Japanese Navy Shoots Down U.S. Military Jet By Mistake -- Crew Of Whidbey-Based Plane OK

HONOLULU - A Japanese destroyer accidentally shot down a U.S. attack bomber during joint military exercises off Hawaii. The jet's two American crew members ejected safely and were rescued in good condition.

Japan quickly apologized for the accident, which happened at 10:15 (PST) last night as the U.S. Navy A-6E Intruder was towing a gunnery target.

The Japanese vessel Yuugiri fired at the target but hit the plane, which crashed in the Pacific.

Japan said the accident occurred 1,550 miles west of Hawaii, or about 730 miles southwest of the Midway Islands, the scene of a major naval battle between the United States and Japan during World War II.

The pilot, Lt. Cmdr. William Royster of Kansas City, Mo., and bombardier-navigator, Lt. Keith Douglas of Birmingham, Ala., were rescued by the Yuugiri.

The A-6 squadron trained at Whidbey Island Naval Air Station, and for administrative purposes, Whidbey is its home port, said a spokesman for the Naval Air Station. The squadron, however, is based on the carrier USS Independence, which operates out of Atsugi, Japan.

A helicopter took the men to the Independence for treatment. Royster had facial lacerations and was listed in good condition; Douglas was treated for abrasions and returned to duty, said Navy Lt. Jeff Alderson.

The Japanese Defense Agency apologized to the U.S. military and decided to halt shooting practice using live ammunition, said spokesman Tomohide Matsumura.

President Clinton "accepts the gracious expression of regret by the Japanese government," White House spokesman Mike McCurry said.

The 450-foot Yuugiri, which carries a crew of about 200, was using a 20mm weapons system capable of firing bursts of 3,000 rounds per minute, said Tensuke Kobayashi, a Japanese navy official.

The gun, called a Close-in Weapons System, is made by General Dynamics of Pomona, Calif., and is designed to shoot down a missile.

Kobayashi said mechanical trouble in the weapons system may have caused the accident.

Japan Defense Agency official Tsutomu Sugiyama said eight Japanese escort vessels, a supply ship, flying corps, eight submarine chasers and one submarine were participating in the month-long exercises, which began May 22.

The annual maneuvers - called RIMPAC, for Rim of the Pacific - were launched by Australia, New Zealand, the United States and Canada in 1971. New Zealand later withdrew from the group; Japan has been participating since 1980.

This is the first such accident involving Japan since it began participating in the RIMPAC exercises, Kobayashi said.

In the exercise, the participants are divided into teams that conduct mock warfare. One team stages a mock defense of Hawaii while the other tries to capture it.

Some 1,900 Japanese sailors and 160 air force members are participating.

Toshinori Yanagiya, a senior Defense Ministry official in charge of military training, said the A-6E was towing the target at the end of a 100-yard-long cable. An aircraft typically tows a hollowed-out device made of radar reflective material as much as three miles behind it.

The RIMPAC maneuvers were expected to continue despite the incident, according to a U.S. Navy spokesman in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

It was the second time in less than eight months that Japan has mistakenly shot down a friendly aircraft. Last November, a Japanese F-15 fighter shot down another Japanese F-15 training in the Sea of Japan when an armed air-to-air Sidewinder missile accidentally went off.

Information from Reuters is included in this report. ----------------------------------------------------------------- War games in the Pacific

-- The accidental shooting down of a U.S. warplane by a Japanese destroyer came during RIMPAC '96, large-scale monthlong naval maneuvers held every two years in the mid-Pacific. -- Japan's eight warships and one supply ship joined ships and planes from the United States, Australia, Canada, Chile and South Korea. -- This year's RIMPAC games involves 44 ships, 250 aircraft and 30,000 service personnel and carrier-based aircraft, amphibious ground forces, surface combat ships and submarines.