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HOW DID PAYING RESPECT TO A MILITARY HERO TURN INTO A COURT-MARTIAL?
by Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III
(Jul. 5, 2012) — [Editor’s Note: The following is a continuation of Part 1 of this story in which LCDR Fitzpatrick had related the aftermath of a terrorist attack which killed the brother of his ship’s captain in Athens, Greece on June 28, 1988.]
This was our 9/11, and it hit the ship very hard. It hit the command very hard. It was like the reaction people had when we were attacked on 9/11, only it was more personal, because it was so close. A military member had been taken out by a terrorist organization, and this was back when it was not going on as frequently as we now know it is.
It hit everybody hard. You can imagine: these instructors were then dealing with a crew that has just been as much attacked as it happens, and by extension, the group instructors knew that it wasn’t appropriate for them to put us through our paces on that day. It was restructured because of the tragedy that we were all dealing with in the aftermath. So the men put together a wreath, and it was awesome. There was a period of the day when I worked with our command master chief, Poasa Fa’aita, and I said, “Master Chief, I want you to go down and occupy the Captain, keep him in his stateroom as you are able to do. He conjured up a way to do that.
We had the entire ship man the rails, and what that means is that all the men on the ship are standing one foot apart from each other around the entire circumference of the ship. We were in our working clothes, because we were a working ship, meaning that when we got done with the ceremony, we were going to have to get under way. We had the rails; at every top-flight surface, there was a man standing one foot next to another man around the entire ship. It’s kind-of like if you’re looking at a house and it hangs Christmas tree lights off of the circumference of the house around the roof inches from each other, that’s the way it looked with the men of the ship manning the rails. If you Google that, you’ll see what it looks like. It’s very impressive. We can to a full stop; we stopped the ship completely. Chaplain Ableson was up on the bridge, and he had the ship’s announcing system microphone in his hand, and he… [pause]
Then I called down to the captain’s state room and the command Master Chief, and I said, “Skipper, you’re needed on the bridge,” and the Master Chief brought him up. And of course, the Captain entered the bridge and went up to the point where he could see what was going on around him, and he had his entire crew standing at rigid attention; there were men on the fo’c’sle of the ship, which is the forward part of the ship; they were on the port side of the ship. The captain was escorted over to the port bridge wing where he could watch what was happening. The men had the wreath in their hands, and Chaplain Ableson began to read at the beginning of the ceremony, there was a prayer, and then we dropped the wreath in the water in tribute to William Edward Nordeen. Then Chaplain Ableson finished with the words that he was speaking. The entire ship was silent except for Brad Ableson talking on the ship’s communication system, and it was just dead-quiet. We dropped the wreath, and it was engine ahead one-third.
We stayed there for maybe 15 minutes and then got under way. The captain stayed on the port bridge wing, and he went to a place where you could see only his back. We backed away from him so that he was standing alone. It was a very powerful tribute to Capt. William Edward Nordeen on the 29th of June, the day that we discovered that this had happened. That afternoon, Mike Edwards, the chief of staff from Combat Logistics Group I, had flown down and come out to the ship by helicopter. As were sailing back into San Diego that night, Mike Nordeen turned command of the ship over to Mike Edwards. Then Capt. Nordeen went down to his state room to get ready to leave, and it was Mike Edwards who was the captain of the ship as we came back into San Diego to anchor again. Then Mike Nordeen left by motor whale boat with the FTG instructors when they went back in.
Refresher training is your battle problem; it’s not a deployment, but you’re going to war. It is the final battle problem that you must pass before you take the ship into harm’s way.
We didn’t know what Capt. Nordeen’s itinerary was after he left the ship, but he was ordered to Athens, Greece to attend to his brother’s remains, take care of affairs, and then act as the escort for his brother coming back home. They moved him with the speed of heat. He didn’t have a lot of time; I don’t think he was even allowed to return home. He lived up in Novato, north of the Golden Gate Bridge, at an old Air Force Base that had been used for military housing, and he had one of the captain’s quarters. I don’t remember that he even returned to his home. He was flown in working khakis, as I recall, all of the way to Athens. After he left, the extraordinary concern was that the didn’t have his uniform; he wasn’t ready to participate in the kinds of ceremonies that he was about to be called upon to do. He might have had a set of service dress whites, but we were very concerned about the skipper and what he and his family would need as he was flown without notice to Athens and returned home to Dover Air Force Base for the reception ceremony and eventual interment procession and protocols followed at a military funeral.
So the thought we had was that the skipper was going to need support; so was his family. It was Mark Collins, our HM1, First Class Petty Officer, who said, “We need to do something about this,” and that word spread rather quickly. That’s where the notion began to build throughout the crew that we would send a contingent to the East Coast, to Arlington National Cemetery, the last resting place for William Edward Nordeen. He is buried in General Plot 7 Bravo, a very feet from the Tomb of the Unknowns. He’s buried there next to Pappy Boyington about whom there was a television show, “Baa Baa Black Sheep,” about his history, who was a Marine Corps fighter pilot in World War II. Pappy Boyington died in 1988. Joe Louis is buried very close to where William Edward Nordeen is buried right now. It’s a place of high honor.
Capt. William Edward Nordeen was buried on July 6, 1988.
So we put together a contingent of people. We had four women from the wives of our crewmen, of which one was my wife; and six sailors who we were allowed to send, because the ship was still going through refresher training. We couldn’t send just anybody. We had to be very careful about who we sent because we had to fight the ship in a battle problem. That’s how the funeral trip came about, and the ship approved $10,600 and change for the six crewmen and four wives. We sent one female for each one of the women in the Nordeen family. So there were our captain’s wife, the deceased Captain Nordeen’s wife; and the daughter, The mother of the two men was there from Wisconsin. So there were four women in the Nordeen family, and we sent four female escorts to be with them at this very tragic time in their lives and as a show of support from our ship and, if you want to know the truth, from the United States Navy. These are the kinds of honors and respects that we pay one another.
Mike Nordeen returned to the ship while we were still in refresher training, all within about two weeks. He was on the bridge of the ship as we sailed out of San Diego Harbor to return home to San Francisco Naval Supply in Oakland. The ship performed magnificently; we did a super job.
This is what began the saga for CDR Walt Fitzpatrick as it goes to the court-martial. It was 14 months after all of this took place that the new admiral, John Bitoff, who had relieved Bob Toney, came after me and used his Staff Judge Advocate, Tim Zeller, and then he appointed my defense counsel, Kevin Anderson. That trio set up a court-martial against me and came after me because John Bitoff was a political admiral and saw to it that I was to be removed from the Navy. He didn’t like me; he saw me as a threat because of what I might do as a whistleblower and the positions he saw me ascending to. That’s what began the whole court-martial thing. The court-martial was rigged, and you know all the rest of that story. He said that I had stolen the money that was used for the funeral trip to send people to honor Capt. William Nordeen as he was being recognized as a hero, as he should have been properly recognized…That’s what John Bitoff did. That’s how my court-martial came about.