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Navy Calls Off Search For Missing Sailors


A search for three missing sailors in the Pacific Ocean is over. The U.S. Navy says it's done its best to find survivors of Wednesday's plane crash off the coast of Japan. Eight of the sailors onboard were rescued. Here's what Navy Secretary Richard Spencer said that day.


RICHARD SPENCER: Eleven people on board. Eight have been rescued so far. Full search mission is underway.

KING: Now that the search mission is suspended, there are questions about what caused the crash. And there are questions about why this fleet has had a couple of accidents this year alone. NPR's Rob Schmitz is with us now. Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So, Rob, how broad was this search for the missing three?

SCHMITZ: Yeah. The 7th Fleet, which its aircraft and its crew belong to, dedicated significant resources to this search. They had three guided-missile destroyers, two Japanese helicopter carriers, three Japanese destroyers, along with a bunch of helicopter squadrons. And all of them searched an area of around a thousand nautical miles before the search was called off.

So in a statement issued today, the 7th Fleet's rear admiral, Marc Dalton, said their thoughts and prayers are with their lost shipmates and their families and that they are thankful for the rapid response that led to the rescue of their other shipmates who were on board when their cargo plane crashed on Wednesday.

KING: All right. In any plane crash, with any plane crash, details do take time to come in. What do we know so far?

SCHMITZ: Well, the Navy isn't saying much at this point, as you mentioned. You know, the crash is under investigation. But here's what we do know. This aircraft, a C-2A Greyhound propeller plane, was on its way from a base in Japan to the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier when it crashed. Japan's defense minister told reporters the U.S. Navy told him that it was likely an engine failure, but the 7th Fleet has not confirmed that yet. The U.S. Navy hasn't yet released the names of the three sailors lost at sea or of the eight others who survived, either.

KING: And, Rob, it's not an understatement to say that this has been a pretty bad year for the 7th Fleet, hasn't it?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, it's been a really tough year for the 7th Fleet. This is a fleet that has up to 70 ships navigating both the Pacific and Indian Oceans. And this year alone, they've had two major collisions, both involving guided-missile destroyers - the USS John S. McCain in August and the USS Fitzgerald in June. And those two accidents killed 17 sailors.

And all of this has led to the removal of the fleet's commander, as well as seven other top brass. Crewmembers in the fleet have publicly complained about being overworked, dysfunction in the ranks and low morale. And keep in mind here that this is the fleet that has been called on to respond to the threats in the past year coming out of North Korea, so it has been a very stressful year.

KING: NPR's Rob Schmitz. Thank you so much, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.