Navy rejects captain’s plea to evacuate virus-ravaged carrier

US president will leave decision to the Pentagon. (AFP pic)

WASHINGTON: A US Navy captain’s dramatic plea to evacuate most sailors from an aircraft carrier struck by the coronavirus was tamped down by an admiral who called for a more gradual rotation of crew members off the ship that’s sidelined in Guam.

Citing an “ongoing and accelerating” danger onboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, Captain Brett Crozier sent his Navy superiors a memo pleading, “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die.”

He called for removing all but a skeleton crew off the carrier, where sailors are in close quarters so that they can be isolated and tested.

Admiral J C Aquilino, commander of the US Pacific Fleet, told reporters Tuesday evening that it’s not possible to move as quickly as Crozier wanted.

“There are some constraints that we’re operating around,” he said.

He added that he’s in touch with the governor of Guam about finding hotel rooms where sailors can stay until they are cleared to return.

Asked whether the carrier should be evacuated, Defence Secretary Mark Esper said Tuesday evening that “I don’t think we are at that point.”

“At this point in time, we are trying to make sure that we contain the virus, that we deploy testing kits, and we get a good assessment of how much of the crew is infected,” Esper said in an interview on the “CBS Evening News.”

President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House that he’d leave the decision up to the Pentagon.

The Roosevelt, meant to be patrolling the Pacific and South China Sea, is sitting dockside in Guam indefinitely as the number of soldiers infected by the novel coronavirus rises daily.

Infections started cropping up after an early March port call in Vietnam, which Pentagon leaders say had about 16 known virus cases at the time.

In the four-page memo to senior military officials, first reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, Crozier said only a small contingent of infected sailors have been isolated “due to a warship’s inherent limitations of space.”

After the first three sailors on the carrier were evacuated following the initial outbreak, Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly projected confidence about the ship’s status, saying it would continue sailing.

“This is an example of our ability to keep our ships deployed at sea, underway even with active Covid-19 cases,” Modly said March 24.

Crozier said in his memo that if the Roosevelt were needed for military action it would “embark all assigned sailors, set sail and be ready to fight and beat any adversary that dares challenge the US or our allies.”

“However we are not at war,” he wrote, “and therefore cannot allow a single sailor to perish as a result of this pandemic unnecessarily.”

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