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 has punished 28 sailors — from an enlisted master chief to a retired three-star admiral — for their roles in the fire that destroyed the amphibious assault ship Bonhomme Richard as it was moored in San Diego in 2020.
Most notably, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro issued a secretarial letter of censure to retired Vice Adm. Richard Brown, who was the commander of the Pacific Fleet’s Naval Surface Forces when the fire broke out on the Wasp-class ship while it was undergoing maintenance in San Diego, California.
Among the other 27 sailors, the punishments focused on the USS Bonhomme Richard’s leadership and the fire response team, according to a Navy press release. Capt. Scott Thoroman, the ship’s former commanding officer, and Capt. Michael Ray, the ship’s former executive officer, received punitive letters of reprimand and forfeiture of pay, while the former command master chief, Jose Hernandez, received a punitive letter of reprimand.
Vice Adm. Richard Brown, commander, Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet, (CNSP), gives remarks during a change of command ceremony in 2020. Brown, who is now retired, called his implication in the Bonhomme Richard fire a “political hit.” Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kevin C. Leitner
Rear Adm. Scott Brown, the Pacific Fleet’s director of fleet maintenance, and Rear Adm. Eric Ver Hage, the Navy Regional Maintenance Center’s commander, received letters of instruction from Adm. Samuel Paparo, commander of the US Pacific Fleet.
The Navy announced the punishments Friday, July 15, for the sailors it found responsible for failing to quickly extinguish the July 2020 fire that destroyed the USS Bonhomme Richard.
In addressing Brown, the highest-ranking officer involved in the Bonhomme Richard fallout, Del Toro wrote that the Admiral had “failed to identify and mitigate against the lack of oversight that contributed to the loss of the ship.” Del Toro censured the retired commander “for failing to effectively ensure appropriate levels of training readiness in units under [his] command.”
Brown has been publicly vocal in disputing those accusations. He told the Navy Times, “This was a political hit. For whatever reason, to appease the Senate, to appease Congress, we’re going to hang a three star.”
The censure letter will be placed in Brown’s official record, but, according to Navy Times, will not affect his retirement grade.
Command Master Chief Joe Hernandez, left, on board the amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard, speaks with Master Chief Petty Officer of the Navy Russell Smith about firefighting efforts to save the ship. Hernandez was the senior enlisted sailor to receive a non-judicial punishment in the fallout of the fire. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 2nd Class Kyle Carlstrom
In an interview with Defense News earlier this month, Brown disputed culpability for the bungled response to the fire. He told Defense News that he was not in charge of the Bonhomme Richard’s operational functions, even though the warship was undergoing maintenance. He was, Brown claimed, responsible only for administrative functions of the ship, not day-to-day operations like fire readiness.
Brown also said he’d been all but cleared by his superior, Paparo, the four-star who serves as the consolidated disposition authority for the fire. Brown said Paparo had found that his case “warrants no action.”
Ryan Sawyer Mays, 20, is accused of arson in the July 12, 2020, fire that consumed the USS Bonhomme Richard. Photos from GoFundMe, US Navy. Composite by Coffee or Die Magazine.
Beyond the five senior leaders, the Navy did not name impacted sailors in the outcomes of all 27 disposition decisions. In all, the Navy handed out 10 nonjudicial punishments, five letters of instructions, six other disciplinary letters, and six determinations of no action.
The announced punishments are unrelated to the upcoming court-martial of Seaman Apprentice Ryan Mays, the only sailor formally charged with setting the fire. Mays was assigned to the Bonhomme Richard after washing out of Navy SEAL training.
Jenna Biter is a staff writer at Coffee or Die Magazine. She has a master’s degree in national security and is a Russian language student. When she’s not writing, Jenna can be found reading classics, running, or learning new things, like the constellations in the night sky. Her husband is on active duty in the US military. Know a good story about national security or the military? Email Jenna.
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