Archive for April 19th, 2009

I love the Iowa-class battleships.  They weren’t the biggest capital ships, nor did they carry the biggest main guns and shoot the biggest shells (those honors go to Japan’s Yamato-class ships).  But they were the most advanced examples of their class ever built.  The Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri, and Wisconsin comprised our ultimate (and final) group of ships to bear the “BB” designation.  Two other ships, the Illinois and Kentucky, were begun but never finished.  They operated throughout the Second World War, in Korea, in Vietnam, and even in the first Gulf War (mostly as cruise missile platforms).  They were the longest-serving battleships ever built and, in my opinion, were (and still are) works of art.

But while Today’s History Lesson concerns these gorgeous vessels, it’s less about “art” and more about tragedy, misplaced blame, and ruined lives.  In January of 1989, the USS Iowa had set a record, firing a 16-inch shell 27 miles.  Three months later, on the morning of April 19, 1989, the #2 turret fired again during a fleet exercise, with entirely different results.

A massive explosion in that turrent rocked the ship, snuffing out the lives of 47 crewmen.  Only quick action by a gunner who flooded the #2 powder magazine saved BB-61 from a catastrophic explosion.  Losing nearly 50 men in a peace-time accident was terrible enough, but things only got worse from there.

The explosion was treated as a criminal act, and blame was placed on Clayton Hartwig, one of the crewmen killed.  It was alleged that he was engaged in an relationship with another sailor aboard the Iowa and that he had caused an explosion in the turret to end his life when the relationship dissolved.  Later, the story was modified to be that Hartwig was simply suicidal and unstable.

The Navy seemed satisfied with the verdict, but many, including the soldiers’ families (particularly the Hartwigs) and Congress itself, smelled a battleship-sized rat.  A new investigation was opened and, wonder of wonders, a whole host of things came to light.

Charles Thompson’s controversial book “A Glimpse of Hell” lists these issues in great detail and largely faults the U.S. Navy itself.  The Iowa had been rushed back into service in the mid-80’s and her readiness, especially with the 16″ rifles, was very suspect.  The gunpowder had been manufactured in the 1930’s and had not been stored properly stored in 1988 when the ship was being serviced.  It was exposed to sunlight, causing more rapid degradation and the buildup of dangerous gases.  It also cited inadequate gunner training and a ship captain more concerned with cruise missiles than what happened with the guns.

Suddenly the Navy was back-pedaling, and was forced to revise its findings and issue a public apology to not only the Hartwig family, but to the families of 46 other crewmen who had perished, not by the selfish act of a sailor, but rather by the mistakes of their employers.

Recommended Reading: A Glimpse of Hell: The Explosion on the USS Iowa and Its Cover-Up – Again, this is a controversial book. The Navy disputes some of its findings nearly as much as everyone disputed the Navy’s original verdict. But still, it’s worth reading if you can find a copy.

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