Ten years ago, the USS Greeneville nuclear submarine smashed into a Japanese high school fishing training ship the Ehime Maru sending it to the bottom of the sea and killing nine passengers including four students. The collision was a product of the rampant militarization in Hawai’i, where sub commanders give joy rides to wealthy political donors so that these civilians become advocates for maintaining levels of funding for the Cold War era sub fleet. The highly charged political incident was smoothed over by hands at the highest levels of government in Tokyo and Washington. A captain was rather lightly disciplined for the reckless action. Yet he claims to have been made a scapegoat. The higher ups who arranged for these political joy rides were not brought to justice. Nor was there significant debate about the dangers of such intensely militarized seas surrounding the Hawaiian islands.
Here’s an opinion piece I wrote about the incident in 2001. Let us remember the nine who perished in the seas off Maunalua Bay and work to reduce the militarization of our islands to ensure that another Ehime Maru incident will never happen again.
The Honolulu Star Advertiser published a retrospective on the incident:
Ten years ago Wednesday, the USS Greeneville was impressing 16 civilian guests south of Oahu with some of the capabilities of a U.S. nuclear-powered submarine.
On the surface, there was open-air time with the Greeneville’s gregarious, cigar-smoking captain, Cmdr. Scott Waddle, as the sub powered through the waves.
Underwater there were steep ascents and descents — “angles and dangles” in Navy jargon, at one point reaching a classified depth below 800 feet — as well as high-speed turns.
And finally, there was the demonstration of an emergency main ballast tank blow, an action that forces 4,500 pounds per square inch of air into ballast tanks, causing the 6,900-ton submarine to breach the surface like a humpback whale.
On Feb. 9, 2001, the Greeneville, longer than a football field, rocketed upward from a depth of 400 feet, its crew not knowing it was on a collision course with a Japanese high school fishing training vessel, the Ehime Maru.
What came at 1:43 p.m. was unthinkable: The submarine hit the Japanese ship. The Greeneville’s steel rudder — reinforced to punch through Arctic ice — cut through the underbelly of the 190-foot Ehime Maru.
The Japanese vessel sank in five minutes nine miles south of Diamond Head. Twenty-six on board survived, but nine others — including four high school students — perished.
Never in U.S. Navy history had a collision between a nuclear submarine and a civilian vessel killed so many people.