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Commander Of Navy's 7th Fleet Dismissed After Series Of Ship Mishaps

U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet, speaks during a news conference in June after the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off Japan.
Eugene Hoshiko

Updated at 4:25 a.m.

Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the three-star commander of the U.S. 7th Fleet was relieved of command on Wednesday. The fleet is based in Yokosuka, Japan.

A statement from the Navy explains why Aucoin was dismissed.

"Adm. Scott Swift, commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, today relieved the commander of Seventh Fleet, Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, due to a loss of confidence in his ability to command.

"Rear Adm. Phil Sawyer, who has already been nominated and confirmed for the position and promotion to Vice Adm., will assume command immediately."

Aucoin's removal follows four accidents involving Navy ships in the Pacific this year.

The latest happened early Monday off Singapore when the USS John S. McCain collided with an oil tanker. Ten sailors were reported missing. Since the accident, some remains have been found.

The White House issued a statement on Tuesday expressing "great sadness" over the deaths of the sailors aboard the McCain.

"As the Navy begins the process of recovering our fallen sailors, our thoughts and prayers go out to their families and friends.

"The Department of Defense will conduct a thorough and complete investigation of the incident."

In June, seven sailors died after the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off Japan. Searchers found the bodies of the seven sailors in flooded berthing compartments.

Before that, the guided-missile cruiser Lake Champlain collided with a South Korean fishing vessel in May. And in January, the guided-missile cruiser Antietam ran aground in Tokyo Bay.

After the collision on Monday, Adm. John Richardson, the Navy's top officer, announced that all 277 Navy ships worldwide would take an "operational pause" to review basic seamanship, teamwork and other "fundamentals."

The Wall Street Journal was the first to report that Aucoin would be removed from duty:

"Vice Adm. Aucoin was expected to retire in coming weeks, but under the Navy's tradition of public accountability, commanders or ship captains are dismissed as soon as their superiors lose confidence in their leadership.

"His expected removal — by the commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet, Adm. Scott Swift — doesn't represent a specific finding of fault against Vice Adm. Aucoin. Navy officials are investigating the role that training, manning and other internal fleet processes may have played in the collisions."

As the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, Swift oversees the 7th fleet. The New York Times reports Swift talked to reporters in Singapore about the incident involving the McCain.

"At his news conference Tuesday, Admiral Swift discounted suggestions that the crew of the McCain had been overworked or underprepared. He said the crew responded quickly after the collision, righted the ship and prevented an even bigger disaster.

"I was on the McCain this morning and looking at the eyes of those sailors, and even after their heroic efforts yesterday I didn't see exhaustion," he said. "I didn't see a crew that was taking a knee, so to speak. They are on their game."

"The admiral said there were no signs of failure in the ship's steering system or of a cyberattack, two possibilities that have been mentioned in news reports. But he noted that the investigation was in its earliest stages and said, "We are not taking any consideration off the table."

The McCain is part of the 7th Fleet, which has about 50 to 70 ships assigned to it. The 7th Fleet was formed during World War II and is responsible for an area that spans 36 maritime countries and 48 million square miles in the Pacific and Indian oceans.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Doreen McCallister
KCUR serves the Kansas City region with breaking news and award-winning podcasts.
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