Waddle calm, cool on witness stand
By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer
The waiting ended in a courtroom bursting with anticipation.
Cmdr. Scott Waddle had kept everyone guessing whether he would testify before a Navy court of inquiry.
For 11 days, the court waited for his description of the events that put the submarine he commanded, the USS Greeneville, on a deadly collision course with a Japanese fishing vessel.
The mood was expectant when Waddle arrived yesterday, the last to enter just moments before the court was to convene. His civilian attorney, Charles Gittins, offered a brief hint his client would speak when he quickly filled a glass of water and placed it in the witness box.
Waddle, dressed as he has every day in his Navy whites, took the witness stand to face a court he knew would not be friendly. He greeted the three U.S. admirals ordered to investigate the collision but said nothing to Rear Adm. Isamu Ozawa, the Japanese submariner invited to participate in the inquiry.
It started well for Waddle. The admirals fired off questions like students who had waited for weeks to be heard, lumping their questions together so many times that Waddle had to dissect their requests and read them back.
It allowed him to control the pace. In the beginning, he made the admirals work for every answer.
The commander was sharp. His grasp of the facts presented by 32 previous witnesses came across in calmly worded answers. If he didn't remember something, he said so with an honest-looking shrug.
And if he had done something wrong, he said so.
But the admirals grew increasingly angry with his answers. At times they were relentless in their questions and opinions, their voices raised, edgy, commanding.
Gittins watched all this with ashen-faced resignation. He massaged his temples, stared at the table and chewed his thumb.
Waddle defended the sailors he served with aboard the Greeneville, even when he said they failed to follow orders.
He defended his safety tenet when the admirals asked why he chose to surface the submarine with a maneuver that added unnecessary risk for 16 civilian guests.
And he defended the Navy's distinguished visitors program that allowed the guests to ride that day. The admirals, who are big fans of the program, nonetheless questioned the way Waddle demonstrated the Greeneville's abilities, accusing him of giving out thrill rides.
The questions grew harsher as the morning wore on. It was the worst part of Waddle's day.
At one point Gittins tried to offer clarification or procedures, prompting his client to say he would rather take the question head on. Their exchange prompted Ozawa to laugh openly.
Waddle spent the entire morning on the witness stand and much of the afternoon but just before the noon recess, the admirals made an abrupt departure from their questions about the events that contributed to the collision.
Speaking in a low voice, the president of the court, Vice Adm. John Nathman asked Waddle if he ever was familiar with the other admirals sitting on the court.
Waddle said no, except that he had met one of the admirals twice.
After a series of 11 terse questions, Nathman asked, "Do you know me?"
Waddle: "Sir, I only know what I've read once and that was your change of command speech. I don't know your political aspirations. I've never served under your command. I haven't served under any of the board members' command, sir."
Nathman: "Why would I have political aspirations?"
Waddle: "I don't know that you do or that you would."
Nathman: "OK. We'll recess until 1500."
Although the exchange lasted just a few minutes, the message was clear: Waddle, with a rank of commander, was being reminded that he had to answer to powerful admirals.
When it was all over, after his judgment had been questioned, his leadership style criticized and his decisions thoroughly picked apart, Waddle slowly walked back to the seat he had quietly occupied since March 5.
He looked relieved.