By Martha Jette
Following a fatal fire that resulted from the collision of the USS Belknap (CG-26) and the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) on November 22, 1975, an investigation into the incident was initiated by the Department of the Navy’s Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. That investigation considered the culpability of the captain and crew of both ships, which were operating with the sixth fleet in the Ionian Sea 70 miles off the coast of Sicily at the time.
Court martials were called for both Captain Walker R. Shafer, commanding officer of the Belknap and Captain William A. Gureck, commanding officer of the Kennedy with regard to charges stemming from an extensive investigation into the collision. Capt. Gureck’s trial resulted in a quick “disposition tantamount to acquittal on all charges and specifications.”
The investigation began on November 25. However, Captain Gureck was not required to attend because his conduct was no longer “subject to inquiry.” Sessions were held aboard the Kennedy until December 25 with one break on November 27 because a memorial service was held on the Belknap at 9 a.m. for the victims of the fire.
Captain Shafer faced “seven specified allegating violations of Articles 92, 118 and 110, UCMJ…” One of those charges related to his order to “turn (left full).” It was found that at the time of the collision, “the Belknap range to the JFK was between 1500 and 2000 yards at about 2156A when Lieutenant Kenneth M. Knull ordered left full rudder.” It could not be concluded that an order for a “constant left full rudder” when the speed of the Belknap was also taken into account would actually have any bearing on the outcome…”
The investigation noted, “Even if that maneuver succeeded, it was in violation of the most basic rules of prudent seamanship and would have resulted in a potentially more catastrophic collision than that which did occur.”
However, the lieutenant’s failure to consider other options were deemed “the essence of his shortcomings.” It was also noted that the bridge watch team or Officers on Deck (OODs) suffered “a lack of proper training. They did not know how to operate “in close proximity to aircraft carriers,” and this was seen as “a contributing cause of the collision.”
The captain “should have required a more precise explanation” of the OOD’s “proposed station-keeping maneuvers than simply, ‘I intend to slow and follow the carrier around.’” The captain’s “reticence to solicit necessary information during the initial phases of the Corpen J. Port maneuver” was deemed a “culpable violation of his responsibilities under U.S. Navy Regulations for the safety and well-being of his ship.”
On that fateful night, the Kennedy was “preparing for its last recovery of aircraft scheduled for 2200A and was displaying flight deck lighting for aircraft operations.” The use of those lights became an issue during the investigation since sailors aboard the Belknap were unable to gain “an accurate visual “ of the carrier due to the “red deck edge lights.”
This resulted in the need for a review of “current lighting requirements and practices on all ships including the potential conflict or confusion associated with such lighting as it affects safety of flight or ship handling and institute changes deemed necessary to enhance operational safety.”
It was also found that “the Kennedy radar could not track units close-in due to sea return on the surface search radar,” which was supported by “the testimony of several personnel.” As a result, “corrective action” was called for to “provide close-in tracking capabilities to the designed minimum range of the surface search radar.”
Despite the problems noted on the Belknap that night, the trial of Captain Shafer also resulted in “disposition tantamount to acquittal on all charges and specifications.” It is highly likely that the families of the victims were quite unhappy that no one was held accountable for this disastrous event.
NOTE: The Author and Publisher of this content is preparing biographies of each of the sailors killed in the collision. We are requesting information from their shipmates and friends that we can add to the bios. Click the image below, and please offer any helpful information in the comments on that article. Thank you!