On the morning of June 7, 1942, the USS Yorktown, an American aircraft carrier, sunk beneath the waves in the Pacific Ocean. The previous day, June 6, the big carrier had been struck by multiple bombs and torpedoes from attacking Japanese planes and a submarine in the Battle of Midway. The Yorktown had been damaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea, but had returned to Pearl Harbor, repaired in 48 hours, and then returned to battle. In the ensuing fight, the ship was hit with several bombs, but the crew managed to keep the fires suppressed long enough to keep the big carrier moving. Eventually, however, she was hit by torpedoes and began to list heavily. The Captain, Elliot Buckmaster, ordered the ship abandoned before it turned over and sank the following morning.
That was the last time an American carrier had been completely destroyed. That is, before a July 2020 fire on the USS Bonhomme Richard destroyed the carrier as it sat in port in San Diego. Fire crews were unable to put out a (supposedly) deliberately set fire onboard even after four days. The carrier might as well been sunk because it is damaged beyond repair, and it has since been towed to Texas and scrapped.
Investigators have said that a 20-year-old sailor named Ryan Sawyer Mays set the fire. Mays joined the Navy in 2019 and tried to complete SEAL training, but dropped out after five days. He was then reassigned to the Bonhomme Richard. There, he served with another young sailor, a female named Armelle Ane. The two have disputed accounts of what happened, but Mays told others that he was engaged to Ane and ended the relationship when she became pregnant by another man. Ane denies that she and Mays were engaged, or that she was pregnant. She has described Mays as “bipolar.”
The Navy alleges that Mays was in the area where the fire began and was motivated by a hatred of the Navy. They further state that Mays, or someone, had tampered with nearby fire equipment. Repeated efforts to put the fire out failed. The Navy, Marines, and San Diego Fire Department eventually were able to put the fire out, but the ship was declared a total loss a few months later. A $2 billion strategic ship is being taken apart because of a fire that occurred while at a pier.
It has often been observed in disasters that the cause is rarely one thing. The Titanic disaster was a series of decisions that, taken together, mandated disaster. The same can be said of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. In the case of Titanic and Challenger, however, nature played a substantial role. In the case of the Bonhomme Richard, only Mays played the part of a natural disaster; the rest of man-made. In a follow on report the Navy has determined that the fire could not be put out because of sheer, unmitigated incompetence on the part of its leadership. From their report:
Throughout the maintenance period, the material condition of the ship was significantly degraded, to include heat detection capability, communications equipment, shipboard firefighting systems, miscellaneous gear clutter, and combustible material accumulation. To illustrate the extent of degradation, on the morning of the fire, 87% of the ship’s fire stations remained in inactive equipment maintenance status.
So, while the ship was at the pier for a 19th month period of maintenance, they just took a long break and stopped keeping the firefighting gear up to snuff.
The training and readiness of Ship’s Force was marked by a pattern of failed drills, minimal crew participation, an absence of basic knowledge on firefighting in an industrial environment, and unfamiliarity on how to integrate supporting civilian firefighters. To illustrate this point, the crew had failed to meet the time standard for applying firefighting agent on the seat of the fire on 14 consecutive occasions leading up to 12 July 2020.
So, they had a fire drill schedule that was meant to keep firefighting skills up-to-date, but they didn’t keep to it. They should have, but simply didn’t.
Southwest Regional Maintenance Center (SWRMC) did not meet their requirements associated with fire safety and, in doing so, failed to communicate risk to leadership while facilitating unmitigated deviations from technical directives. Naval Base San Diego (NBSD) failed to ensure its civilian firefighters were familiar with Navy vessels on the installation, verify they were trained to respond to a shipboard fire, or effectively practice how to support Ship’s Force and simultaneously integrate responding mutual aid assets.
So, they had plans and back up plans but they didn’t follow them.
Further, everybody was in on not following directions.
Ineffective oversight by the cognizant Commanders across various organizations permitted their subordinates to take unmitigated risk in fire preparedness. A significant source of this problem was an absence of codification of the roles and responsibilities expected by each organization in their oversight execution.
The outcome is clear enough but includes this damning statement:
Common to all four focus areas was a lack of familiarity with key policies and requirements along with procedural non-compliance at all levels of command from the unit level to programmatic, policy, and resourcing decisions. An example of how these focus areas combined to result in unacceptable levels of risk is the status of the ship’s Aqueous Film Forming Foam sprinkling system. At no point in the firefighting effort was it used – in part because maintenance was not properly performed to keep it ready and in part because the crew lacked familiarity with capability and availability.
So, they paid good US tax dollars to install a firefighting system that spread foam, but they neither maintained it nor even knew how to use it, and so now the entire ship is lost.
It is the last part about the crew lacking familiarity with the capability or availability that catches the eye. A “lack of familiarity with capability and availability” is a particular kind of failing that is surely both cultural and pervasive. An unknown number of Navy officers put on those pretty uniforms and smiles as they went to dinner and strangers said “Thank you for your service” all while not performing their service and passing the buck. They were all informally in cahoots, and Ryan Mays called their bluff. By the time the fire was set, what would have made it possible to put out the fire out was lost. The “first responders” didn’t even know they had a foam-based fire suppression system, and so they didn’t use it. In contrast, the crew of the Yorktown kept the ship from burning to the water line while Japanese planes dropped bombs on them. They were able to stay afloat and abandon the burning ship in good order. The Bonhomme Richard fire could not be put out and it was in port.
And note: there were no women on the Yorktown. The focus was on winning and staying alive.
The term ‘Dark Ages’ has fallen out of academic use as the period of European history it was meant to convey has come under further scrutiny. It has been traditionally used to describe the period from the fall of the Roman Empire until the Renaissance. Both events are difficult to date exactly but the period could easily be described as the years between 476 when the last Roman Emperor was deposed in Rome, until 1400 when people began to rapidly increase their interest the arts and sciences, often by resurrecting knowledge from what was then called ‘antiquity’ which they meant to be the period of first Greek and then Roman greatness. The 900 years between was, for many in most parts of Europe, a period of chaos where the knowledge and stability that the empire provided was lost. Roman towns were abandoned, and the people who were left in them scavenged the stones and looted the structures, and then carried on in their primitive ways without the benefit of the Roman roads, aqueducts, or public works. Knowledge and know-how was ‘lost,’ order was abandoned, and afflictions and disasters were no longer abated by human wisdom and practice.
Or, to put it another way, fires were set, but no one knew any longer how to put them out.
Clearly, American civilization is now going backwards. Could we do the things our ancestors did not too long ago? I’m sure we wouldn’t build the Hoover Dam if it wasn’t there already, but could we? Could we get back to the moon in less than a decade, as President Kennedy challenged the nation in 1962? I’m not so sure.
Kennedy, by the way, stated this about going to the moon:
We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.John F Kennedy 1962
There are no calls to do anything in American culture that would “…organize and measure the best of our energies and skills…” We’ve allowed many of our great cities, such as Detroit, to fall into ruin. Along the way, we’ve developed such culturally telling slogans as “Shelter in place” and “Safety first.” Covid has put both the technical greatness still available and the cowardice that is prolific on full display. We developed a vaccine in record time to inoculate an unhealthy population cowering before the state and the virus.
Is our technologically advanced society falling before the decadence of the age? Are we forgetting the knowledge that keeps the lights on and the fires out? Throughout history, empires decay and fall when their purpose fails them and their habits degrade. A fire set by a sailor who dedicated himself to his social media image but not to his duty is bad enough. A fire that could not be put out because of a complete failure and lack of organizational discipline is another problem completely. The Navy may punish Ryan Mays, and they may replace the Bonhomme Richard, but will they remember to do the little things that make greatness? Will they do those things because they are hard so they can organize and measure the best of their energies and skills? History says they will not, and that darkness is falling on the US military.
There are always new fires being set and so the answer to these questions won’t be long in coming.
UPDATE: Ryan Mays was acquitted, so either he escaped justice or the Navy has a fire they can’t explain. Not good either way. Has the Navy also forgotten how to dole out punishment?
Not guilty: Sailor acquitted of arson in San Diego Navy ship fire