A Tradition Older

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Navy culture builds on traditions of the sea and seafaring in a nearly unbroken line from the sailing fleets of the British Empire through today’s modern nuclear-powered  ships of steel. One common saying is that the United States Navy is “over 240 years of tradition, unhampered by progress,” a simultaneous indictment of conservatism and a celebration of history and tradition. While the statement is not fully true, however, tradition is a such a cornerstone of naval life that tradition is an unofficial fourth core value and the single most common rationale for any action. Sailors cite tradition in many ways and forms, often interchangeably with custom and routine.

Tradition also characterizes the accountability and authority of commanding officers, especially those in command of ships. The most commonly cited form comes from a 1952 collision at sea in which an aircraft carrier cut the Gleaves-class destroyer USS Hobson in half, killing 176 sailors, including her captain. The Wall Street Journal published an editorial that reads in part:

On the sea there is a tradition older even than the traditions of the country itself and wiser in its age than this new custom. It is the tradition that with responsibility goes authority and with them both goes accountability. This accountability is not for the intentions but for the deed.[1]

This article has been reproduced and repeated so often that the lessons within are now mythic in nature and scope. At any hint of a naval disaster, the article is quoted, requoted, italicized, and lionized. Modern military officers can easily recite the idea “that with responsibility goes authority and with them both goes accountability.” However, few, if any, can really explain the difference between the three words. It’s not entirely their fault because the Navy at large, even the country, conflate responsibility, accountability, culpability and punishment.

The Navy routinely refers to punishments as “accountability actions.” Holding someone accountable is understood as to punish someone when the real meaning is to find out what happened. It’s an easy mistake as dictionary definitions for accountable and responsible provide complementary or synonymous meanings. Since language lives and changes, the synonymization is not incorrect, but neither is it proper—for example, the word red is synonymous with cardinal, crimson, and maroon, but stop signs are red, not cardinal or crimson.[2] Synonyms are the same, or nearly the same, words—and nearly is not identical.

Accountability is the condition of someone who is accountable.[3] Being accountable or to give account entails the need to explain one’s actions or to provide a balancing of sums. Responsibility is different, even when synonymous.

Responsibility is the condition of being responsible—that of an obligation or power to act or respond. Responsibility carries the additional subtext of claim, credit, or blame, and sometimes trust.

Culpability is the state of being culpable and often defined as being responsible for a fault or deserving blame. Different from either of the previous definitions, culpability is solely associated with blame. Culpability looks back after an action as does accountability—one gives account for an action. Responsibility is the only word with both a forward-looking component—the power to act—and a backward-looking component—the power to respond. These words and the proper definitions change the modern retelling of the 1952 collision between USS Wasp and USS Hobson.

When two identical ships collide, the relative size disparity is unnoticed, but when a 40,000-ton ship strikes a ship 1/20th her size, the result is significantly, and horrifically, different.

World War II aircraft carriers were smaller than today’s behemoths, but were still exceptionally large ships. Almost 900-feet long, 40,000-tons displacement at full load, 150-feet wide, and manned with 2,500 officers and crew, the ships were floating cities living under an active airport. These ships were powered by steam boilers, pressurized and superheated steam driving turbines to move their massive bulk at over 30 knots. With limited local self-defense capability, and mindful that any aircraft failing to launch or land needed rescue, these monsters used smaller ships as escorts, normally destroyers or destroyer escorts. From World War II into the Vietnam War these escorts ranged from between 2,000 to 6,000 tons. When two identical ships collide, the relative size disparity is unnoticed, but when a 40,000-ton ship strikes a ship 1/20th her size, the result is significantly, and horrifically, different.

Approximate sequence of positions of Wasp and Hornet from commencement of turn until collision, 26 Apr 1952.

On April 26, 1952, the World War II-era Essex-class aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV 18) launched a flight of aircraft on a simulated strike as she steamed toward the Mediterranean Sea. Two destroyers, USS Rodman (DMS 21) and USS Hobson (DMS 26) acted as plane guards, standing by to recover any crew from crashed aircraft. All three ships were dark, as they operated without running lights. In fact, no lights other than red aircraft warning lights on the top of each ship’s mast were visible.[4]

Shortly after 10 p.m., Wasp informed the destroyers the simulated strike mission was returning and she was altering course and speed to recover the aircraft. Wasp and Rodman needed to simply turn and change speed. Hobson’s maneuver was more complicated, but not unusual, as she closed from a mile and a half away from Wasp to within a half mile. Hobson's captain, Lieutenant Commander William J. Tierney, on his seventh day underway after only five weeks in command, decided to change course, speed up and then turn left towards the carrier as he arrived in his assigned position. His officer of the deck advised an alternate course of action. However, Tierney believed his plan was best, and fastest, and took control of the ship’s movements. When he recognized things were horribly wrong he turned his ship left, taking her across Wasp’s bow.

At roughly the same time Hobson turned left, Wasp also came left to the recovery course, and Wasp’s commanding officer, Captain Burnham C. McCaffrey, saw Hobson coming towards his ship. McCaffrey took control of Wasp’s movements, and ordered the engines “back emergency full.” A minute after Tierney turned Hobson left, in front of the speeding carrier, Wasp sliced into the much smaller destroyer at a nearly perpendicular angle, cutting Hobson in half.

The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Wasp in drydock at Bayonne, New Jersey (USA), showing the damage to the carrier's bow from her 26 April 1952 collision with USS Hobson. (U.S. Navy Photo/Wikimedia)
The U.S. Navy destroyer minesweeper USS Hobson underway in 1948. (U.S. Navy Photo/Wikimedia)

Hobson carried 237 officers and men, 176 lost their lives that night, 61 survived. Lieutenant Commander Tierney was one of those who died. Both halves of the ship sank within five minutes and all records were lost. The resulting Court of Inquiry relied on Wasp’s records and survivor testimony in recreating the accident. The Court opined that sole fault for the collision lay with Tierney even though they could not definitively determine why he turned left when he did. The court was the accountability action as it looked at all available information and determined, to the best of its ability, what happened. The court’s decision, however, was eclipsed by a newspaper column.

Less than three weeks after the collision, and a month before the Court of Inquiry was complete, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial that became part of modern naval canon.

It is cruel this accountability of good and well-intentioned men. But the choice is that or an end to responsibility and finally, as the cruel sea has taught, and end to the confidence and trust in the men who lead, for men will not long trust leaders who feel themselves beyond accountability for what they do. And when men lose confidence and trust in those who lead, order disintegrates into chaos and purposeful ships into floating derelicts.[5]

While the editorial was published unsigned, Vermont C. Royster is generally accepted as its primary author. Royster served in the Navy during World War II, and his service exemplified a fact that wartime commanding officers did not have the same level of experience as those who commanded in peacetime. Royster joined the Naval Reserve in 1940, rose to the rank of lieutenant commander by 1944, and commanded destroyer escort USS Jack Miller (DE 410) in 1944 and 1945. Royster was the subject of his own inquiry when he ran his training patrol boat, PC-1262, aground on the Miami Beach causeway. Royster was found blameless, and instead a mechanical failure was faulted for the accident. He left the Navy at the end of the Second World War and returned to journalism at the Wall Street Journal. By contrast, Tierney was commissioned in 1941, and at the time of the collision had eleven years’ experience as a commissioned officer and Hobson was his second time commanding a ship.

Where the court placed blame with Tierney, citing reports of his personal action in command, it absolved Captain McCaffrey of any culpability. In August 1953, he took command of Naval Air Station Jacksonville and two years later served as the Vice Deputy Commandant of the Industrial College of the Armed Forces before retiring in 1956 as a Captain. McCaffrey was Wasp’s seventh captain. Her first four all promoted to Flag rank, and her next two were caretaker commanders after World War II. Four of the five captains after McCaffrey promoted to Flag rank. Given McCaffrey’s otherwise unblemished record the collision and press coverage are the most likely reasons he did not promote. He died in 1966 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

One commanding officer lost his life, another likely lost promotion. However, the lasting legacy of the collision lies not in the commander’s legacy, but in Vermont Royster’s editorial. Royster was familiar with the “tradition older even than the traditions of the country itself” and the idea that “with responsibility goes authority and with them goes accountability.” Royster, in citing accountability, clearly recognized that “those who were there must answer how it happened and whose was the error that made it happen.”[6]

Perhaps it is time we found some more modern language that recognizes the times and improves on our experiences of the last seven decades?

This accountability is far different from assigning blame or finding culpability. Blame, however, was determined and placed with Lieutenant Commander Tierney. This action, of finding fault with a dead captain unable to defend or explain himself, had long and far-reaching implications as the editorial now underpins the modern concept of naval accountability and its conflation with blame and culpability. Royster’s words are the primary context under which naval officers discuss the burdens of command. Perhaps it is time we found some more modern language that recognizes the times and improves on our experiences of the last seven decades?

USS Hobson Memorial. One side of the monument describes the events of April 26, 1952, and the other lists the names of the lost. The base is constructed from stones collected from the 38 home states of those lost. (James D. Teresco/Lost at Sea Memorials)

Michael Junge is an officer in the U.S. Navy currently teaching Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Naval War College. This article draws from his book Crimes of Command in the United States Navy: 1945-2015, a review of post-World War II naval accountability. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Naval War College, the U.S. Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] “Hobson's Choice.” The Wall Street Journal, 14 May 1952, p. 10.

[2] Synonyms drawn from thesaurus.com

[3] Definitions drawn from dictionary.com

[4] This vignette adapted from United States, Congress, The Atlantic Command And United States Atlantic Fleet Headquarters of the Commander In Chief. “Record of Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry to inquire into all of the circumstances surrounding the collision between the USS Wasp (CV-18) and the USS Hobson (DMS-26) which occurred at or near Latitude 42-21 North Longitude 44-15 West on or about 27 April 1952.” Record of Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry to inquire into all of the circumstances surrounding the collision between the USS Wasp (CV-18) and the USS Hobson (DMS-26) which occurred at or near Latitude 42-21 North Longitude 44-15 West on or about 27 April 1952, 1952.

[5] “Hobson's Choice.” The Wall Street Journal, 14 May 1952, p. 10.

[6] “Hobson's Choice.” The Wall Street Journal, 14 May 1952, p. 10.

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