The Navy's investigation of the USS Iowa turret explosion was seriously bungled

Iowa's turret two on fire immediately following the explosion. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Iowa’s turret two on fire immediately following the explosion. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, John Lehman, had a dream in the early 1980s: A 600-ship fleet. And while growing that fleet, Lehman wanted to bring back some of the elegance and esprit that had been lost during the Vietnam War era. And in his mind, nothing said “elegance” like the Iowa class battleships that were originally built to fight World War II.

The USS Iowa (BB 61) was originally commissioned in 1943 and decommissioned in 1958 following service in World War II and the Korean War. After sitting in mothballs pierside at Philadelphia Naval Shipyard as part of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet for 26 years, Iowa was overhauled, modernized, and recommissioned. But in order to meet SECNAV’s expectation, many necessary repairs were either skipped or rushed, and as a result Iowa failed the first major inspection in 1984. The inspecting officer recommended that the battleship be taken out of service immediately, but Secretary Lehman personally rejected that input and instead ordered the Atlantic Fleet leadership to fix the problems and get Iowa sailing as soon as possible.

In late May of 1988, the Iowa’s brand-new commander officer, Capt. Fred Moosally canceled a $1 million repair to the gun turrets, deciding to use the funds to upgrade the ship’s power plant instead. According to an article written a few years later by Greg Vistica of the San Diego Union-Tribune, between September 1988 and January 1989, sailors aboard Iowa reportedly conducted little training with her main guns, in part because of ongoing, serious maintenance issues with the main gun turrets. According to Ensign Dan Meyer, the officer in charge of the ship’s Turret One, morale and operational readiness among the gun-turret crews suffered greatly.

On April 19, 1989 the Iowa was scheduled to conduct a live-fire exercise in the waters off of Puerto Rico. The Second Fleet commander, Vice Admiral Jerome Johnson, was aboard, and Captain Moosally was eager to impress. The night before, fire-control officer, Lieutenant Leo Walsh, conducted a briefing to discuss the next day’s main battery exercise. Moosally, Morse, Kissinger, and Costigan did not attend the briefing. During the briefing, Skelley announced that Turret Two would participate in an experiment of his design in which D-846 powder would be used to fire 2700 lb (1224.7 kg) shells.

The powder lots of D-846 were among the oldest on board Iowa, dating back to 1943–1945, and were designed to fire 1900-pound shells. In fact, printed on each D-846 powder canister were the words, “WARNING: Do Not Use with 2,700-pound projectiles.” D-846 powder burned faster than normal powder, which meant that it exerted greater pressure on the shell when fired. Skelley explained that the experiment’s purpose was to improve the accuracy of the guns.

Skelley’s plan was for Turret Two to fire ten 2,700-pound practice (no explosives) projectiles, two from the left gun and four rounds each from the center and right guns. Each shot was to use five bags of D-846, instead of the six bags normally used, and to fire at the empty ocean 17 nautical miles away.

Ziegler was especially concerned about his center gun crew. The rammerman, Robert W. Backherms, was inexperienced, as were the powder car operator, Gary J. Fisk, the primerman, Reginald L. Johnson Jr., and the gun captain, Richard Errick Lawrence. To help supervise Lawrence, Ziegler assigned Second Class Gunner’s Mate Clayton Hartwig, the former center gun captain, who had been excused from gun turret duty because of a pending reassignment to a new duty station in London, to the center gun’s crew for the firing exercise. Because of the late hour, Ziegler did not inform Hartwig of his assignment until the morning of 19 April, shortly before the firing exercise was scheduled to begin.

Moosally presenting Hartwig with a duty award during the summer of 1988. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

Moosally presenting Hartwig with a duty award during the summer of 1988. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

At 08:31 on 19 April, the main turret crewmembers were ordered to their stations in Turrets One, Two, and Three. Thirty minutes later the turrets reported that they were manned, swiveled to starboard in firing position, and ready to begin the drill. Vice Admiral Johnson and his staff entered the bridge to watch the firing exercise. Iowa was 260 nautical miles northeast of Puerto Rico, steaming at 15 knots.

Turret One fired first, beginning at 09:33. Turret One’s left gun misfired and its crew was unable to get the gun to discharge. Moosally ordered Turret Two to load and fire a three-gun salvo. According to standard procedure, the misfire in Turret One should have been resolved first before proceeding further with the exercise.

Forty-four seconds after Moosally’s order, Lieutenant Buch reported that Turret Two’s right gun was loaded and ready to fire. Seventeen seconds later, he reported that the left gun was ready. A few seconds later, Errick Lawrence, 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.”

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.”

Mortensen, monitoring Turret Two’s phone circuit from his position in Turret One, heard Buch confirm that the left and right guns were loaded. Lawrence then called out, “I’m not ready yet! I’m not ready yet!”

Next, Ernie Hanyecz, Turret Two’s leading petty officer suddenly called out, “Mort! Mort! Mort!” Ziegler shouted, “Oh, my God! The powder is smoldering!” About this same time, Hanyecz yelled over the phone circuit, “Oh, my God! There’s a flash!”

At 09:53, Turret Two’s center gun exploded. A fireball blew out from the center gun’s open breech. The explosion caved in the door between the center gun room and the turret officer’s booth and buckled the bulkheads separating the center gun room from the left and right gun rooms. The fireball spread through all three gun rooms and through much of the lower levels of the turret.

The resulting fire released toxic gases that filled the turret. Shortly after the initial explosion, the heat and fire ignited 2,000 pounds of powder bags in the powder-handling area of the turret. Nine minutes later, another explosion, most likely caused by a buildup of carbon monoxide gas, occurred.

When it was all over 47 members of Iowa’s crew were dead.

Several hours after the explosion, Admiral Carlisle Trost, the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO), issued a moratorium on the firing of all 16-inch guns. Vice Admiral Joseph S. Donnell, commander of Surface Forces Atlantic, appointed Commodore Richard Milligan to conduct an informal one-officer investigation into the explosion. An informal investigation meant that testimony was not required to be taken under oath, witnesses were not advised of their rights, defense attorneys were not present, and no one, including the deceased, could be charged with a crime no matter what the evidence revealed.

Milligan boarded Iowa on 20 April and toured Turret Two. He did not attempt to stop the ongoing cleanup of the turret. Accompanying Milligan to assist him in the investigation was his personal staff, including his chief of staff, Captain Edward F. Messina. Milligan and his staff began their investigation by interviewing members of Iowas crew.

During Meyer’s interview by Milligan and his staff, Meyer described Skelley’s gunnery experiments. Meyer stated that Moosally and Kissinger had allowed Skelley to conduct his experiments without interference or supervision. At this point, according to Meyer, Messina interrupted, told the stenographer to stop typing, and took Meyer out into the passageway and told him, “You little shit, you can’t say that! The admiral doesn’t want to hear another word about experiments!”

The investigation went downhill from there, shifting from any attempt to find command-wide leadership issues or maintenance malpractice to blaming the entire mishap on Second Class Gunner’s Mate Clayton Hartwig. Navy investigators extrapolated the fact that Hartwig had taken an insurance policy out with a shipmate, Kendall Truitt, as the beneficiary into a homosexual relationship gone wrong between the two men that caused Hartwig to commit suicide by sparking the turret explosion with an incendiary device.

The Naval Investigative Service (NIS, now known as Naval Criminal Investigative Service, or NCIS) agents were ham-fisted and ruthless in their pursuit of what they already believed to be true or the direction in which they’d been ordered — tacitly or otherwise — to focus. NIS agents interviewed Truitt and repeatedly pressed him to admit to a sexual relationship with Hartwig. Other agents interviewed Truitt’s wife Carole, also pressing her about the sexual orientation of Hartwig and Truitt, asking questions about how often she and her husband had sex, what sorts of sexual acts they engaged in, and whether she had ever had sex with any of Truitt’s crewmates.

At the same time the Navy’s public affairs command at the Pentagon leaked NIS findings to a host of media outlets, and reports started appearing in newspapers and on TV that said that Hartwig had intentionally caused the explosion after his relationship with Truitt had gone sour.

On July 15, 1989 the officer in charge of the investigation submitted his completed report on the explosion to his chain of command. The 60-page report found that the explosion was a deliberate act “most probably” committed by Hartwig using an electronic timer. The report concluded that the powder bags had been over-rammed into the center gun under Hartwig’s direction in order to trigger the explosive timer that he had placed between two of the powder bags.

Navy brass briefing press on the release of the first investigation. (Photo: DoD)

Navy brass briefing press on the release of the first investigation. (Photo: DoD)

When the official report hit the streets there was a great public outcry by the families of the victims, and many of them began feeding members of the media with insider information that, in turn, led to a host of reports that pointed out the myriad ways the Navy’s investigation was deeply flawed. Those reports led to an investigation by the House Armed Services Committee.

In early March 1990, the HASC released its report, titled USS Iowa Tragedy: An Investigative Failure. The report criticized the Navy for failing to investigate every natural possible cause before concluding that the explosion was an intentional act. The report also criticized the Navy for allowing the turret and projectile to become contaminated; for permitting evidence to be thrown overboard; and for endorsing the investigator’s report prior to completing the technical investigation. The NIS’s actions in the investigation were described as “flawed” and the NIS agents assigned to the case were criticized for unprofessional interviewing techniques and for leaking sensitive documents and inaccurate information. Finally, the report concluded that officer put in charge of the investigation was unfit to oversee it.

A subsequent investigation conducted by a group of engineers and scientists concluded that the explosion had been caused by the over-ram of powder into the breech after they were able to replicate the condition several times under test conditions. In spite of this, the second Navy investigation doubled down on the original finding that the explosion had been intentionally set by Hartwig.

Finally, on 17 October 1991, 17 months after the Navy reopened the investigation, Adm. Frank Kelso, the Chief of Naval Operations, conducted a press conference at the Pentagon to announce the results of the Navy’s reinvestigation. Kelso noted that the Navy had spent a total of $25 million on the investigation. He stated that the Navy had uncovered no evidence to suggest that the gun had been operated improperly, nor had it established a plausible accidental cause for the explosion.

Kelso stated, “The initial investigation was an honest attempt to weigh impartially all the evidence as it existed at the time. And indeed, despite the Sandia theory and almost two years of subsequent testing, a substantial body of scientific and expert evidence continue to support the initial investigation finding that no plausible accidental cause can be established.” Kelso added that the Navy had also found no evidence that the explosion was caused intentionally. He further announced that he had directed the Navy to never again use an informal board composed of a single officer to investigate such an incident.

Kelso concluded by offering “sincere regrets” to the family of Clayton Hartwig and apologies to the families of those who died, “that such a long period has passed, and despite all efforts no certain answer regarding the cause of this terrible tragedy can be found.

Iowa decommissioned in Norfolk on October 26, 1990. In May of 2012, the battleship was towed to the Port of Los Angeles and is now a floating museum.

From August 1990 to February 1991, the Iowa-class battleships Wisconsin and Missouri were deployed to the Persian Gulf. The two battleships fired 1,182 16-inch shells in support of Desert Storm combat operations without mishap.

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