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At Yokosuka, 7th Fleet’s Home Port, Worrying and Wondering, ‘Why?’

These are tense times for the men and women of Yokosuka, with crews on alert, given increasing threats in the region from North Korea’s ballistic missile and nuclear development program. In addition to the two fatal accidents this summer, a guided missile cruiser ran aground not far from the base earlier this year. In connection with the episodes, the Navy on Tuesday relieved Vice Adm. Joseph P. Aucoin, the head of the Seventh Fleet.

“It is tragic,” said a machinist from Houston who also serves on the Ronald Reagan, as he shot a round of pool with a crewmate at Country Bar George’s, where the walls are papered with dollar bills signed by sailors and both the American and Confederate flags are painted on a sign out front.

Like many crew members I spoke to, the machinist declined to give his name for fear of reprimand from his superiors. “Our fleet has had something bad all year,” he said. “How can this happen again?”

Yokosuka, where 24,000 sailors, other military personnel and related civilians live and work, is a little slice of Americana in Japan. The bars prominently feature neon Budweiser signs, Jack Daniel’s whiskey and country music on the soundtrack. Tsunami Yokosuka Navy Burger serves, among other standards, a Trump burger, with toppings that include a fried egg, bacon, cheddar cheese, and — double-take — peanut butter. At Club Alliance, a three-story entertainment complex on the edge of the base, the wide-screen televisions are tuned to American channels.

Families on base have rallied around the service members of both the McCain and the Fitzgerald, the destroyer that crashed in June, collecting clothes, toiletries and old uniforms for crew members who probably lost everything when their berths were flooded after the collisions.

The McCain is currently docked at the Changi Naval Base in Singapore. Lt. Paul Newell, a spokesman for the Seventh Fleet in Yokosuka, said he was not sure whether or when there would be a memorial service at the base for the fallen.

“Everybody is heartbroken,” said Tara Oberdorf, whose husband serves on the Ronald Reagan, which recently returned to port after six months at sea.

Mrs. Oberdorf, who was finishing back-to-school errands on Thursday afternoon with three of her four children in a busy shopping arcade near the base, said it was difficult not to be troubled by the number of recent accidents. “So now you just worry and ask, why?” she said.

Among the questions being asked are whether the crews on either the Fitzgerald or the McCain were overworked and underprepared. Given the current geopolitical situation, many of the ships in the fleet are sent out on frequent missions, with some naval experts raising the question of whether crews have enough time to rest or retrain.

“Are ships deployed a lot? The answer is yes,” said Cmdr. Clayton Doss, a Seventh Fleet spokesman. “Our Navy is deployed a lot globally.”

At a fruit and vegetable shop near the train station in Yokosuka, the wife of another Ronald Reagan crew member said that “all military bases are overworked.”

“That’s all the fleets, not just this one,” she added, declining to give her name, as she did not want to get her husband in trouble. “That is what we signed up for when we agreed to protect and serve.”

On Wednesday, during a rare worldwide suspension of naval operations, sailors at Yokosuka participated in a training day that centered on such topics as the fundamentals of radar and staffing on ship bridges.

A mechanic playing pool at Country Bar George’s said he expected a serious review of training plans.

“I am sure there will be a bunch of training to come because it is something that should not happen,” he said of the collisions. “Any time something happens that should not happen, you have to figure out why it went wrong.”

With the vulnerability of life at sea now brutally highlighted, one service member wearing a Navy T-shirt and standing watch over the pool table at Alex’s Saloon on Thursday night said he felt lucky to be assigned to shore duty. A petty officer from Jacksonville, N.C., he described his job as “cleaning up and serving coffee” and said he was glad not to be posted aboard a ship because of the “hard work and long hours.”

He said he did not expect to learn the full truth of what happened aboard either the Fitzgerald or the McCain. “That’s just how the Navy operates,” he said.

But Allegra Mastin, 20, an enlisted woman on the Ronald Reagan who said she often stood watch on deck for five-hour shifts, said that all the crews could do was to continue training and following protocols.

As for the accidents, she said, “things happen that are out of our control.”

Source: NYT > World

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