Navy selects captain censured for fatal accident to command carrier

The former captain of the amphibious transport dock USS Somerset has been chosen to command an aircraft carrier even though he received a letter of censure from the Secretary of the Navy for his role in the July 30, 2020 training accident in which eight Marines and one sailor died when their amphibious assault vehicle sank.

Captain John William Kurtz’s name appears on the Navy’s Fiscal Year 2024 list of officers who are recommended to command an aircraft carrier. If selected, Kurtz would not be promoted, as carrier commanders hold the rank of captain.

It would be unusual for Kurtz to be selected to command an aircraft carrier: He was one of five officers censured by Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro earlier this year for the 2020 incident, which was the crash of deadliest training involving an amphibious assault vehicle in Marine Corps history.

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“Although the inquest did not establish that any of the USS SOMERSET’s actions or inactions caused the sinking, it ultimately concluded that you failed in your duties to oversee the AAV. [amphibious assault vehicle] operations as Principal Control Officer,” Del Toro wrote in the June 10 letter.

“Specifically, you did not exercise positive control over the AAVs during their transit from shore to ship. Additionally, some of the briefings associated with the AAV did not include a thorough discussion of the actual dangers involved in operations. AAV (e.g. ships in distress and safety boats) As a result, your crew was misinformed of the risks and measures required for safe AAV operations Finally, there was confusion as to how safety boat requirements would be met, and you did not seek to verify that these requirements were met once you became aware that AAVs were in the water.

Capt. JW David Kurtz, commanding officer of the amphibious transport dock ship USS Somerset (LPD 25), answers questions from WJAC-TV reporter Douglass Braff during a media availability at the Flight 93 National Memorial. (Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Benjamin Dobbs/US Navy)

Navy spokesman Capt. Reann Mommsen confirmed that Kurtz was selected for command by the FY 2024 Active Duty Aviation Major Command screen committee despite his letter of censure.

“Selection panels review the official records of selected members,” Mommsen told Task & Purpose. “The deliberations of the board of directors are not in the public domain. Unlike the results of the promotion panel, the results of the administrative selection panel do not need to be reviewed by JAG/NOC/SECNAV before they are finalized and published.

Kurtz’s letter of censure came nearly a year after the Navy and Marine Corps completed an investigation into the training accident, which revealed multiple communication breakdowns and command and control issues during exercise.

The investigator also noted that Kurtz and the other senior Somerset officers were not on board the ship when he completed his amphibious warfare base certification, creating “a lack of experience in AAV operations in the main SOM”. [Somerset] leadership positions. »

For example, Kurtz did not believe he had the authority to delay or cancel the return of several Navy amphibious assault vehicles from San Clemente Island, California to Somerset, according to the investigation.

“According to the confirmation file, SOM CO [Somerset commanding officer] believed the RFC [Raid Force Commander] held the power to authorize, stop or delay beach splashing,” the inquest found. “At the same time, the AAV Platoon believed that permission to splash had to come from SOM, as it eventually did. The omission of clear lines of authority, coupled with the lack of a process for approval within Navy doctrine, created a critical seam in command and control in the recovery phase, but did not contribute to the incident.

An Amphibious Assault Vehicle (AAV) assigned to the Combat Assault Battalion's AAV Company, splashes through water from the well deck of the amphibious landing ship USS Ashland (LSD 48) during an amphibious assault in the framework of Blue Chromite.  Blue Chromite (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Clay)
FILE: An amphibious assault vehicle assigned to AAV Company, Combat Assault Battalion, splashes through water from the well deck of the amphibious landing ship USS Ashland (LSD 48) during an amphibious assault in the Blue Chromite frame. Blue Chromite (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Clay/US Navy)

Due to communication problems aboard Somerset, neither Kurtz nor the deck officer knew the vehicles had been cleared to return to the ship until they were already in the water.

Communication problems worsened after a helicopter asked to land on Somerset as vehicles were returning to the ship, the inquest heard, which prevented Somerset from parking a sailor in the aft lookout position. A rear lookout could have assisted the crew members on the ship’s bridge watching for returning amphibious assault vehicles.

“Nevertheless, once the SOM was informed that AAV 5 was in distress, all control stations were promptly informed and acted quickly to respond,” the investigator determined. “In my opinion, the ineffective internal communication on board the SOM did not directly cause or contribute to the sinking.”

The investigation also revealed that Kurtz had not provided security boats for the return of vehicles to Somerset as he believed the Amphibious Assault Vehicle Platoon had not requested such boats. However, the platoon commander thought Somerset would provide a safety boat because it was part of the plan which had been briefed the day before the exercise.

In the end, the investigator determined that “the operations carried out by the SOM took place within the authorized limits and did not have a significant impact or cause the sinking. “

Still, Navy Admiral Samuel Paparo, chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, wrote in his endorsement of the investigation that he intended to take administrative action against Kurtz and the tactical action officer. of Somerset and the Amphibious Task Force Commander “unless otherwise specified”.

Navy captain censured for fatal marine AAV accident recommended to command aircraft carrier
A U.S. Marine with Battalion Landing Team 1/4, 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, holds the portrait of Lance Cpl. Chase D. Sweetwood, 18, of Portland, Oregon, during a memorial service at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., Aug. 21, 2020. (Cpl. Dalton S. Swanbeck/ US Marine Corps)

“As established by this investigation, SOMERSET’s actions and inactions did not fully comply with established doctrine and procedures; and the investigation identified shortcomings in our doctrine and procedures,” Paparo wrote.

Although the investigation revealed that Kurz was not directly responsible for the fatal training accident, captains are responsible for everything that happens on board their ships, said the retired navy commander . Bryan Clark, senior researcher at the Hudson Institute think tank in Washington, D.C.

“His reprimand was as much about miscommunication and command and control as it was about the accident itself,” Clark told Task & Purpose. “If you find fault during an investigation, you have to call it. So I think that’s part of what’s going on here: the letter was meant to respond to the fact that his command had some issues that he was ultimately responsible for. These issues may or may not have contributed to this particular accident.

Now that Kurtz’s name has been added to the list of officers selected to command an aircraft carrier, it could be a sign that the Navy is finally giving good officers a second chance rather than forcing them to retire after just one. stain in their careers, Clark said.

“The Navy used to be a place where someone like Chester Nimitz could run a ship aground and then turn around and be the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet,” said Clark, a senior fellow at the think tank Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C. “But in the post-Cold War era, we really moved away from that and had a zero-defect or zero-fault policy instead, where if you had an error like that and received a letter of reprimand or a censure, you’re pretty much done.

The fact that Kurtz has yet to be selected to command an aircraft carrier could suggest the Navy is still confident in its ability to lead, said retired Navy Captain Brent Sadler, a former submariner who is now a principal investigator. for Naval Warfare and Advanced Technology at the Heritage Foundation Conservative Think Tank in Washington, D.C.

“That said, guilty or not, surviving a letter of censure from the SECNAV [Navy Secretary] is rare and that this censorship is coming from this current SECNAV probably means we haven’t seen the end of this story,” Sadler told Task & Purpose.

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