Navy fires captain of ship that ran aground in Africa

Navy Capt. Lenard C. Mitchell has been fired as commanding officer of the USS Hershel “Woody” Williams’ Gold Crew following an investigation into how the ship ran aground in May off the coast of west Africa, service officials have announced.

“While the investigation is still open, sufficient findings of fact emerged during the investigation to warrant the relief of the commanding officer,” a Navy news release says. “The U.S. Navy holds commanding officers to the highest standard and takes action to hold them accountable when those standards are not met. Naval leaders are entrusted with significant responsibilities to their Sailors and their ships.”

The Hershel “Woody” Williams is a Lewis B. Puller-class expeditionary mobile base named for a legendary Marine and Medal of Honor recipient, who single handedly destroyed Japanese pillboxes on Iwo Jima with a flamethrower.

Mitchell assumed command of the vessel’s Gold Crew on Nov. 20, 2022. The ship sustained what the Navy described as a “soft grounding” near the port of Libreville, Gabon on May 9. It was stuck for about four hours until it broke free at high tide, USNI News reported. No injuries or serious damage in connection with the grounding was reported.

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No information about Mitchell’s role in the grounding was immediately available.  The incident is currently under investigation, said Lt. Cmdr. Jason Tross, a 6th Fleet spokesperson.

Although the Navy has not specified why Vice Adm. Thomas E. Ishee, commander of 6th Fleet, decided to relieve Mitchell of command. However, the Navy has a long tradition of holding commanding officers responsible for anything that goes wrong on their ships, whether they are directly responsible for the problem or not.

Lenard C. Mitchell
Navy Capt. Lenard Mitchell, commanding officer of the Lewis B. Puller-class expeditionary sea base USS Hershel “Woody” Williams ,center. (Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Conner D. Blake/U.S. Navy) Petty Officer 2nd Class Conner B

The Navy has relieved at least 13 commanding officers so far in 2024, compared with16 commanding officers for all of 2023.

Monday’s announcement about Mitchell marked a rare example of the Navy explaining why it had decided to fire a leader. Typically, all the military services use the euphemism “loss of confidence” to explain why an officer or senior enlisted leader has been relieved. The vague phrase covers all sorts of reasons, including problems at work and personal issues.

Mitchell enlisted in the Navy in 1990 and was later commissioned through the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program at Southern University, Baton Rouge.

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Jeff Schogol

Senior Pentagon Reporter

Jeff Schogol is a senior staff writer for Task & Purpose. He reports on both the Defense Department as a whole as well as individual services, covering a variety of topics that include personnel, policy, military justice, deployments, and technology. His apartment in Alexandria, Va., has served as the Task & Purpose Pentagon bureau since the pandemic first struck in March 2020. The dwelling is now known as Forward Operating Base Schogol.