processes and preparedness

McCain crewmembers were divided over several issues when it came to evaluating organizational processes. When asked if "relevant job information is shared among members," 77, or 53 percent, gave favorable remarks, while 66, or 46 percent, had unfavorable ratings.

The Navy's probe of the crash found that the "McCain's commanding officer disregarded recommendations from his executive officer, navigator and senior watch officer to set sea and anchor watch teams in a timely fashion to ensure the safe and effective operation of the ship."

Seventy-six crew members in the survey replied favorably when asked whether "decisions are made after reviewing relevant information." Sixty-six crewmembers, or 46 percent, gave unfavorable replies.

The GAO found the McCain and the Fitzgerald to have several expired training certifications and lapsed requirements -- some for more than two years.

Seven of the McCain's 22 certifications were expired as of June 26, 2017, and the McCain's strike warfare-naval surface fire support and strike warfare-cruise missile tactical certifications had been expired for more than two years.

On the Fitzgerald, 15 of the 22 required certifications within the same timeframe as the McCain, had lapsed. The ship's strike warfare support certification was a month short of being expired for two years in June, while its cruise missile tactical qualification had been expired for 11 months.


"Lapsed certifications are a problem being addressed," Walsh said. "While the investigation did not specifically note lapsed certifications as a causal factor for the collisions, we have recognized that they are a problem and have made changes to address that problem. The Navy is, and has been since the collisions occurred, taking actions to improve our readiness."

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