WASHINGTON — The captain had reached a breaking point.
The aircraft carrier he commanded, the Theodore Roosevelt, was docked in Guam as the coronavirus raced unchecked through its narrow corridors. The warship’s doctors estimated that more than 50 crew members would die, but Capt. Brett E. Crozier’s superiors were balking at what they considered his drastic request to evacuate nearly the entire ship.
Captain Crozier was haunted by the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship of 2,600 passengers in individual cabins where the virus had killed eight people and infected more than 700. The situation on his ship had the potential to be far worse: nearly 5,000 sailors crammed in shared berths, sometimes stacked three high. Eight of his sailors with severe Covid-19 symptoms had already been evacuated to the Navy’s hospital in Guam.
On March 30, after four days of rebuffs from his superiors, Captain Crozier sat down to compose an email. “Sailors don’t need to die,” he wrote to 20 other people, all Navy personnel in the Pacific, asking for help. A Naval Academy graduate with nearly 30 years of military service, the captain knew the email would most likely end his career, his friends said in interviews. The military prizes its chain of command, and the appropriate course would have been for the captain to continue to push his superiors for action.
He hit “send” anyway.
Three weeks later, the fired captain is battling the coronavirus himself, 584 other crew members have tested positive and the acting Navy secretary has resigned. The secretary, Thomas B. Modly, removed the captain because he thought that was what President Trump wanted, officials said. Mr. Modly, the officials said, was keenly aware that his predecessor in the job had been fired after tangling with Mr. Trump. But in trying to please the president, Mr. Modly miscalculated and destroyed his own career.
The story of the Theodore Roosevelt encapsulates, aboard a single aircraft carrier, Mr. Trump’s tumultuous three and a half years as commander in chief. The episode shows how the military, the most structured and hierarchical part of the government, has tried to adjust to an erratic president, and how in a hollowed-out leadership, acting secretaries have replaced those confirmed by the Senate.
Early Monday, the Navy announced that a sailor assigned to the Roosevelt had died of complications stemming from the coronavirus, marking the first death of a crew member from the ship. The sailor had been admitted into intensive care at the naval hospital in Guam on April 9 after being found unconscious in bed.
The Navy’s investigation into the entire episode is expected to be made public this week.
This article is based on interviews with two dozen current and former Navy and Defense Department civilian and uniformed personnel, including Roosevelt crew members. Many spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe confidential meetings and discussions.
Sailors aboard the Roosevelt most likely picked up the virus at a port call in Da Nang, Vietnam, on March 5 — just the second visit by an American aircraft carrier to that country since the end of the Vietnam War.
At the time, 16 coronavirus cases had been reported in Vietnam, all in the northern part of the country, far from Da Nang. The top Navy officer in the Pacific, Adm. Philip S. Davidson, ordered the long-scheduled visit to proceed as an important show of American military strength in a region increasingly unnerved by Beijing’s growing territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Da Nang’s piers are too small for a ship of the Roosevelt’s size to dock. So for its brief port call, it anchored offshore, relying on small boats to ferry the crew to the docks. Crew members posted pictures to social media of rooftop hotel pools and relaxation. One post said, “feelin vietnamazing.”
On the fourth and final day in Da Nang, after dozens of sailors had spent at least one night in a hotel where two British nationals tested positive for the virus, the Roosevelt ordered some crew members back to the ship for fear they might be exposed. Those who had stayed at the hotel were immediately isolated.
The Roosevelt went back out to sea, and its medical team watched closely for any sign of sickened sailors — a ticking clock during the 14-day period when symptoms would most likely appear. Over those same 14 days, aircraft flew on and off the ship, bringing in supplies from Japan and the Philippines.
Then came the announcement over the shipwide loudspeakers at dawn on March 24 as the carrier steamed through the western Pacific. “Set River City 1,” a voice ordered.
The sailors knew something had happened. River City means Reduced Communications — no internet access or phone calls for most of the crew.
Soon after, sailors posted outside the massive ship’s medical bays turned away crew members for anything that was not an emergency. Soon everyone knew: Three sailors had tested positive for the virus. The outbreak started in the reactor department, with its crew members responsible for running the very heart of the ship: the nuclear reactors.
The three were flown from the ship to a Navy hospital in Guam. Two days later, on March 26, the Roosevelt docked in Guam. Covid-19 testing began for the entire crew.
The argument between Captain Crozier and his superior aboard the ship, Rear Adm. Stuart P. Baker, began. The Navy high command, including Mr. Modly, was also on alert back in Washington.
Captain Crozier argued for evacuating nearly the entire crew. He wanted them quarantined and tested while the ship was professionally cleaned. A skeleton crew of 500 would remain aboard to operate the ship’s nuclear reactors, safeguard bombs and missiles and warplanes, and perform other essential duties.
Admiral Baker, who as commander of the carrier strike group oversees the Roosevelt and seven other ships, countered that less drastic measures would still protect the crew and leave the Roosevelt in operation. Mr. Modly and residents of Guam also expressed concerns that the island could not house all of the carrier’s crew if the order was given to evacuate, in particular if a growing number tested positive.
The Navy considered alternatives, including sending the Roosevelt to Okinawa, Japan, or to San Diego. Another option was to leave 4,000 sailors aboard the ship and 1,000 in a base gymnasium on Guam, where they would sleep on cots several feet apart. But a first attempt at housing some of the crew at the gym quickly resulted in more cases of the virus.
Back in Washington, Mr. Modly directed a top aide to contact Captain Crozier to ensure he was getting what he needed. The aide, Mr. Modly said later, reported that the captain was satisfied, “only asking that he wished the crew could be evacuated faster.”
But at this point, Captain Crozier was composing a four-page letter to be sent by unclassified email. In the recipient line, the header was bland: REQUEST FOR ASSISTANCE IN RESPONSE TO COVID-19 PANDEMIC.
The contents of the letter were not.
“There are two end states T.R. could achieve,” Captain Crozier wrote. “We go to war with the force we have and fight sick.” In that situation, he wrote, “there will be losses to the virus.” Or, he wrote, the ship could try to “achieve a COVID-free T.R.,” with all the necessary evacuation.
“As war is not imminent, we recommend pursuing the peace time end state,” Captain Crozier wrote. He showed the email to a handful of the most senior officers on the ship. They told him they wanted to sign it, too. Captain Crozier, fearing for their careers, told them no.
Captain Crozier’s letter ran headlong into the administration’s narrative that it had everything under control.
The next day, March 31, as Mr. Modly arrived in Los Angeles to visit the Navy hospital ship Mercy, an aide had some news for him. A copy of Captain Crozier’s letter, which had not been sent to Mr. Modly, had found its way to The San Francisco Chronicle presumably leaked by one of the 20 recipients. The letter was spreading rapidly to other news outlets as well.
Mr. Modly was furious, although he restrained himself on a conference call with reporters the next day. “It’s disappointing to have him say that,” he told the reporters. “We’re doing everything we can.”
Worried that Captain Crozier’s letter would anger Mr. Trump, Mr. Modly called colleagues asking for advice, officials said. Should he fire Captain Crozier? Most of them, including Adm. Michael M. Gilday, the chief of naval operations, and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told him he should order an investigation into the incident and wait and see the outcome.
But Mr. Modly, a Naval Academy graduate and former Navy helicopter pilot who was hoping to become the permanent Navy secretary, was still worried about what the president wanted, officials said. Mr. Modly’s predecessor, Richard V. Spencer, was fired for opposing the president’s intervention in support of Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher, a Navy SEAL charged with war crimes who became a darling of Mr. Trump.
During a phone conversation with one adviser, Mr. Modly suddenly interrupted and said, according to a person familiar with the discussion, “Oh, breaking, the president wants him fired.” The person surmised that Mr. Modly had received a text message informing him of the president’s views.
On April 2, Mr. Modly called Admiral Baker, Captain Crozier’s immediate boss on the Roosevelt, and asked him if he knew about the letter in advance. Admiral Baker said that he did not, and that he would have told Captain Crozier not to send it. As Mr. Modly explained in an interview he later gave to the Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, he decided to fire Captain Crozier after that conversation.
Later that morning, Mr. Modly told Admiral Gilday, General Milley and Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper that he had decided to fire Captain Crozier even before an investigation was conducted. The three told him they would publicly support his decision, despite the reservations of General Milley and Admiral Gilday.
Representative Adam Smith, the Washington Democrat who is the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, condemned the move, as did three other Democrats on the panel. But they acknowledged that Captain Crozier might have mishandled the situation.
“Throwing the commanding officer overboard without a thorough investigation is not going to solve the growing crisis aboard the U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt,” the lawmakers said in a statement. “What’s more, we are very concerned about the chilling effect this dismissal will have on commanders throughout the Department of Defense.”
The dismissal and subsequent investigation hit the ship’s medical department hard right away. The same day Captain Crozier walked off the ship for the last time, Adm. Robert P. Burke, the Navy’s second-highest admiral, called the senior medical officer aboard the carrier as part of his investigation. Admiral Burke criticized the doctor, saying he had failed as a leader. In interviews, two crew members said Admiral Burke’s tone was hostile.
In an email, the Navy’s chief spokesman, Rear Adm. Charles W. Brown, said Admiral Burke “spoke with multiple individuals involved during the course of his investigation into the communication aboard U.S.S. Theodore Roosevelt and with the chain of command.”
As Captain Crozier walked off his ship and down the gangway wearing a black backpack and baseball cap, hundreds of sailors and aircrew members showed up on the hangar bay to form a corridor for him. Videos of the crew cheering and shouting “Captain Crozier” immediately went viral.
And that, Navy officials said, infuriated Mr. Modly. His next actions stunned Pentagon officials and effectively turned the crew of the Roosevelt even more solidly against him.
Mr. Modly boarded a Gulfstream business jet at an airfield in suburban Washington and made the 35-hour round-trip flight to Guam, at a cost of $243,116.65, according to a Navy official, confirming a report in USA Today. When he landed, he spoke with Mr. Ignatius to defend himself. He also wrote a letter to The New York Times in which he again criticized the captain he had fired and who had, by now, tested positive for the coronavirus.
Then he went to the Roosevelt and delivered a 15-minute diatribe over the ship’s loudspeakers berating the crew for cheering for its captain. He called Captain Crozier either “too naïve” or “too stupid” to command an aircraft carrier. He told the sailors they should never trust the media. He blamed China for the virus. Less than 30 minutes later, after taking no questions from the sailors, he was gone.
Within another 30 minutes of his visit, audio of his remarks was being shared broadly across social media, complete with crew reaction. “What the…?” one sailor was heard saying when Mr. Modly called Captain Crozier “stupid.”
Navy officials, inundated with calls from incredulous reporters, called Mr. Modly — now flying back from Guam — asking him to respond. He doubled down, issuing a statement that “I stand by every word I said.”
By now, lawmakers were calling for him to be fired. So, too, were current and former military officials.
“What he said to the crew, I just completely disagree with that,” Mike Mullen, a retired admiral who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, said in an interview. “The content of it, how he said it, and actually, even that he was there on that ship to say it.”
Mr. Modly’s plane landed at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington on Monday night. In a phone call, Mr. Esper told him that he had to apologize, Defense Department officials said.
Seven hours after issuing his “I stand by every word I said” statement, Mr. Modly backpedaled. “I do not think Captain Brett Crozier is naïve nor stupid,” he said. “I think and always believed him to be the opposite.”
But the damage had been done. The next day, Mr. Modly, now in isolation himself because of potential exposure to the virus during his trip to the ship, called Mr. Esper to offer his resignation. A spokesman for Mr. Modly did not respond to a request for comment.
As for Captain Crozier, he remains alone in the “distinguished visitors quarters” on Naval Base Guam, battling a coronavirus infection. The 584 other crew members who have tested positive are also in quarantine on Guam, along with nearly 4,000 sailors who have been moved off the ship. One sailor with the virus remains in intensive care at the naval hospital on the island.
Navy officials say the Roosevelt may be fully cleaned and ready to resume its operations in the Pacific this month. More than 345,000 people have signed an online petition to reinstate Captain Crozier, a step that Admiral Gilday did not rule out last week.
Amid the fallout from Captain Crozier’s letter, senior military officials say they are concerned about other warships and other missions.
“From my perspective, I think it’s not a good idea to think that the Teddy Roosevelt is a one-of-a-kind issue,” Gen. John E. Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said on Thursday. “To think that it will never happen again is not a good way to plan.”
Three other carriers — the Ronald Reagan, the Carl Vinson and the Nimitz — have had sailors test positive, and the Navy is rushing to resolve their cases.