Accountability in the U.S. Navy: “So That Others May Learn”

The U.S. Navy has an oft-repeated line that “with responsibility goes authority and with them both goes accountability.”[1] To some, it is more than just a line and has the feel of doctrine, canon, or even dogma. “A Tradition Older” provided some background on a Wall Street Journal article by Vermont Royster who attributed it, at the time, to a possibly centuries old naval tradition. In naval circles, Royster’s article expressed a doctrine of accountability that remains part of the modern Charge of Command—a contract between each commanding officer and the Chief of Naval Operations.

In interpreting Royster’s writings, one must also recognize that, in a career spanning three decades, Royster wrote and published thousands of editorial columns. Military personnel are notoriously reticent to write or speak in public about the service, generally leaving veteran commentators a wide-open field.

Vermont Royster served in the United States Navy during World War II, commanding patrol boats on the East Coast and a destroyer in the Pacific. After the war’s end, he resumed his pre-war career as a journalist and was the editor for The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page from 1958 to 1971, writing a weekly column on that page until 1986. There, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize twice, in 1953 and 1984. In 1986 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom with a citation that read, in part, “His common sense exploded the pretensions of ‘expert opinion,’ and his compelling eloquence warned of the evils of society loosed from its moorings in faith. The voice of the American people can be heard in his prose—honest, open, proud, and free.”[2]

Vermont C. Royster (North Carolina Office of Archives and History)

Vermont C. Royster (North Carolina Office of Archives and History)

Clearly, he was no one-hit wonder; his commentary on the Wasp-Hobson collision was neither his only writing nor his only commentary on accountability. “Hobson’s Choice” might be his most well-known piece, but all of Royster’s writings must be seen in their proper context: the United States Navy and the United States, particularly the processes and culture of his time rather than our own. American society and its Navy are much changed from the Navy Royster understood. His ideas of accountability lived in a different time, with a different expectation—one to which we might consider returning.

Much has been made of the U.S. Navy’s string of accidents in 2017, but if 2017 was bad, then 1968 and 1969 were catastrophic by comparison. Explosions aboard USS Enterprise killed 27 men; the nuclear submarine Scorpion sank with 99 men while on her shakedown cruise; and there were major fires aboard USS King (4 dead), USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (7 dead), and USS Oriskany (44 dead.)[3] In June 1969, the collision between a Royal Australian Navy aircraft carrier and U.S. Navy destroyer claimed 74 lives, creating an international incident with an important ally during the Cold War and Vietnam War. The incident caused trouble at home as an Associated Press article quoted unnamed U.S. Navy officers alleging destroyers were supposed to avoid carriers, and a congressman opined that the Secretary of Defense should take action against the Navy for the string of recent issues.[4] To make matters worse, in July 1969 Esquire included a three-page story headlined “Esquire's Official Court of Inquiry into the Present State of the United States Navy” and detailing sixty-seven incidents or accidents between July 1965 and March 1969.[5]

Embedded within this time period was the capture of USS Pueblo by North Korean forces without a single shot fired in defense of the ship. One sailor died in the attack, and North Korea held the crew for almost a year before repatriating them, while keeping the ship. When the crew returned in December 1968, the Navy convened a court of inquiry—the common and appropriate method to determine accountability in “serious or significant events” including the loss of a ship.

The court of inquiry recommended a court-martial for Pueblo's commanding officer, Commander Lloyd M. Bucher. On January 30, 1969, Royster opined on the case. He related how a colleague faced a Board of Inquiry after losing his ship to a kamikaze during World War II. Royster also told of his own experience with “the long green board” after his patrol boat smashed into the Miami harbor causeway. Royster made the point that in each case the commanding officers were called to account for their actions. According to Royster, this calling to account, via an official inquiry, is something “no one then thought it strange, that those entrusted with the ships and lives should at least give an accounting of what happened and why.”[6]

Black smoke rises from the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in the aftermath of a fire that occurred while she was underway conducting air operations near Hawaii on 14 January 1969. (U.S. Navy Photo/Wikimedia)

According to Royster, Pueblo was “a cocklebur ship,” and “public indignation...[was] hardly surprising; how what happened happened [sic] is something to get indignant about.” At the time, however, many called out against even the existence of the court:

Many newspapers, and quite a few Congressmen, have denounced the Navy for calling the Board and subjecting Commander Bucher to the ordeal of recounting what happened. One newspaper has called it a "drum head" court; another speaks of the "cruelty" of asking the captain to relive his agony. There was an especial furor when Commander Bucher was told that he need not testify since he might be later court-martialed for losing his ship; this, so runs the allegation, was nefarious because it damned him without trial. One Congressman has likened the inquiry to a crucifixion, and several newspaper stories have implied that it wouldn't happening if Commander Bucher were a Naval Academy graduate instead of a "mustang," an officer up from the ranks.[7]

Rather, Royster praises the Navy for the public inquiry, for how else might the country—the very citizens the Navy serves—have learned what happened on January 23, 1968, or the following eleven months? Without the public inquiry the American people would never have learned how “misjudgments in higher places...sent an ill-prepared ship on an impossible mission.”[8]

Now, as in Royster’s time, there are many who think that what’s done is done and seeking an account of what happened when, what someone knew, and when it was known doesn’t matter. Royster presciently wrote:

What, indeed, could be a greater cruelty to this captain than to have left him with the onus of having surrendered his ship, of having made false confessions against his country, with no public place to tell us why, so that we can give him the compassion which is, his due? Yet however that may be, there is another thing. Whatever, in the end, our judgments of this captain and the admirals who sent him to this ordeal, it is right to ask what happened. When men accept responsibility they should also accept accountability for what they do with it.[9]

As in 1952, Royster saw a country moving away from holding government accountable, where many wanted to let what was done be done:

Everywhere, that is, except on the sea. There, since time immemorial admirals, commanders and lowly lieutenants have been asked to account for what they did. Not necessarily to be blamed, for the accounting can absolve as well as condemn; but simply to say, "This is what I did and why" so that others may judge, and perhaps learn. It may seem cruel, this tradition of asking good and well-intentioned men to account for their deeds. But what ought truly to be lamented is that it is a tradition so little honored elsewhere.[10]

In the last eight years, U.S. Navy ships were involved in almost 20 collisions and a half dozen groundings. In no case was a public hearing or inquiry held. In most of them, the investigations were classified as “dual-purpose investigations” conducted in anticipation of litigation. This classification also exempts the investigations from mandatory release under the Freedom of Information Act. At least one retired officer, Captain John Cordle, believes an investigation he conducted between USS Porter and an oil tanker might have prevented the later collision between USS Fitzgerald and ACX Crystal that claimed seven lives.

Navy regulations provide a process for investigating incidents of all sorts—from petty theft to the loss of a ship. For simpler issues, a commander can order a single officer investigation wherein facts are gathered, presented to the commander, and the matter disposed of. These administrative investigations are just that, administrative. They are not judicial, though the recommendations may include options for criminal charges. For administrative investigations, a “preponderance of the evidence” or a “more likely than not” finding by the investigator is sufficient to establish fact.[11] Administrative investigations vary in format but usually include a preliminary statement, findings of fact, opinions, and recommendations. The preliminary statement provides a summation of the investigation’s results, the nature of the investigation, and any difficulties the investigator encountered.

For a major incident—defined in the U.S. Navy’s Manual of the Judge Advocate General as “an extraordinary incident...resulting in multiple deaths, substantial property loss, or substantial harm to the environment, where the circumstances suggest a significant departure from the expected level of professionalism, leadership, judgment, communication, state of material readiness, or other relevant standard”—the Navy’s regulations require convening of a formal Court of Inquiry or Board of Inquiry.[12]

A Court of Inquiry has at least three commissioned officers and appointed legal counsel. The court uses hearings to obtain information; individuals under suspicion of misconduct are designated as parties to the court and granted specific rights, including legal counsel. The court may also order military personnel to appear and testify and may issue subpoenas to civilian witnesses. The Board of Inquiry differs from the court only in that it may not subpoena civilian witnesses, but may compel naval personnel to appear and testify. These procedures date to at least 1937, were in place for Bucher and Pueblo, and they are the processes Royster experienced and wrote about. However, since 1969, the implementation and execution of courts and boards are radically different. In fact, despite almost two dozen collisions, significant groundings, and a series of shore-based incidents leading to multiple deaths, in the last two decades the Navy has convened only one court of inquiry.

Ehime Maru, a Japanese fishing high school training ship that was sunk by the U.S. submarine USS Greenville. (Wikimedia)

The 2001 incident in which USS Greenville surfaced into the Japanese fishing vessel Ehime Maru is illustrative of the change. This international incident in U.S. waters provided multiple paths for assessment of culpability and accountability. However, Admiral Thomas Fargo, the Pacific Fleet Commander, chose an internal Navy process and convened a Court of Inquiry. In its report, the Court commented on the choice saying:

Given the circumstances of this incident, the decision to convene a Court of Inquiry was both necessary and appropriate...It is clear, however, that a Court of Inquiry should not be convened without full appreciation for its significant procedural and substantive requirements. The decision to convene a Court of Inquiry requires a careful balancing of all circumstances. Once committed, this form of investigative body requires investment of significant resources and time.[13]

Why has the U.S. Navy changed how it handles these major incidents? It has done so because courts and boards are notoriously fickle things. Three officers, with autonomy, might see things differently than a single officer. Also, the recommendations from a formal inquiry, especially a public one, are difficult to alter as they travel up the chain of command. If the court of inquiry finds no fault against a commanding officer, that finding is likely to stand, but if a single officer investigation finds no fault any step in the chain of command can, and has, interpreted facts, intents, and outcomes differently. Worse, the single officer investigation is invariably ordered, led, and approved by an officer within the chain of command for the incident. Even the most honorable officer could be hard pressed to show professional disinterest and even-handedness if faced with self-incrimination.

These are inferred reasons. Consider the comment from the report on Greeneville and Ehime Maru: “...[a court of inquiry] requires investment of significant resources and time.” Greeneville collided with Ehime Maru on February 9, 2001. The court convened on March 5, adjourned on March 20th, and submitted its report on April 20, 2001—a total of 70 days. When Royster wrote “Hobson’s Choice” about the collision between the USS Wasp and Hobson, the process included a Court of Inquiry and took 39 days from collision to report. The collision in 1969 between Melbourne and Frank E. Evans, requiring a joint U.S. and Australian board, only took 46 days.

Administrative investigations are not invariably faster. When USS Cole was attacked in Yemen, the investigative process took 48 days. A 2005 collision between two destroyers was finished in 25 days. A 2013 helicopter accident that claimed two pilot’s lives was completed in 61 days. Is faster always better? Is it even, truly, faster?

Cole was attacked on October 10, 2000. The investigation received its final endorsement on January 9, 2001 and the U.S. Navy recommended no action against its commander, Kirk Lippold. Largely because of the less formal nature of the investigation, Lippold’s case drug on through Congress until 2006, when the Navy formally withdrew his nomination for promotion.

The 2013 helicopter crash also ended without formal or judicial action against the ship’s commander, Jana Vavasseur, in part because she’d already completed her tour when the investigation received its final endorsement on March 17, 2014, a full 145 days after the incident and three months after the investigation began its climb up the chain of command.

While the investigators did not fault Vavasseur, the final endorser disagreed, and in his 40-page written summation said she:

...contributed to the loss of life, loss of an aircraft, and damage to the ship. While conducting flight operations, she maneuvered at flank speed and did not fully assess the environmental factors. She unnecessarily assumed increased risk during the helicopter evolution, which was unwarranted given the operational circumstance...When viewed in isolation, at every moment, [Commander] Vavasseur's maneuvering was within the envelope…but I expect more from my Commanding Officers than simply the ability to stay within the written operating parameters. I expect Commanding Officers to exercise independent thought and sound judgment.[14]

This opinion, contrary to the original investigators and five other endorsing officers, caused the U.S. Navy to both remove Vavasseur’s name from the Captain promotion list and vacate her selection for a second afloat command.

The Navy of 1952, in which the phrase “Hobson’s Choice” originated and belongs, is not the Navy of 2019. When Vermont Royster wrote of accounting, he wrote of the formal and public system of courts and boards. Today he would likely write much as he did in 1969 and call for a public accounting of the continuing aftermath of the U.S. Navy’s terrible summer of 2017. In just the last three months, Navy leadership was chastised for exerting unlawful command influence in the case, the court-martial of Commander Bryce Benson is in question of proceeding because of improper actions by the convening authority, investigative journalists at ProPublica have run three long-form reports, and hearings into current and future operations and readiness were dominated by commentary and questions over incidents that occurred over 600 days ago and have consumed Navy resources throughout that entire time.

Fifty years ago, Vermont Royster wrote that “it may seem cruel, this tradition of asking good and well-intentioned men to account for their deeds.” [15] This accounting should not stop with the commanders at sea, but should also go to actions ashore, including how incidents like this are handled, and learned from. ProPublica and Congress are making a valiant effort. It is in the interest of national security that they succeed. One wonders what might have been had the U.S. Navy followed its own rules. Ideally, with a proper accounting, we would not wonder, but know.

Michael Junge is an officer in the U.S. Navy currently teaching Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Naval War College. He is the author of Crimes of Command in the United States Navy: 1945-2015, a review of post-World War II naval accountability. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: USS Pueblo Court of Inquiry Opening, 20 January 1969 (


[1] “Hobson's Choice.” The Wall Street Journal, 14 May 1952, p. 10.

[2] Desert Sun, Number 241, 13 May 1986 available at

[3] Jo Stevenson, In the Wake: The True Story of the Melbourne-Evans Collision, Conspiracy and Cover-up (Alexandria: Hale & Iremonger, 1999). 10.

[4] Louise Esola, American Boys: The True Story of the Lost 74 of the Vietnam War (Hillcrest Publishing Group, 2014) 244.

[5] "Esquire's Official Court of Inquiry into the Present State of the United States Navy," Esquire, July 1969. 84-6.

[6] Vermont Royster, “Thinking Things Over.” The Wall Street Journal, January 30, 1969, 10.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] United States Navy, Office of the Judge Advocate General. Manual of the Judge Advocate General (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of the Navy, Office of the Judge Advocate General, 2012). 2-13.

[12] United States Navy, Office of the Judge Advocate General. Manual of the Judge Advocate General (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of the Navy, Office of the Judge Advocate General, 2012). A-2-a to A-2-b.

[13] United States, Department of the Navy, Commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, Court of Inquiry Into The Circumstances Surrounding The Collision Between USS Greeneville (SSN 772) And Japanese M/V Ehime Maru That Occurred Off The Coast Of Oahu, Hawaii On 9 February 2001 (Washington, DC, 1954). 6.

[14] United States, Department of the Navy, United States Pacific Fleet, Command Investigation into the Circumstances Surrounding a Class Alpha Mishap Involving HSC-6 MH-60B Aircraft, BUNO 167985, Which Occurred at N 22° 34’ 18" E 037° 25' 29" Resulting in the Deaths of LCDR Landon L. Jones, USN and CWO3 Jonathan S. Gibson, USN on 22 Sep 2013 (Pearl Harbor, HI, 2014). 37-40.

[15] Vermont Royster, “Thinking Things Over.” The Wall Street Journal, January 30, 1969, 10.