Captain of Navy ship relieved following collision

SAN DIEGO — The Navy relieved the commanding officer of the USS Essex of his position, saying Tuesday that officials lost confidence in his abilities after his ship collided with a tanker at sea.

Capt. Chuck Litchfield had only been the commanding officer of the amphibious assault ship for a few weeks when the crash occurred about 120 miles off the coast of Southern California on May 16. There were no injuries or fuel spills.

The Essex was approaching the oiler USNS Yukon to be refueled as part of a routine operation when they ran into each other. Both ships were damaged but were able to continue on their way to San Diego.

Navy spokeswoman, Cmdr. Tamsen Reese, said the steering failed on the Essex, which caused the two ships to move closely together.

But the crew was able to regain control of the rudder before the collision.

The investigation determined that there were break downs in the command and control of the Essex, and in the communication between the two ships, Reese said.

Authorities also found there was a loss of situational awareness on the bridge.

All those factors, Reese said, led to the collision.

Essex was carrying 982 crew members on its way to San Diego for scheduled maintenance. It had spent the past 12 years based in Sasebo, Japan, as command ship for the Navy’s Expeditionary Strike Group 7.

Litchfield was relieved Monday of his position and has been administratively reassigned to the staff of Commander, Naval Air Force of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

He could not be reached for comment.

Litchfield graduated with merit from the Naval Academy in 1988 and has been recognized for his achievements as a naval aviator. He was selected for major sea command in 2009.

Capt. Jonathan Harnden has temporarily assumed command of the Essex until a permanent replacement is assigned. Harnden previously commanded the USS Bonhomme Richard, which Litchfield had taken command of Feb. 3 before switching over to the Essex on April 23.

Officials said the Essex will depart Wednesday as scheduled to participate in the Rim of the Pacific exercise this summer in Hawaii.

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