Monday, February 19, 2001

Civilians at controls scary idea

        Civilians belong on submarines. Put them at the controls. Let them touch everything. Just make sure they're in a sub like the USS Cincinnati.

        That's a decommissioned sub. It can't dive. It can't surface. It can't sink ships.

        Unlike the USS Greeneville, it can't send a Japanese fishing trawler to the bottom of the ocean off Hawaii.

        Nine victims of that Feb. 9 collision, all from the trawler, remain missing. Among the nine are six civilians, four Japanese high school students studying commercial fishing and two teachers.

        The Greeneville — from the same class of attack subs as the Cincinnati — held 16 civilians. Fourteen were contributors to a battleship memorial fund.

        One civilian manned the helm while another pulled the lever that caused the sub to surge to the surface and slice into the fishing boat.

        Last week, two of the 16 civilians — two oilmen — told of their submarine experience on the Today show.

        Their description of this nightmare and their presence on the sub made me worry about who's running the ship at the U.S. Navy.

        Precious lives are at stake. So are hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars.

        Letting contributors with deep pockets push buttons on subs is not only dangerous, it's embarrassingly tacky. It makes the world's most powerful floating fighting force resemble a fantasy baseball camp.

Don't worry
               Joe Jaap tried to put my worries to rest.

        The Navy veteran turned Cincinnati lawyer served on warships and submarines. He's spearheading a drive to bring the USS Cincinnati to its namesake city and turn it into a riverfront museum.

        The attorney hopes to put 350,000 civilians a year into the mothballed submarine. He also sees nothing wrong with putting them on active Navy vessels.

        “Happens all the time,” he told me. “The Navy does such things for public relations purposes.” He mentioned politicians going on ships, community and business leaders, journalists, too.

        Fine, just let them look and not touch.

Within reason
               Joe Jaap said civilians can push buttons. “But seasoned seamen must be looking over their shoulders.

        “It's like putting your 6-year-old son on your lap as you drive your riding lawn mower,” he added. “You're not going to let him drive right into a tree.”

        True. But, even with qualified sailors standing by, the sub hit the trawler.

        Still trying to calm my fears, he called the tragedy “an unfortunate series of factors that went wrong.”

        Sonar might not have detected the trawler, he said, because layers of warm and cold ocean water can throw off the device.

        As the sub surfaced, “it went through a dead zone where you go up blind. For one or two minutes, you pray you don't hit anything.”

        For now, only sailors will be praying at the helm. Until the Pentagon completes its investigation of the collision, civilians are banned from sitting at the controls.

        Better yet, ban civilians from all active subs. Extend the ban to all military sites.

        That way, I won't turn on the Today show some morning and hear about how a clumsy civilian visited a missile silo and sat on the controls.

        By accident, he plopped down on a big red button marked:

        World War III.


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