by Sharon Rondeau
(Jan. 20, 2014) — In our last interview with Command Master Chief Poasa Fa’aita (Ret.), who served on board the USS MARS with executive officer CDR Walter Francis Fitzpatrick, III in the late 1980s, he described the events which prompted MARS crew members to send a contingent to Washington, DC to greet their captain, Michael Nordeen, in early July 1988.
The group of sailors went to show support for Captain Nordeen upon his return from handling his brother’s affairs, along with four Navy wives, who acted as escorts for the Nordeen family women following the tragedy. “The thinking was that there were women there, and they needed their own support group,” Fa’aita told us.
The crew had agreed unanimously that sending the contingent was “a great idea.” Fa’aita was honored when then-Chief of Naval Personnel Adm. Leon Edney complimented him personally on the group’s show of respect as they awaited Nordeen’s arrival at Dover Air Force Base.
Fifteen months after the contingent returned to MARS to resume refresher training, Fitzpatrick was accused of stealing the money used to fund the trip to Washington. Other alleged crimes were fabricated and retribution carried out as indicated in a memo written by Combat Logistics Group 1 staff JAG Timothy Zeller to Adm. John Bitoff.
Zeller’s role was stated as an investigator, but he also acted as a prosecutor against Fitzpatrick and at least two other men on the MARS. During the summer of 1990, a forged confession letter was placed into Fitzpatrick’s service record and court-martial record of which he was unaware until almost two years later after obtaining a copy through a FOIA request.
Fa’aita was summoned to testify at Fitzpatrick’s court-martial, the story of which he relates here.
I was transferred to the Naval Training Center in Orlando after serving on the MARS. The four of us – Capt. Nordeen, CDR Fitzpatrick, Chaplain Ableson and me – were the heartbeat of the command. We worked together in everything that affected the crew, particularly the morale. We had to look for ways to settle any difficulties and move on to what our Navy mission was all about.
When I left the MARS, everything was fine; it was great. It was one of the best afloat commands for me. In fact, I went to Washington, DC in April 1989 and I was selected to be on a board that selects promotions of senior and master chiefs in the Navy. While I was in Washington, I was approached and asked if I wanted to put in for Command Master Chief of Naval Washington, DC, where the mishap occurred in September. So my name was thrown in to be interviewed for the Command Master Chief job there. It turned out I didn’t get that job, but then my name was given to the Commander of Naval Training Center, Orlando, and that’s how I was interviewed. I came back to MARS and eventually got the call from the admiral’s staff that I had been selected for that job. So I left the MARS and went to Orlando.
In early 1990, I was subpoenaed to testify at CDR Fitzpatrick’s court-martial. I flew to Sand Point, Seattle, where the court-martial was held. I was supposed to be a character witness. This court-martial was kind-of strange to me because of the fact that I don’t recall one question that dealt with anything that was wrong, except for one thing. The one thing that I can recall in that court-martial that I was asked about was concerning the accountability of days that CDR Fitzpatrick was on leave. I think he was being accused of being AWOL. My job in the Navy was accountability for how they charge people with leave. There are a number of travel days and a number of proceeding days. That was the type of question I was asked. I found it kind-of weird; I thought, “Well, I thought I was here only to speak about the character of CDR Fitzpatrick.” I was given this kind of question, and then I went into what I knew as my area of expertise in the Navy and explained how this process works when someone goes on leave between duty stations and that sort of thing. It turned out that they said, “He can be an expert witness on the subject.” I remember that there was a discussion between the defense and the prosecutor about, “Well, no, he’s not here for that.” That’s the type of question I answered in the court-martial, aside from the initial questions of “Did I know CDR Fitzpatrick?” and that sort of thing. But most of the questions I was dealt were about accountability of days from when he went from one duty station to another.
I found it to be strange that they were asking me about the mechanics of how to account for those days and that’s why they were trying to decipher if I should be an expert witness on the subject when, in fact, I was there as a character witness. I didn’t know if that was one of the charges.
Now that everything has come out, it seemed as if they were just going through the motions, as if “It doesn’t matter what we do here today; it’s already done.” That was my feeling at that time after the court-martial, because I flew all the way to Seattle, stayed in a hotel, went in the next morning, got that done, and I was getting ready to fly back out and thought, “Why did I come here?”
At this point, The Post & Email asked Fa’aita, “What gave you the impression that it was ‘already done?'” to which he responded:
You know, you have that gut feeling. Why did I waste my time all the way there? I left the ship with a lot of work that was gong on and my commander…I came ready to defend. Fitzpatrick was one of the most professional officers that I had seen in my career. So when I left with that in mind, that I was going as a character witness, I was ready to put that forth. But I wasn’t really given the opportunity to talk about that. The prosecutor was dictating everything, but there was no chance to describe what I knew about CDR Fitzpatrick.
“Did they ask you anything at all about his character?”
Well, just “Do you know CDR Fitzpatrick?” pointing to him, but no extension of what I knew character-wise. I still remember what I felt when I returned to my hotel: “Why did they waste all this money for me to come here?”
“Did you have to pay your own way?”
No, the government paid for that. But why did I spend my time there when there was work on the ship where I was needed? It was not what I was expecting.
“Who was the prosecutor?”
It was a long time ago, but I think it was Zeller.
“He acted as investigator and prosecutor.”
Yes. I remember this guy as being with Combat Logistics Group 1, who was our immediate boss when I was on the MARS. I remember the defense counsel for Fitzpatrick was a young Marine Captain…
“Was everyone there who you would have expected during your testimony?”
It was limited to the time that I came in, but yes, I think those guys were all there. It was a court. The thing I can remember is that it was a strange court-martial.
“Had you ever been at any other court-martial?”
I had seen proceedings before, although not as a witness.
“Do you remember looking at CDR Fitzpatrick when you were testifying?”
Yes. He was just sitting there. I was sitting there looking at this gentleman sitting across from me, and I was thinking, “Why is this upstanding officer sitting here?” I couldn’t believe what was going on.
“Of course, you could not communicate with him at all.”
No, there was no association with him and me at that point. I was just thinking back on my tour on MARS and the things we did, how harmonious that relationship was, and then to see him sitting there on trial…I thought, “What the heck is going on?”
That feeling remained with me for a long time, how strange it was to be put in that setting, and the thought of “Why did I come here?” because they didn’t ask me anything pertaining to CDR Fitzpatrick.
Everything just went from there, and I didn’t hear anything at all until now, when this thing has been revealed…
“Did you keep in touch with CDR Fitzpatrick since the MARS tour?”
Not at all. Eventually, I think a postcard or Christmas card was sent, but no, we didn’t communicate as I would with other crew members, not because I didn’t want to, but perhaps because I was overcome by events or whatever, and I know that CDR Fitzpatrick was involved in finding the truth about this.
Can you imagine what was going on behind the scenes with all of the people in cahoots to take somebody out?
The one thing that I can recall, reading through that hard-to-read message from Zeller when he was on the USS Independence, I saw what he put in there because of several factors, and one of them was that he was one of the few in Combat Logistics Group 1 who had no run-ins with Fitzpatrick. I thought that was interesting.
“That’s the memo where Zeller used the phrase ‘if memory serves’ several times. Then he said that there was no way that Capt. Edwards could have known that certain people were leaving the ship to go to Washington, but CDR Fitzpatrick has explained that the daily muster report would have reflected that.”
Yes, the muster report every morning.
“Zeller then said that CDR Fitzpatrick’s assertions that Edwards was aware were ‘not credible.'”
This guy concocted all of this…they were speaking bold-faced lies in what they’re saying. It’s not anybody else who’s saying it. They were writing it down. I went through that and looked at that and said, “Wow, I can’t believe this guy.” He was the one who did the investigation and also the prosecutor. I just can’t believe that. And then to go on and defend his chief of staff, which was Edwards in this case, saying that there was no way possible that he would have known…that’s a bold-faced lie; either that, or this guy is very stupid and doesn’t understand how the Navy works.
The muster report is one of the most important documents at sea. Every morning, the accountability of sailors and crew is the first thing that you do. Anytime one person is missing, immediately the bridge is notified, the ship is put on alert, we call “Man overboard,” the ship goes through maneuvers, and we reverse course. Everybody is assumed to be overboard if they’re not there.
“That is exactly what CDR Fitzpatrick has said.”
If we’re sitting in an office, just like in a classroom, you go through the names to see that everyone is accounted for. If not, then that order is transmitted immediately. If you’re not there, it’s assumed that the man is overboard, and we have to stop the ship, sound the alarm, and send the ship back to where it came from. For these guys to say that the captain had no idea that the men were gone for two weeks…if you’re off the ship for one day, everyone would know.
It’s just absolutely wrong what they did. I think the message Zeller sent out, which he drafted himself, went to Combat Logistics Group 1’s boss, which was Commander NAVSERVPAC. From what I read and the way I look at that, this guy either plain didn’t know how the Navy works, or it was a bold-faced lie.
Sharon Rondeau has operated The Post & Email since April 2010, focusing on the Obama birth certificate investigation and other government corruption news. She has reported prolifically on constitutional violations within Tennessee’s prison and judicial systems.