This is part 3 of a series on the explosion on the USS Iowa on April 19, 1989 that killed 47 men in turret 2 of the battleship. In this part I will cover the Navy's shoddy investigation, which in reality amounted to a cover-up, and the Naval Command's despicable effort to blame the disaster on a single dead sailor.
* Part 2: Fatal weaknesses ignored.
The turret consisted of its visible portion, the "gunhouse", and then extended several stories down to the "magazine" levels where shells and gunpowder were kept pending transfer to the gunhouse for firing.
The turret officer for Turret 2 was Lt. (jg) Phil Buch, age 24, from Las Cruces, NM. The turret chief was Reggie Ziegler, age 39, from Port Gibson, NY. Both of these men were killed in the blast. According to Wikipedia, which has an excellent article on this incident, the following occurred, starting 44 seconds after Captain Moosally gave the order to fire the guns in Turret 2:
1. Buch reported that Turret Two's right gun was loaded and ready to fire.Following the explosion, once the fire had been extinguished, the bodies were removed, without any photographs being taken as to their positions in the turret. Much of the wreckage from the turret was simply removed and dumped over the side, without regard to its potential value in reconstructing what had occurred to cause the explosion.
2. Seventeen seconds later, Buch reported that the left gun was ready.
3. A few seconds later, Errick Lawrence, age 29, from Springfield OH, in Turret Two's center gun room, reported to Ziegler over the turret's phone circuit that, "We have a problem here. We are not ready yet. We have a problem here."
4. Ziegler responded by announcing over the turret's phone circuit, "Left gun loaded, good job. Center gun is having a little trouble. We'll straighten that out."
5. Buch then confirmed that the left and right guns were loaded.
6. Lawrence then called out, "I'm not ready yet! I'm not ready yet!"
7. Next, Ernie Hanyecz, age 27, from Borenton, NJ, a gunner's mate, suddenly called out over the intercom "Mort! Mort! Mort!", meaning Dale Mortensen, the highly-competent lead petty officer of Turret 1.
8. Ziegler shouted, "Oh, my God! The powder is smoldering!"
9. At this time, Ziegler may have opened the door from the turret officer's booth in the rear of the turret into the center gun room and yelled at the crew to get the breech closed.
10.About this same time, Hanyecz yelled over the phone circuit, "Oh, my God! There's a flash!".
11. The explosion then occurred, 81 seconds after Moosally had given the order to fire.
The Navy investigation begins.
While all this was happening, the navy began its investigation, which was headed by Rear Admiral Richard Milligan, who had commanded Iowa's sistership, USS New Jersey during one of the Reagan Administration's more ridiculous (and rather bloody) war-making efforts of trying to suppress the Druze of Lebanon with 16" shells back in 1982. Milligan did nothing to prevent the debris from Turret 2 from being dumped over the side, and his staff threatened witnesses with the apparent objective of suppressing the evidence about experiments being done with the 16" battery.
How the propellent (commonly called powder, but actually it was in pellet form) was packed was a critical point of inquiry. An error in the packaging could have caused the explosion. Additionally, a good portion of the powder bags had been recently stored over the summer in a warehouse on a barge, where the temperatures rose to over 120 degrees. At temperatures over 70 degrees, the stabilizing chemicals in the powder begin to vaporize and the powder becomes unsafe.
And in a specular display of Navy good-old-boyism, the very man who was in charge of the packing of the powder, Capt. Joseph D. Miceli, was placed on the investigating team. Micheli had run the Naval Weapons Support Center in Crane Indiana, which was responsible for the technical support and supply for the 16" batteries on Iowa and the other battleships..
As it turns out, many of the men were killed by inhaling cyanide gas produced by foam jackets which Micheli had ordered placed on the silk powder bags. It was definitely in Micheli's interest that nothing be found wrong with ether the guns, the ammunition, or the propellent. Perhaps worse yet, Milligan had authorized similar gunnery experiments when he had been in command of the New Jersey!
And so the Milligan/Micheli inquiry went on, basically achieving nothing, actually less than nothing, since they permitted potentially valuable evidence to be thrown away, and even the inside of the turret, which should have borne relevant evidence such as blast debris patterns, to be cleaned and repainted.
the breech on USS Iowa
And then along came a ray of inspiration. One of the men killed in the turret, Clayton Hartwig, had taken out a $50,000 life insurance policy, naming his shipmate, Kendall Truitt, another Turret 2 crewman but who survived the blast, as the beneficiary. Truitt had promised Hartwig's sister that he'd give the money to Hartwig's parents, but she didn't really trust Truitt to do, so she wrote letters to Moosally and others in an effort to get them to convince Truitt to do so.
Up until this point the Milligan/Miceli investigation had been plodding along a general theory that some sort of friction in the sliding of the powder bags had ignited the fire leading to the explosion. This actually was somewhat close to truth, and perhaps even those blockheads might have reached this conclusion ... that is, until Hartwig's life insurance policy became known.
From that point onward, the Navy developed the following theory:
1. Hartwig was secretly a homosexual (note: there was no evidence for this; Hartwig had actually dated a pole dancer, if that's any evidence of his sexual preference.).There. You see how easy it is to blow up a battleship.
2. He and Truitt had been lovers, or at least Hartwig had some kind of yearning for Truitt. (this supposedly accounted for the naming of Truitt as the beneficiary of Hartwig's life insurance policy.)
3. When Truitt went off and got married, the spurned Hartwig became both suicidal and homicidal.
4. Hartwig then devised a plan whereby he would plant a home-made detonator between the powder bags, then have the hydraulic rammer shove the powder bags too far into the breech of the gun.
5. This would set of the detonator, firing the powder bags with the breech still open, undoubtedly killing Hartwig but also everyone in the turret, including Truitt.
6. Oh, and one more thing. Hartwig did not actually operate the hydraulic ram. He would need to use his position as gun captain to misdirect the ram operator.
to the rammerman (left, partly visible) to insert
the powder bags into the breech.
This solved a lot of problems for the Navy. If the problem had been a technical one such as the gunpowder, or the loading procedure, this meant that the 16" gun, the sole unique weapon system used by the battleship, might be too dangerous to operate. If the problem was shoddy training or incompetent command on the Iowa ... well, let's not go there!
And there were many technical, training, and command problems that the Navy didn't want to acknowledge as the possible explanation, including.
1. In the summer of 1988, when Iowa had been in dry dock, a good portion of the powder bags had been removed from the ship and stored in a warehouse on a barge, where the temperatures rose to over 120 degrees. At temperatures over 70 degrees, the stabilizing chemicals in the powder begin to vaporize and the powder becomes unsafe. Nobody bothered to notice, and all this likely degraded and now-dangerous powder (1800 bags) was loaded back onto to the battleship.
2. The hydraulic rammer could be accidentally used to jam the bags in at a speed of 14 feet per second, not 1.5 fee per second as was standard. No fail-safe system existed to prevent the wrong ramming speed from being used.
3. Many if not most of the men in the Iowa's gun turrets had not been properly trained; this problem was particularly acute on center gun of Turret 2.
4. Neither the captain, the executive officer, nor the weapons officer on board Iowahad any experience in, knowledge of, or interest in the 16" gun battery. These weapons systems were seen as having no future, and the primary interest of these officers was in the ship's missile systems.
5. The captain of the Iowa permitted experiments to be done with the ship's 16" gun battery, including one underway in the center gun when it exploded.
6. The experiment being done on the center gun required the loading of only 5 bags of powder -- yet no one in any gun turret on Iowahad any training as far as how far up the breech the five bag load should be placed by use of the hydraulic rammer.
The Navy ignored all this contrary evidence and concentrated solely on the "spurned homosexual lover theory."
Bungled Navy "investigation".
One of the justifications for ignoring this evidence was that tests that the Navy's Dahlgren research lab had done indicated that ignition by friction or overram was not possible. The Navy claimed to have found evidence, based on the presence of "foreign" substances in the breech of the center gun, and on the shell extracted from that gun, of the placement of a detonator in the powder load.
The "investigation" was just about most offensive and ham-handed POS forensic work one could ever imagine. I already mentioned their tactic of intimidating witnesses. But there was more, so much more in the Navy's bag of tricks.
For example, the Navy saw fit to question Truitt's wife about how often she had sex with her husband and what positions they used. Meanwhile while the investigation was underway, much of its theories, including Hartwig's name and the theory that he was an angry and suicidal homosexual were leaked to the press.
charge in a 16" gun and loading machinery.
After a few months of this, nobody outside of the Navy command and their toadies in Congress such as John Warner (R-Military Industrial Complex) had any confidence in the Navy's investigation.
Starting in November, 1989, hearings were held in both the Senate and the House, and the GAO was brought into the investigation. GAO in turn brought in scientists at Sandia National Laboratory to conduct an actual science-based investigation.
Sandia conducted a series of new and much more careful experiments than the shoddy ones employed by the Navy. What these experiments established beyond any doubt was:
1. There was no foreign substance in the center gun. All claimed "foreign substances" (e.g. calcium, chlorine, etc) were either present in comparable quantities in the other guns, or were traceable to materials introduced into the center gun after the explosion to free the shell.
2. The powder bags had been rammed even further into the center gun breech than the Navy had thought. Sandia was able to replicate an explosion of the powder bags using an similar overram, which forced the navy to issue an order immediately suspending the firing of 16" guns on all battleships until corrective action could be taken..
This evidence, combined with the fact that no one actually knew if Hartwig had been acting as the gun captain that day (recall the locations of the bodies weren't photographed or tracked in any sort of reliable way), forced the navy to back off from its accusations against Hartwig and Truitt. The Navy gave a lame-ass "If any one was offended, I'm sorry" type of apology to the Hartwig family
Coming next in part 4, I hope to establish who was really to blame for the explosion.