One sailor had been confirmed dead and nine more were still missing when their shipmates huddled on the deck of the stricken guided missile destroyer USS John S. McCain.
“Big Bad John on three,” someone shouted. “One, two, three…”
The sailors called out as one, a single voice, a singular spirit.
“BIG BAD JOHN!”
These were sailors who joined the Navy not just to see the world, but to show the world. They were now showing it how to face heartbreaking loss.
Directly below where the survivors stood on Wednesday, Navy and Marine Corps divers were continuing to search compartments that had flooded when the ship collided with an oil tanker early Monday morning, Singapore time. The search and rescue effort of the surrounding waters was being suspended after extending 2,100 square miles.
Five other sailors were injured, four seriously enough to have been medevaced to a hospital in Singapore. They had been visited there by Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the Pacific Fleet.
“They are tough and they are resilient,” Scott told the press afterward. “It is clear that their damage control effort saved their ship and saved lives.”
The collision was the second in as many months between a major warship of the Seventh Fleet and a commercial vessel with fatal results. Seven sailors had died when the USS Fitzgerald collided with a container ship off the coast of Japan on June 16.
That tragedy had been preceded by two less serious mishaps. The guided missile cruiser USS Antietam ran aground off the coast of Japan in January, perhaps because of improper anchoring. The guided missile cruiser USS Lake Champlain had a relatively minor collision with a South Korean fishing boat in May.
Logic would suggest that something has gone wrong in the Navy, but that videoed huddle and that Big Bad John cheer suggest that the dedication of the crew was certainly not a problem aboard the USS John S. McCain.
The ship held weekly damage control drills. A recent report by the lead inspector with the Navy Board of Inspection and Survey (INSURV) that tests ship readiness said of the USS John S. McCain, “Motivated crew, best assessment I’ve seen (37 years).”
Despite the USS Fitzgerald tragedy and the two preceding mishaps, a sailor who until recent months served aboard Big Bad John never imagined that the same thing could happen to his ship.
Culinary Specialist 3rd Class Denzel Truesdale knew seven of the ill-fated 10. He speaks of them and the rest of the USS John S. McCain’s crew as comrades who each did his or her part.
“We learned that we all have jobs and we have to work together get the job done,” Truesdale, 23, told The Daily Beast.
One of the missing, 26-year-old Electronics Technician 2nd Class Kevin Bushell, was as cheerful as if he were on a cruise yet was all business when it came to his duties.
“Every time you saw him he had a smile on his face, but when it came time to do his job, he was there,” Truesdale said. “He was a man about his work.”
Truesdale was “liberty buddies” with another of the missing sailors, Electronics Technician 3rd Class Dustin L. Doyon. The 26-year-old Doyon was all business when it was needed, but when the ship was in port, he and Truesdale would set off to explore. Doyon would sometimes venture solo on a bicycle, following his adventuresome spirit where it took him, snapping photos along the way.
“He was about enjoying life and making the most of it,” Truesdale said.
Upon his return, Doyon would show Truesdale the photos and maybe make a meal of chicken and pasta.
“We’d sit down and watch one of his favorite shows, Archer,” Truesdale recalled.
Truesdale was going through a difficult time in his personal life, and he would tell Doyon what he had told no one else.
“Secrets I thought I probably would take with me to the grave,” Truesdale told The Daily Beast. “He never judged. He pretty much helped me through it.”
Truesdale figures that such closeness among the crew derived in part from everybody playing a necessary part while they were out in the vastness of the sea for what he figures to have been 85 percent of the time.
“Even if the ship seems big, it’s actually quite small,” Truesdale said.
On June 2, they made a routine stop in Cam Ranh International Port in Vietnam, and who should come aboard but Sen. John McCain. He had been held as a POW in Vietnam for five years, and these decades later he was back there, visiting the ship that had been named after his father and grandfather. He understood that these sailors were not just seeing, but showing.
“People all over America are grateful that you are here far away from home, far away from your loved ones, representing the United States of America,” he was quoted saying.
The senator continued on to a future that would include a diagnosis of a brain tumor and a dramatic moment at the Capitol. Truesdale left the Navy but stayed in touch with his shipmates. He had no foreboding about what their future might hold, even after seven sailors died aboard the USS Fitzgerald on June 16. He would have a simple answer when asked if he thought such a tragedy could also befall the USS John S. McCain.
“No, I didn’t,” he said.
In the aftermath of the second tragedy, Adm. Joseph Aucoin was removed as commander of the Seventh Fleet. The question of what went wrong remained.
“During the last 69 days, the USS Fitzgerald (DDG 62) and the USS John S. McCain (DDG 56) were involved in two separate major collision with commercial vessels while operation in the Seventh Fleet AOR [area of responsibility],” Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. William Moran said in an Aug. 24 memorandum. “Recent events indicate these tragic incidents are not limited occurrences but part of a disturbing trend.”
Some suspect the Maritime Automatic Identification System—AIS—that commercial ships use to transmit their position and course may have played a role in the larger tragedies. The military often does not use the system, as anybody with a particular Google app could detect their presence. The app does show what may also have been a factor: the amount of commercial shipping traffic in that part of the world.
When the names of the one confirmed dead and the nine who remained missing were released, everything you learned about them made it seem less likely that the crew of the USS John S. McCain had been a significant factor. Each sailor was more admirable than the next.
The one confirmed death was 22-year-old Electronics Technician 3rd Class Kenneth A. Smith. He was a third-generation sailor who wrote science fiction in his free time. His father, Daryl Smith, a Navy officer, issued a statement that said in part:
“Kenneth was a great young man, son, and Sailor. He truly loved his family, the Navy, and his shipmates. I am incredibly proud of his service to our country. He will be greatly missed and I am thankful we had 22 wonderful years together.”
The father went on in true Navy fashion: “As we mourn Kenneth, we would like to recognize and thank so many people for their efforts and support, especially the brave crew of USS John S. McCain, and all the search and rescue personnel who are still hard at work with a difficult task… Most important we ask you to keep in your thoughts and prayers all the families and friends of those affected by this tragedy.”
The mother of another of the missing, 20-year-old Electronics Technician 3rd Class John Hoagland, told the press that her son loved the Navy and would not have wanted to serve in any other branch of the military.
“He sends me pictures of just water,” the mother, Cynthia Kimball, said.
A close friend of the carefree and careful Kevin Bushell said his smiling photo carries a message even for people who did not know him.
“Be reminded to smile all the time, find the silver lining in every cloud, laugh harder, party like a rock star, love each other more than you ever thought possible, and live every minute like it is a gift,” the friend, Stephen Townes, posted on Facebook.
Townes went on, “Still praying for a miracle for you and your family, love you like a brother and wish like hell I would have found a way to say that to you more often.”
Truesdale told himself that there might still be hope for Doyon and his missing comrades.
"I don’t want to believe until I know for sure,” he told The Daily Beast. “I’m just keeping my prayers up and my condolences keep going to the families.”
And the Navy is investigating.