I'm sure there will be more than a few diaries today noting the date and its significance in our country's ongoing fight against fear, hate and intolerance. People will recall terrible, fatal events and issue calls for understanding and transcending fear.
And so will I.
But I'm referring to a different April the 19th, just a wee bit further back in time.
In the 1980s, the storied battleship USS Iowa (BB61) was put back on the ocean, a symbolic addition to President Ronald Reagan's military buildup.
The Iowa had been mothballed in 1958 and sat at dock until 1983, when it was ordered refitted and re-commissioned. Though the ship underwent extensive work, it was re-commissioned in 1984 without many repairs completed, including repairs recommended for wiring and hydraulics in the gun turrets. Two years later, she failed her service inspection and underwent more repairs. Subsequently, she was pronounced fit for duty.
After a tour of duty in the Persian Gulf, she returned to the states and changed captains. The new captain, Fred Moosally, canceled scheduled repairs to the gun turrets. Because of ongoing problems with the turrets, the crews had little opportunity to train on the ship's big guns.
Meanwhile, the ship's Master Chief Fire Controlman and Gunnery Officer persuaded Moosally to allow them to experiment with the guns' charges and shells, firing oversized projectiles with "supercharged" propellant loads. Some of these propellant bags were over 40 years old, filled with black powder that was even older.
On April 19, 1989, during a firing exercise, an explosion ripped through the center gun room of the ship. Forty-seven men lost their lives.
In the Navy's first investigation of the tragedy, one of those men lost something more. His honor was stolen from him.
Ignoring testimony about repairs, readiness, propellant experiments, rapid post-event cleanup which destroyed evidence and other aspect of the event and its aftermath, the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) latched on to the fact that one of the turret gun room's crewman, Clayton Hartwig, had named a shipboard friend as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. Personnel in NIS began leaking to the media the theory that Hartwig and the other man had been having a homosexual relationship that had gone sour and that Hartwig had intentionally caused the explosion.
The media ran with the salacious rumor and Hartwig and his friend were named as criminal suspects. In May of 1989, Rear Admiral Richard Milligan released his report on the explosion, which claimed that Hartwig had caused the explosion with a timed detonator from Radio Shack.
Almost immediately, the victims' families, the media and members of Congress began to question the Navy's explanation. Both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees held hearings and tasked the General Accounting Office to investigate the Navy's claims.
The GAO went to Sandia National Laboratories to assist with the investigation. Sandia found that there was no evidence of an electronic or chemical detonator and that the explosion was likely caused by an accidental over-ramming of the gun's charge. A later Navy investigation concurred and Adm. Frank B. Kelso 2d, the Chief of Naval Operations, subsequently apologized to Hartwig's family.
There is a great deal to the story of the Iowa turret explosion that can't be covered in a short piece like this--the bravery of those who rescued trapped seamen in the turret, the outrageous actions of investigators trying to cover their asses and the asses of others, the question of whether the ship should ever have been re-commissioned at all. Interested readers should avail themselves of the material at the links below.
What I hope readers will take away from the story today is this: the very first thing that the Navy tried in looking to scapegoat a dead man for the mistakes made by higher-ups was, "Let's put out that he was gay."
As if that one assertion would erase all other questions. Because at that time, just as today, gays were second-class citizens, assumed by many in power to be flawed in nature. And, like other second-class citizens, they were easy targets when it's time to find a scapegoat.
"If they'd used white soldiers, they could have taken that fort."
"Well, the pilot was a woman."
There is no evidence whatsoever that Clayton Hartwig was gay or bisexual, and, as his mother said when asked if he were,
"I said it didn't matter.''
It didn't and it still doesn't. No one who volunteers to take arms in defense of their country is second-class in any way. They are citizens and deserve the same respect, honor and rights as any other citizens.
It is high time we corrected the injustices perpetrated on gay and lesbian citizens.
(Say what you will about wikipedia, this entry is possibly the single best summation of the incident and aftermath.)