The USS Bonhomme Richard burns in San Diego in July 2020. A member of the crew was formally charged in December 2021 with starting the fire on the warship. US Navy photo.
The Navy formally charged a sailor with setting the fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard, an amphibious assault ship that served as a landing pad at sea for helicopters and Harrier jets and that was scheduled to carry F-35s. The Wasp-class ship is estimated to have cost $750 million to build and was undergoing a $250 million upgrade when the fire broke out.
In April the ship was permanently decommissioned from the fleet, after the Navy determined that it would cost over $2 billion to repair.
The identity of the accused sailor has not been released. The fire on the Bonhomme Richard raged for four days across its 14 decks, fed, the Navy said, by flammable material onboard and strong winds, leaving fire crews sometimes helpless.
“I’m not going to lie — I was scared,” Petty Officer 2nd Class Hayley Craig told The Washington Post in September. “I think everybody was. You couldn’t really see nothing. It was incredibly hot. I didn’t know your body could take that much heat.”
The charged sailor was a member of the Bonhomme Richard’s crew. The announcement means that the sailor could now face a court-martial. Under UCMJ rules, the charges will be heard at a formal hearing, after which an official will recommend to Vice Adm. Steve Koehler, commander of the 3rd Fleet, whether or not a court-martial is in order.
With its exit from active duty, the Bonhomme Richard became just the fourth ship the Navy has been forced to retire from the fleet due to damage since 2000, and the second lost to an intentionally set fire. The Miami, a fast attack submarine, was scrapped after it burned at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in Maine in 2012 when a shipyard worker set a fire in an effort to get off work.
The other ships lost since 2000 were both to groundings, according to the US Naval Institute. The La Moure County, a tank landing ship, ran aground in Chile in 2000. The Guardian, a mine countermeasures ship, ran aground in 2013, on the Tubbataha reef system near the Philippines, and was disassembled in place.
The Bonhomme Richard was named for John Paul Jones’ flagship during the American Revolution. Jones’ ship was named by its French builders — it translates roughly as “Good Man Richard” — in honor of then-US ambassador to France Benjamin Franklin, who often wrote under the pen name Richard.
Matt White is a former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine. He was a pararescueman in the Air Force and the Alaska Air National Guard for eight years and has more than a decade of experience in daily and magazine journalism.
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