‘Mishap Ship’: Troubled Marine Corps Vessel Received Major Award For Battle Readiness

SAN DIEGO (February 9, 2024) — PCU John L. Canley (ESB 6) enters San Diego Harbor Feb. 9. The latest Expeditionary Sea Base is named for Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. John L. Canley on May 11 who was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2018 for his actions in 1968 during the battle Hue City, Vietnam. The ship will join the active fleet Feb. 17, with a commissioning ceremony at Naval Base Coronado’s Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego. (U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Mark D. Faram)

A Marine Corps amphibious assault ship that was subject to investigation for engineering breakdowns in 2023 that hurt Navy readiness received a prestigious battle effectiveness award covering the time period in which at least two of the engineering failures occurred, according to press releases.

Investigations initiated by the strike group commander, who oversees every ship in the amphibious ready group, excoriated the USS Boxer’s commanding officer and entire engineering department for “complacency” that led to at least two engineering mishaps in May and July, the investigations show. The Boxer recently received an honor given to the Navy’s best ships for that year, although those casualties led to the ship being unable to put to sea when the Navy needed it, according to media reports and the senior officer who reviewed the investigations.

“[Boxer] Engineering Department has all ‘common traits of a mishap ship,’” the report, whose author is redacted, stated. The report was addressed to the strike group commander. Rear Adm. Randall Peck assumed command of the strike group in June 2023.

Military.com obtained the investigation reports via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) earlier in March.

An expert questioned how the ship could receive the Naval Surface Force’s preeminent award while it was not seaworthy until August and had its deployment reportedly delayed by several months.

“Given the fact that [the Boxer] was late to deploy” and dealt with “numerous engineering problems, this would be odd for her getting the award for 2023,” Brent Sadler, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation with 26 years of experience in the Navy, told the Daily Caller News Foundation. “In my experience there has been a reticence to award ships in the shipyard or just coming out of it … which makes the award to [the Boxer] stand out.”

The Boxer received the Battle Effectiveness Award (Battle “E”), for the 2023 calendar year first announced Feb. 27 in every category except the one related to engineering, according to a press release and a post on the ship’s Facebook account.

The award “recognizes sustained superior performance in an operational environment, and sustained continuous readiness,” the press release stated. The award “is not a qualification award or an award for mere excellence — it is awarded to the best ships in the organization.”

The instruction states that the award is about the warrior skills that combatant ships must demonstrate in conflict.

The Boxer earned the Maritime Warfare Excellence Award; the Command, Control, Communications and Information Warfare Excellence Award; the Logistics Management Excellence Award.

“USS Boxer is a multi-mission ship and is eligible for battle effectiveness and excellence awards for a variety of capabilities. The battle effectiveness award categories for the surface force include maritime warfare; engineering; command, control, communications and information warfare; logistics management, ship safety, and self-sufficiency,” Naval Surface Forces spokesperson Cmdr. Arlo Abrahamson told the DCNF on Monday.

“Of note, USS Boxer did not earn the battle effectiveness excellence award for engineering,” he added. Boxer completed sea trials and advanced training recently and is in process of making final preparations to deploy.

A video published by the Boxer’s social media team announced completion of at-sea integrated training exercises on Jan. 23, and they were completed on the 18th, the press release stated. Exercises spanned a “full spectrum of military operations,” including combat and humanitarian missions.

“The ship is expected to deploy soon,” Abrahamson said.

Boxer has been underway every month since August with the exception of February, Boxer Commanding Officer Capt. Brian Holmes said in the press release.

“The crew has worked tirelessly during this time to become America’s premier emergency response force,” Holmes said. “The credit belongs to our Sailors and Marines. These Navy-wide recognitions speak to the ship’s combat credibility and the crew’s readiness for what’s ahead.”

The Battle “E” has four categories and encompasses the calendar year for which it is awarded, according to a description from the U.S. Navy and press releases. They are awarded by region for specific classes of ships.

That means the Boxer was evaluated for a period between Jan 1, 2023 and Dec. 31, during which period the investigations revealed multiple engineering failures and performance deficiencies among key personnel.

Minimum requirements to earn the award include maintaining a high state of readiness, safety awareness in all shipboard operations, and better than poor performance in any major qualification or certification, the Navy’s description states.

“A ship’s failure to demonstrate the ability and readiness to perform effectively its primary missions in an operational environment shall be disqualifying for that cycle,” the award description states.

On May 14, a boiler safety breakdown occurred that the Strike Group commander attributed to a “lack of procedural compliance and overall complacency” of all personnel involved. Through May 5, the Boxer engineering leadership had failed to correct for known deficiencies.

The strike group commander also indicted Capt. Holmes, then the ship’s executive officer prior to assuming command in September, for his culpability in the engineering team’s shortcomings.

The Boxer last deployed in 2019 before undergoing a $200 million overhaul beginning in 2020. After the upgrades ended in 2022, the Boxer was stuck in port for still undisclosed reasons before putting to sea again in August, according to Military.com.

Black smoke was seen spewing from the Boxer’s smokestacks after it steamed away from the harbor on Aug. 17, according to Military.com. Official photos show it returned Aug. 22.

In his letter responding to the commander’s investigation into the case, Peck found that “every level of senior engineering leadership failed to provide a safe, professional, and procedurally compliant work environment in engineering department.” The shortcomings had a “direct, measurable impacts” on the Boxer’s deployment and “impeded the overall accomplishment of the strike group’s mission.”

“The Navy’s Pacific Fleet was less ready and less capable because of USS Boxer’s shortfalls,” Peck added.

Investigators looked into the second-in-charge of the Boxer’s engineering department, a sailor with 27 years of experience, who failed to ensure subordinates were trained properly. They also addressed allegations of assault and toxic leadership styles involving one or more sailors described as senior enlisted engineers; because names were redacted, it is unclear how many references are to the same sailors.

“Several previous attempts have been made in late 2022 and 2023 to complete master light off checklists … and get underway. In each of these cases, engineering casualties or inoperable engineering equipment prevented the ship from taking to sea,” the investigation states.

The Boxer was supposed to deploy in November, but that was delayed due to a requirement for “additional advanced training,” Military.com reported, citing officials speaking on condition of anonymity.

Sadler said the crew deserves commendation for apparently remediating the Boxer’s issues in recent months and getting it back to sea. However, he urged the Navy to be more transparent.

“The public deserves to know more about what caused the delays beyond mishaps,” he told the DCNF. “Battle ‘E’ awards are highly prestigious and typically not easily awarded. That isn’t to say that waterfront politics couldn’t be entering into the mix.”

“Having been on a ship that receive[d] this after a legacy of mishaps I understand the dynamic well and what it takes to get such recognition,” he said.


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