The story of a Texas oilman who last month arranged a ride on the attack submarine Greeneville the day it struck a Japanese fishing trawler illustrates how connections can mean access to operational vessels in the Navy fleet, even for business executives who may have no direct interest in or impact on the military.
Largely through testimony at a Navy court of inquiry convened in Honolulu to investigate the Greeneville incident, together with extensive reporting, a picture is emerging of a complicated network of acquaintances and business associates that came together to facilitate the daylong cruise for 16 civilians.
Navy officials have conceded that were it not for the planned visit by the civilians, the Greeneville would not have gone to sea to conduct exercises on Feb. 9. The Greeneville's collision that day with the 190-foot Ehime Maru left nine people missing and presumed dead, including four students.
The revelations borne out of the naval court proceedings and elsewhere may raise new questions about the Navy's "distinguished visitor embarkation" program, which the service says is aimed at educating opinion leaders on critical national defense issues by bringing them aboard operating vessels. Following the Greeneville accident, the Pentagon launched a review of civilian visitor programs across the services.
John Hall, one of two civilians at the attack submarine's controls when it hit the Japanese boat in a rapid-surfacing drill, was a key player in organizing the trip along with a business associate, Todd Thoman. In a brief telephone discussion with sister publication Inside the Pentagon on March 21, Thoman said the two men collaborate on independent energy exploration projects as well as other business ventures.
Hall and Thoman also arranged the trip aboard the Greeneville for several others, including three executives of a company that raises capital and invests in oil, gas and coal development efforts, called Aquila Capital Services, said Jerry Cosley, a spokesman for Aquila's parent company, UtiliCorp United Inc. All five men were accompanied by their wives for the ride on the submarine.
Other civilians aboard the Greeneville included Mickey and Susan Nolan of Honolulu, who also played an important role in arranging the group's trip. Mickey Nolan served as Hall and Thoman's link to retired Navy Adm. Richard Macke, the former top commander for the Pacific region who recommended the civilians for the Greeneville cruise, Hall told a National Transportation Safety Board investigator on Feb. 20.
Shortly after the incident, Hall told The New York Times that apart from the Nolans, the civilians aboard the Greeneville were "just a social group that we put together." He explained that "when a hell of an opportunity like this comes up to go on a submarine, you get a group together. It's just that simple."
Yet there is no simple or clear process for the average American to follow to bring a group of people aboard a Navy submarine. So it took a somewhat labyrinthine series of steps for Hall and Thoman to win that access. Hall told the NTSB he had worked on it for nearly a year.
For the past two years, Mickey Nolan has held the voluntary chairmanship of a committee to organize benefit golf tournaments for the USS Missouri Memorial Association, a non-profit group focused on restoring the battleship where Japan surrendered to end World War II, and converting the vessel into a floating museum at Pearl Harbor, HI. Said by one acquaintance to be a scratch golfer with "a great tan," Nolan recruited Hall and Thoman to offer corporate "title sponsorship" for a planned January 2001 tournament.
Last fall, Hall and Thoman met with the USS Missouri's development director and golf committee and committed the $7,500 required for title sponsorship on behalf of Fossil Bay Resources Ltd., the Dallas-based oil and gas exploration company at which the two then served as top executives, according to an official associated with the battleship organization.
A title sponsor would earn the right to get the company's name attached to the golf tournament, an attractive prospect for industry officials eager to boost the profile and reputation of their company, said the USS Missouri Memorial official, who asked not to be named.
Hall told the NTSB that he learned of the possibility to ride aboard a Navy sub by "touring the Missouri and having dinner with those people and discussing the golf tournament." He noted that the benefit tournament involved members of the U.S. Navy League, a service organization in which Macke is active locally in Honolulu.
Shortly thereafter, Macke -- who had served with Mickey Nolan on a committee that organized last year's USS Missouri Memorial golf tournament -- began making inquiries to the Navy about getting around a dozen people on board a submarine in January, around the time of the anticipated golf tournament.
Macke contacts the Navy
Macke, who was forced to retire from the Navy in 1995 when he made an offensive remark about the rape of a 12-year-old girl in Okinawa by three U.S. servicemen, had met Hall just twice prior to the Greeneville trip, according to the Texas businessman's testimony to the NTSB. Hall said he initially discussed his interest in a submarine cruise with Mickey Nolan, "and then I think he had discussions with Adm. Macke," the testimony reads. "And Adm. Macke, I'm told now, organized the trip."
According to testimony before the Navy's court of inquiry on the Greeneville incident -- a formal body that held public hearings on the matter at Pearl Harbor for two weeks earlier this month -- Macke first contacted the Pacific Fleet last September to say there was a group of civilians he thought should be given a ride on a submarine. Macke has not testified before the court and did not return a reporter's phone calls.
Charles Gittins, the attorney for Capt. Scott Waddle -- the Greeneville's commanding officer who has since been relieved of command -- told the court on March 16 he had a copy of an e-mail sent by Capt. Kevin Wensing, a Pacific Fleet public affairs officer, to Cmdr. David Werner, a subordinate officer at the submarine fleet's public affairs shop. The message said Macke was "bringing 10 to 12 high-rolling CEOs sponsored by a group hosting a golf tournament on [the] island." No names of people in the group were mentioned at that time, Navy officials say.
The Sept. 25 e-mail referred to interest on the part of the Navy secretary, then Richard Danzig, in getting this civilian group onto a sub. "Macke asked if they can get a tour of a submarine and get an in-and-out ride on the boat as well," Gittins read from the e-mail in court. The message proposed a trip on Jan. 15, 16, 17 or 18, which would have coincided with the intended dates of the USS Missouri golf tournament.
Last week, Capt. Brian Cullin, the Navy secretary's spokesman at the Pentagon, told ITP that in his two-year tenure as the service's top executive, Danzig requested very few civilian cruises and this was not one of them, to the best of his recollection. Cullin said that Wensing, the Pacific Fleet public affairs officer, had just called him the prior weekend to say that the message's reference to the Navy secretary's personal interest in the civilian group had been misinterpreted.
Contacted March 20, Wensing told ITP his e-mail reference to Danzig reflected information he was given about Macke's request by an aide to the deputy commander of the Pacific Fleet. Wensing said he now believes that information was mistaken and that any references to Danzig may have amounted to nothing more than unwarranted "name dropping" in relation to this particular group.
But March 16 testimony by Werner, the Pacific sub fleet public affairs officer, makes clear that he was operating under the assumption, at least initially, that the group Macke recommended also came with the Navy secretary's own imprimatur:
Gittins: When you received this e-mail, sir, did you make any effort to ascertain why the secretary of the Navy was interested in treating this group well or who they might be that the secretary of the Navy was even interested in?
Werner: No, sir, I did not.
Gittins: Have you ever confirmed that the secretary of the Navy ever heard of these people?
Werner: No, sir. I have not.
Tournament is canceled
By late November, it became clear to individuals at the USS Missouri Memorial Association that the task of organizing the golf tournament was too difficult to accomplish by January and the benefit event was postponed indefinitely, according to an association official and Hall's testimony to the NTSB.
Fossil Bay's sponsorship fee was fully reimbursed to the company on Dec. 21, according to a statement issued by the association after the Greeneville accident.
Despite a mistaken claim made by Navy officials shortly after the incident that the civilians aboard the submarine were a group of contributors to the USS Missouri, the association could confirm only that the Nolans were benefactors.
Werner told the court of inquiry that the Pacific Fleet contacted him in November or December to say Macke's request had been withdrawn.
The day after the golf tournament was to have been held, Hall stepped down as chief executive officer and chairman of the board of Fossil Bay Resources, citing "medically related" reasons. Thoman has also left the company.
Hall remains on the company's board of directors and is described by Fossil Bay as self-employed. The company said in a Jan. 18 announcement that Hall would "also act as a special consultant" to the board on "acquisition opportunities in which Fossil Bay Resources Ltd. is currently involved."
Hall could not be reached by phone and did not respond to a reporter's e-mail inquiries. However, Thoman told ITP last week that he was responding to a reporter's e-mail to Hall.
In January 2001, the idea of a submarine trip for Hall and Thoman's group was resurrected, according to court testimony. Macke got in touch with Rear Adm. Albert Konetzni, the commander of the Pacific submarine fleet, to renew his request that the civilian group be brought aboard a sub. In turn, Konetzni contacted Werner to arrange the cruise, but told the public affairs officer, "Don't break china" to implement the request. "The way I took it to mean was, 'Don't rearrange schedules to make this happen,'" Werner testified.
At this point, the golf tournament had already been canceled and Fossil Bay Resources' contribution to the USS Missouri Memorial Association long since returned. Because Macke had never provided the Navy with the names of those in the proposed civilian tour group last fall, it is unclear whether the composition of the group had changed when he renewed his request in January.
But Cosley, the spokesman for Aquila Capital Services' parent company, said the three company executives and their wives had not planned on an earlier trip to Hawaii last fall. Rather, he said, their February 2001 vacation in Hawaii happened to coincide with the opportunity to join Hall aboard the Navy submarine.
The Aquila (pronounced "uh-kwil-uh") financiers -- Jay Brehmer, Anthony Schnur and Ken Wyatt -- and their wives paid their own way to Hawaii, Cosley said. "And Hall, learning that they were going to be out there, offered to make arrangements [to go aboard the sub] and he did," the spokesman said.
While Hall had described the civilians he'd brought aboard the Greeneville as "a social group," Cosley characterized the cruise as "more in the form of a getting-acquainted operation." The Aquila spokesman said that during their time together, Hall "was exploring the possibility of a business relationship" with the investment executives.
In talking with ITP last week, Thoman differed with that, saying that neither he nor Hall were pursuing a business relationship with Aquila. But he declined further comment on the relationship between the two energy project developers and the three Aquila financiers.
None of the civilians aboard the Greeneville was called to testify before the Navy's court of inquiry.
At the March 16 hearing, Gittins asked Werner, the Pacific sub fleet public affairs officer, if he knew anything about Aquila. But Waddle's attorney did not pursue the line of questioning at length, according to Jay Fidell, a former Coast Guard judge advocate general in Honolulu who has closely watched the proceedings. Gittins' question seemed to "come from nowhere and you were left wondering what he was talking about," Fidell said.
Werner responded that his staff had pulled information off the Internet suggesting Aquila is involved in meeting "energy needs," but his research on the affiliations of the Greeneville's civilian guests appeared to stop there. The efforts were undertaken mostly out of an interest in playing a good host to the visitors, Werner's testimony suggested.
Gittins also asked Werner if he had ever satisfied himself that there was no financial relationship between Macke and the "distinguished visitors" in the group. Werner said that having been asked by Konetzni to arrange for the trip, "I never worried about it." Macke is senior vice president at Wheat International, a telecommunications company.
Yet the importance of the visit seemed to have been downgraded over the three-month period between the two requests. Konetzni, slated to be off the island during the date of the February cruise, would not accompany the group, and Werner advised Konetzni's chief of staff, Capt. Robert Brandhuber, that he would not be needed as an officer escort either. Gittins quoted an e-mail Werner sent to Brandhuber on Feb. 6 saying, "I do not feel you need to accompany, nor do I suspect will the admiral," referring to Konetzni.
Werner said he had already identified another captain who could escort the group, and sent the e-mail "recognizing how busy the chief of staff is."
But Gittins also quoted the e-mail as saying, "In my estimation these are not the most distinguished of visitors and do not necessarily warrant your personal attention, other than maybe greeting them pierside." Brandhuber ultimately decided to accompany the civilian visitors on the Greeneville cruise and was the most senior officer aboard when the accident occurred.
Although Macke had been scheduled to join the civilian group on board the Greeneville on Feb. 9, his office called Werner the day before the cruise to say he wouldn't be coming, the Pacific submarine fleet spokesman told the court. Werner knew the cancellation by the retired four-star flag officer would be a disappointment to Waddle and the Greeneville crew.
"I remember specifically going, 'Oh, crap,'" Werner testified. "I had just talked to [Waddle] and told him that Adm. Macke had indicated he was going.
"And when asked the reason, I had the distinct impression that [Macke's assistants] weren't prepared for me to ask why he wasn't going because they didn't give me exactly a thorough answer," Werner added.
In the control room
Once aboard the Greeneville on the day of its fateful cruise, the 16 civilians were brought into the submarine's tiny control room to experience a maneuver called an "emergency main ballast blow." During such an exercise, the submarine drops to a depth of about 400 feet, and compressed air is rapidly released into the vessel's ballasts. The sub shoots up to the surface, breaking through the water and dropping back down much like an enormous whale.
Even without visitors in the control room, the space is quite cramped as the crew works the controls and monitors screens around the perimeter. The periscope's pillar-like apparatus dominates the center of the room.
On Feb. 9, the crew was joined by Hall and Thoman -- the two former Fossil Bay executives -- and their wives; the three Aquila executives and their wives; the Nolans; Mike Mitchell of Irving, TX, who told the NTSB he is a friend and business associate of Hall's, and Mitchell's fiancée, Helen Cullen; and Jack and Pat Clary of Stow, MA. Clary, a sportswriter, and his wife were on board the Greeneville at Waddle's personal invitation and were unconnected to Hall's group, according to Jack Clary's testimony to the NTSB.
An initial inquiry by a Navy commander found that in order to stay on schedule for the cruise, Waddle rushed through the safety steps that typically precede a main ballast blow. Perhaps most seriously, the initial investigation concluded he did not spend sufficient time searching for nearby ships through the submarine's periscope.
And a junior enlisted crew member responsible for plotting the location of vessels in the area based on sonar readings has acknowledged to the court that he failed to alert Waddle to the presence nearby of the Ehime Maru, arbitrarily moving it farther from the Greeneville on a map when Waddle saw no ships through the periscope.
Four days after the collision, Hall told NBC's "Today" show that he was at the sub's controls during the maneuver, with a crew member guiding and monitoring everything he did. Just as the Greeneville was coming back down into the water during the maneuver, "there was a very loud noise, and the entire submarine shuddered," Hall described. He remembers Waddle saying, "Jesus, what the hell was that?"
The Ehime Maru sank just minutes after the collision with the Greeneville and lies on the ocean floor at a depth of about 2,000 feet, 9 miles south of Diamond Head.
Both Waddle and the junior enlisted crew member told the court of inquiry last week that the civilians aboard the Greeneville did not distract them from their duties aboard the submarine, although this apparently contradicts statements the crew member earlier made to an investigator.
Werner told the court the week before that the size of the group "is well within the average of the ones we do." Werner would have cut the group's size had the commanding officer of the submarine objected prior to the trip, he said.
But early testimony provided to the NTSB indicated that the civilians were a distraction to the crew during the surfacing maneuver. The court of inquiry is expected to speak to this issue as well in a report that could take several weeks to complete.
Who gets to visit?
With many defense officials and observers saying the distinguished visitor embarkation program continues to serve a useful educational and civic purpose, expectations are that it will continue in some form following a broader review of such programs that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has launched. But does the visitors program favor those who are well-connected?
In a Feb. 14 appearance on PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," Rumsfeld acknowledged the visits are used as "rewards" for VIPs or those who have supported the Navy. "It's not unusual when [an] aircraft carrier [or] a submarine is steaming that they take distinguished visitors out who have been helpful to the Navy or helpful to one of the services. It's quite common," the defense secretary said. "It's a reward for work people have done to help the Navy or the Navy League -- things like that."
The court's convening authority, Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Thomas Fargo, initially laid out a mandate for the inquiry that might have taken into account questions of this sort. Among the issues before the court was Fargo's assignment to "examine the policies and practices" of the Pacific Fleet submarine force's "implementation of the distinguished visitor embarkation program," according to a statement made by Vice Adm. John Nathman, the court of inquiry's president, when he opened the proceedings on March 5.
While the Pacific Fleet has taken testimony and collected documents that have not yet been released, the court has not focused much on this aspect of the matter. That leaves some observers mystified.
The admirals leading the court of inquiry "haven't really described the policy or . . . examined how it could be improved," said Fidell, the former Coast Guard attorney. Rather, Nathman and the two other active members of the court have focused on solely whether Werner and others were following existing guidelines.
"I think this court . . . will undoubtedly leave the policy language largely intact," Fidell told ITP in a March 19 interview. "It will deal more with implementation than changes to the policy itself."
In the recent court proceedings, Werner's testimony focused at times on the categories of civilians who qualify to go aboard Navy vessels. Guidelines allow for educators, journalists, corporate executives, potential officer or enlisted recruits, members of Congress, crew-member families or guests and others. There is also a catchall category for "distinguished visitors."
A former Navy chief of information, retired Rear Adm. Kendell Pease, told ITP last week he believes "it's extremely important" to bring in a wide variety of civilians for educational visits. "We have a society that no longer has a draft, so you'll find a very small percentage that have any connection to the military," he said.
In court, Werner defended the judgment that this group qualified as worthy of the distinguished visitor embarkation program. "What would this group of distinguished visitors bring to the table that would justify sending a submarine to sea?" Gittins, the attorney, asked Werner.
"These are business leaders and one sportswriter, and they have influence over a corporation with a lot of people," the public affairs officer responded. Werner said Waddle supported the tour, and "it seemed like a good opportunity to have these folks learn more about their submarine force and their Navy."
Werner said he saw the cruises as a way to advance several communications goals Konetzni laid out for him when he assumed the public affairs post in July 1998. Among those were to highlight the need for attack submarines at a time when the fleet size was dropping, and to promote personnel recruitment and retention.
An alternative embarkation policy might attempt to make it more possible for ordinary Americans to get exposure to the operating fleet and remove incentives for well-connected individuals to "pull strings" to gain access, Fidell said. "I can't think of anybody I could call for a ride like that," he said.
Werner acknowledged in testimony that civilians who "get underway from submarines in Hawaii typically are people of means only because they have to get their own way there."
At least one retired Navy admiral agrees with Fidell that the guidelines should be changed. Appearing on the PBS "NewsHour" on March 5, retired Vice Adm. Jack Shanahan said, "I think that that bonding and education, if you will, [between the military and civilians] should take place through the entire spectrum of our society, not specifically to some elite group of organizations as, say, a payback or an award for services rendered, or to gain support for . . . the bottom line of the budget, or for a specific weapons system." Shanahan, now with Business Leaders for Sensible Priorities, said he would "draw the line" when efforts at "educating the American people" become a "gee-whiz dog-and-pony show."
But Fidell, now an attorney in private practice, is skeptical that any such alternatives will be proposed by the Navy or by Congress. "To ask the Navy to review the policy is to ask the snake to swallow its own tail," said Fidell. "To ask Congress to review it is to ask the beneficiaries."
Do visits interfere with mission?
In 1989, the chief of naval operations issued instructions for civilian visits that the Navy has confirmed are still in effect. "Commanding officers will recommend disapproval of, and operational commanders will disapprove, routine requests for embarkation of civilians from any source which, if approved, would result in interference with shipboard operations, or which would require unacceptable adjustments to operating schedules," according to the guidelines.
The Greeneville was initially expected to take the civilians out during an exercise, but the tour went forward anyway after the exercise was scrapped.
Fidell said the court's questions to Werner indicated the admirals are skeptical that the guidelines -- as they are currently written -- allow for a cruise to be taken solely for the purpose of a civilian tour. Said Nathman: "In my view [it] doesn't fit the criteria. Isn't even close."
Werner responded that he believes the rules allow for such a cruise if the civilian tour is considered a "regularly scheduled operation."
Although Werner said commanding officers could turn down requests for civilian cruises, they have generally embraced them as opportunities to show off their ship and crew. He rejected a suggestion that in the competition for promotion up the ranks in the Navy, commanders feel pressure to accept the requests.
But Rear Adm. David Stone, a member of the court, told Werner he would "disagree with your philosophy. I think it's your responsibility to provide that oversight" to ensure the visits do not conflict with operational considerations.
And Nathman disparaged the public affairs process for arranging civilian visits, saying, "It sounds very ad hoc right now."
Although military missions remain paramount for fleet commanders, the details of civilian visits are normally left to mid-level public affairs officers, said retired Vice Adm. John LaPlante, who commanded all U.S. amphibious vessels in the 1991 war against Iraq. "Like anything else, once something gets to be routine, it doesn't get the oversight it needs," he told ITP in a March 20 interview.
LaPlante said the Navy tends to rely on retired flag officers or those active in the Navy League to recommend distinguished visitors, generally industry or civic leaders who could influence public opinion.
Ultimately, the responsibility lies with the Navy and the Defense Department to ensure the program is properly laid out and implemented such that the visits do not interfere with operational needs, LaPlante suggested.
"The Department of Defense is doing exactly what they should do: take a long, hard look at the program and make any improvements as necessary," Pease said. -- Elaine M. Grossman