Instead of Sailing with Captain, Officer Told Crew of Death

The USS Philippine Sea's executive officer was looking forward to his first cruise with Capt. Wesley Aaron Smith after months of refitting the ship at Mayport Naval Station.

Instead of sailing with his captain, Cmdr. Nathan Rowan had to tell his crew that Smith died in a Saturday-night fire at his home at Jacksonville Naval Air Station.

Named acting captain after the death, Rowan said only some of the crew were on board due to the three-day Columbus Day weekend when he gathered them on its flight deck Sunday. It was his last duty as acting captain as Smith's replacement had been ordered to take over earlier than planned.

"I just told them that the captain had been involved in a house fire and that he did pass away, and I offered services from our chaplain if they needed to grieve or had emotional issues," Rowan said. "It was emotional for me, but I had to be strong for the crew.... I felt it was my last act as commanding officer to tell the sailors and not put the burden on the new commanding officer."

Jacksonville NAS fire crews responded to the fire about 8 p.m. Saturday to find him alone and unresponsive, the Navy said. The cause of death and the fire remain under investigation by the Navy, the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and state fire marshal, according to the state chief financial officer's office.

Smith was a native of Kittery, Maine, commissioned as an ensign in 1990. He commanded the USS Underwood from January 2008 to October 2009, and was captain of the USS The Sullivans from June 2012 to April 2013. He took command of the USS Philippine Sea in October 2013. He was in charge in late September 2014 when the Philippine Sea launched Tomahawk missiles against ISIS targets while on a nine-month deployment in the North Arabian Gulf.

The ship returned to Mayport Naval Station 11 months ago and was undergoing a refitting due to end in a few weeks.

Rowan, 42, had served with Smith since May 4 and last spoke with him early in the weekend. He said they spoke for an hour about the refit and the deployment, ready to go to sea on their first tour together. They also discussed the change of command that would see Smith leave Nov. 24, and Rowan's own work toward promotion.

"His mood was normal. ... We laughed a lot. It was a good conversation," Rowan said. "He was at the end of his tour on the ship, and he asked that good or bad, he would be the first I would call [when I got news of the promotion]."

Capt. John Schmidt, who was to take over the ship Nov. 24, is being brought in early. Rowan said.

Smith is survived by his wife and two children, who were not at the home on base when the fire occurred, said Navy Region Southeast spokesman Steve Strickland. Funeral and memorial arrangements are still being made.

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