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“A GREAT IDEA”
by Sharon Rondeau
(Jan. 11, 2014) — As reported previously, a former crew member of the USS MARS who served with CDR Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III (Ret.) in the late 1980s spoke with The Post & Email about his recollections of Fitzpatrick’s character and the events surrounding his April 1990 court-martial which the U.S. Navy has covered up for the last 23 years.
In October 1989, Fitzpatrick was accused of stealing $10,000 used to fly respective MARS contingents to Washington, DC to serve as escorts to the family of Capt. Michael Nordeen, whose brother, Capt. William Edward Nordeen, was killed in a terrorist attack in Athens on June 28, 1988. Following news of their captain’s brother’s death, MARS crew members agreed that money from the ship’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) fund would be used to pay for airfare and other expenses to send the group of sailors and their wives to act as escorts to the female members of William Nordeen’s family at the funeral in Washington, DC.
Fitzpatrick has described how the outcome of the court-martial was predetermined by his commanding admiral, John Bitoff, who used his staff to fabricate evidence against Fitzpatrick and convict him of mishandling the MWR fund when it had never been his responsibility to oversee it. Senior Navy commanders refused to conduct a proper review of Fitzpatrick’s claims of undue command influence and conspiracy, which culminated in the termination of his career in September 1994.
In July 1990, a forgery was placed in Fitzpatrick’s court-martial and service records which indicated an admission of guilt which Fitzpatrick never saw nor signed. To this day, the Navy refuses to acknowledge or examine the forgery. Numerous high-ranking officers have pointed to the document to “prove” to their superiors that Fitzpatrick confessed to wrongdoing; however, there is no paper trail for the forgery to show that it was properly delivered to Fitzpatrick and returned to his superiors using the same protocols.
No one involved in the court-martial will speak with The Post & Email on the record, and all have been notified that Fitzpatrick and this author are in the process of completing a book on the topic, including the voluminous document record he has been able to amass as a result of dozens of FOIA requests. Recently, the manuscript was accepted for publication by a publisher with the possibility of others to follow.
The Post & Email has been told by a reliable source that Navy leadership has forbidden JAG trainees to even discuss the Fitzpatrick case publicly, confirming the statement of a former Marine Sergeant who told us, “They know all about it.”
As Fitzpatrick’s captain, Michael Nordeen’s career was also negatively affected by the Letter of Reprimand issued to Fitzpatrick from Bitoff in which the forgery became Fitzpatrick’s apparent “response.”
Last week, Command Master Chief Poasa Fa’aita (Ret.) spoke with The Post & Email about the events leading up to Fitzpatrick’s court-martial, at which he later testified.
A website detailing military ranks describes the Command Master Chief:
Command Master Chief Petty Officer is the most senior enlisted rank in the United States Navy, and serves as a bridge between the enlisted sailors and petty officers and the commanding officers above them.
Command Master Chiefs are chosen from the ranks of eligible Master Chief Petty Officers, or lower Chief Petty Officers if necessary, by the Command Master Chief Program, which was started in 1995. Candidates receive specialized leadership and communications training, which enables them to serve in a unique and independent role as both the chief enlisted officer of their force and as a direct liaison and adviser to the commanding officer.
A Command Master Chief holds the rank of E-9.
Fa’aita’s official biography reads as follows:
Master Chief Poasa “Pose” Fa’aita (Military Bio)
Master Chief Personnelman (Surface/Air Warfare) Poasa Fa’aita, a native of Leone, Tutuila, American Samoa, enlisted in the U.S. Navy in December 1964 at San Francisco, CA. He completed basic training at Recruit Training Command (RTC) San Diego, CA in April 1965.
Master Chief Fa’aita’s first assignment was with Attack Squadron 165 aboard USS CORAL SEA (CVA 43). In April 1966, he deployed aboard USS INTREPID (CVS 11). In October, 1967, he was transferred to Fleet Tactical Support Squadron (VR) 21 at Naval Station Barber’s Point, HI.
Master Chief Fa’aita’s next assignments included USS LITCHFIELD COUNTY (LST 901), USS SNOHOMISH COUNTY (LST 1126) and USS PAGE COUNTY (LST 1076), units of Ship Landing Squadron THREE, in Guam, Marianas Island. In October 1969, after decommissioning of these units, he was transferred to Naval Station Midway Island.
Master Chief Fa’aita was assigned as Chief Classifier at Navy Recruiting District, Portland, OR in January 1971. In April 1974, Master Chief Fa’aita was selected by Commander, Navy Recruiting Command, as Classifier/Vocational Counselor for a special recruiting team to American Samoa.
Master Chief Fa’aita returned to the “GATOR” Navy as Personnel Officer aboard USS TARAWA (LHA 1) at San Diego, in July, 1977. Following 36 months of sea duty, in April, 1980, he was transferred to Navy Recruiting District, San Diego, CA as Chief Classifier.
Master Chief Fa’aita’s next assignment was Chief Administrator and Enlisted Processing Quality Control Coordinator in the Staff of Commander, Navy Recruiting Area 8, at Naval Station Treasure Island, San Francisco, CA, in March 1982.
Master Chief Fa’aita was assigned as Assistant Officer in Charge and Command Master Chief of Personnel Support Detachment Alameda, CA in November, 1984.
Master Chief Fa’aita reported to USS MARS (AFS 1) as Command Master Chief in November, 1985.
In July, 1989, Master Chief Fa’aita became Command Master Chief of Naval Training Center (NTC), Orlando, FL. Following this tour, Master Chief Fa’aita was assigned as Command Master Chief of USS CONSTELLATION (CVA-64) in July, 1991.
His decorations include the Meritorious Service Medal (3 Awards), Navy Achievement Medal (3 Awards) with Distinguished Combat Device, Combat Action Ribbon, Navy “E” Ribbon, Presidential Unit Citation, Navy Unit Commendation (2 Awards), Meritorious Unit Commendation (4 Awards), Good Conduct Medal (7 Awards), Navy Expeditionary Medal, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal (5 stars), Humanitarian Service Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon (5 Awards), Overseas Service Ribbon (3 Awards), Vietnam Campaign Medal (w/Device) and Navy Expert Pistol Shot Medal.
Master Chief Fa’aita is qualified and authorized to wear the Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist and Enlisted Air Warfare Specialist breast insignias.
Master Chief Fa’aita is a graduate of the U.S. Navy Senior Enlisted Academy.
Fa’aita told The Post & Email that he retired from the Navy in 1995.
THE POST & EMAIL: When did you first meet CDR Fitzpatrick?
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF FA’AITA: I was on the USS MARS way before CDR Fitzpatrick came on board. In fact, I served under three different captains on the ship. I started with Capt. Ara Hipper, who hired me as Command Master Chief for the MARS, and then under Capt. John Coonan, who himself was an aviator. In fact, they were both aviators. The third captain was Capt. Mike Nordeen.
At the same time, I had three executive officers, and CDR Fitzpatrick was the third one. I would venture to say, because it’s a two-year term for the officers, Fitzpatrick came in in 1987. I was on board in 1986, so I met him after he came on board.
THE POST & EMAIL: Did you have daily interaction with CDR Fitzpatrick?
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF FA’AITA: The way the command is set up, the CO (Capt. Nordeen in this case), the XO (CDR Fitzpatrick) and I were the three people who met every morning in a sort of a brief to discuss how things were going and look at the operation setting and where we needed to go. It was every day.
THE POST & EMAIL: How would you characterize your working relationship with CDR Fitzpatrick?
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF FA’AITA: I can tell you that it was a very respectful, professional setting among the three of us. From my standpoint as an advisory, if you will, to the captain, if I saw something that was wrong, I was supposed to tell him. There was no political setting; I had to tell the captain, “This is what’s going on. This is the feeling on the deck plates. This is how the crew is feeling. And of course, that has to be transmitted to the XO as well. It can be one person going one way and the other person going the other way, so my job was to brief both of them to let them know what was going on in the deck plates.
THE POST & EMAIL: Is it accurate to say that the Command Master Chief is at the top of the enlisted men?
COMMAND MASTER CHIEF FA’AITA: That is correct. I was the senior enlisted adviser. We had the officer community and the enlisted community; I was the connection between the enlisted men and the officers. I strengthened the single chain of command on the MARS, in this case, by keeping the commanding officer aware of existing or any potential situations as well as any procedures, and practice, in effect, the mission, readiness, and welfare and morale of the sailors.
THE POST & EMAIL: That’s a lot of responsibility.
CMC FA’AITA: Yes, I had to be on my toes at all times. Anything that might present a confession of the command policy I had to bring up. Sometimes we had Captain’s Calls, when the captain would come in and to respond to questions and concerns that the enlisted community had.
THE POST & EMAIL: What was it like when you heard that Capt. Nordeen’s brother, Capt. William Nordeen, was killed by terrorists in Greece?
CMC FA’AITA: I can still remember that vividly, even though it was so many years ago. I learned it from Chaplain Ableson, who was our command chaplain. He was a very outstanding officer and chaplain. He was the first one to inform me.
It was in the early hours of the morning. It was the XO, CDR Fitzpatrick, who sent an order to the radio man – or radio shack, as we call it – for this particular message not be released in a general message on its way to the captain. The captain sees all the messages that come in and go out; he has to see all of those. This particular message was asked to be pulled out of that group so as not to surprise the captain. It was later on when he was briefed.
After Chaplain Ableson approached me that night, the three of us – the XO, the chaplain and me – started to think about what we could do to support the captain.
THE POST & EMAIL: Did Capt. Nordeen know at that point?
CMC FA’AITA: No. The three of us were talking about how we could best approach the notification to the captain. One of the things that was going on at this particular time was that we were getting ready to go into a battlefield situation, an evaluation called “refresher training.” The captain is is concerned about how that is going to affect the position of the ship, to make sure that we are battle-ready, that everybody is up-to-speed on what he supposed to be doing, and the ship is able to respond to all the tests that we are going to be going through. That was a big thing. This is the Navy; this is what we’re for: to get the ship. Then all of a sudden, here comes the big one: the captain’s brother has been murdered.
Immediately, of course, the three of us, who I consider the heartbeat of the command, were trying to work out how best to notify the captain and at the same time, what we can do to support him.
THE POST & EMAIL: How did you end up telling him?
CMC FA’AITA: It was Fitzpatrick and the chaplain who advised the captain of the message. I went to gather all the chiefs and brief them about what just came in.
THE POST & EMAIL: Do you recall how it was decided that funds from the MWR account were used to send escorts to Washington, DC for the funeral?
CMC FA’AITA: Yes. It was a long process. Each department has its own representative for the MWR fund; they call him the MWR rep. The need came out after conversation spread throughout the ship. Here we were, ready to go out and fight the battle and be evaluated, which was the top thing in everybody’s mind, then came this. So the word spread like wildfire, and it weighed heavily on everybody. It happened very quickly. The information came out, we pulled out of San Diego Harbor and we had to take the evaluators out to sea, and that’s when all of this happened.
While the chaplain and Fitzpatrick were briefing the captain, I explained to my community, the chiefs, “This is what’s coming down.” So when we went out to sea, we held a ceremony. We stopped the ship and had a memorial service in honor of the captain’s brother. The whole ship was dressed up. We prepared a floral wreath to cast overboard symbolically. We went through the whole salute; all the honors that needed to be done that we could do at that point from the ship, we did. The men lined the rails all around the ship. All this was done without the captain knowing.
The captain has two cabins; a stateroom where he received visitors inside the ship, and his at-sea cabin, which is close to the bridge. He was at the at-sea cabin when he was told to step out into the bridge. He had no idea that the whole ship was in formation on the deck below and all around the ship.
I walked out with him. Capt. Nordeen was a very strong man; you don’t see too much emotion on him, but we saw it that day. It really hit him because he didn’t realize what was going on. In his mind, the ship was going to be evaluated to see if it was battle-ready.
Shortly after the ceremony, everybody witnessed when the captain was taken away. We watched him come off the ladder to run down to get into a boat to be taken somewhere…that remained in the minds of all the sailors, who said, “What’s going on with our captain? Why are they taking him away? And here we are, we have to go fight this evaluation…”
A sailor has a lot of things going on in his mind, and when they saw that, it presented a very unsettling picture.
After the captain had gone, we shifted our minds back to the evaluation. At every stop within the process, people would come up to me and say, “Master Chief, what are we going to do? Is the ship going to do anything to support the captain? Can we send a card?” That’s how it started. “What can we do?”
At the time, there were also the First-Class Petty Officers, who are below the chiefs. They have their own lounge. This group talked about “Hey, how about a support team?”
On a Navy ship, when we go to a new port, we usually send an advance party to see what we can do, to get the layout of the land so they can come back and brief the ship on what to do and what not to do. So that was the idea from the First-Class. “Can we send a group or some people responsible to help out?” not necessarily away from the ship, but a group that could go out and do some things and wait for the captain to come back.
When they approached me and said this, I said, “This idea has merit.”
The next day, we talked about a contingent to send off. It would be nice, because by this time, we knew that the captain was ordered off of that ship. He didn’t want to go, because he said, “I’m the CO of this ship, and I’m staying until this evaluation is done.” But he was ordered out of that ship: “You’re going to escort your brother back.” And with that, they sent a relief for him. Captain Nordeen had no choice; he was sent off.
From there, I told the First-Class when they approached me, “That’s a great idea. If we’re going to do that, it would be nice if we sent a group waiting for the captain to arrive at Dover Air Force Base,” because we knew that was where he would arrive. Then he would walk out and see his crew standing there, supporting him.
So that’s how it went.
Editor’s Note: Part 2 of Command Master Chief Fa’aita’s interview will be published on January 12.