After five very successful years in service during her third commission, tragedy struck Iowa. On April 19th, 1989, she was conducting gunnery drills as part of FLEETEX 3-89, a training exercise with the navies of Brazil and Venezuela. At 9:55, while the center gun of Turret II was being loaded with the first round, the powder exploded, killing 47 men. This exact cause is still somewhat controversial, and the Navy's handling of the investigation did not help. I should emphasize at this point that everything which follows is my own opinion, and I don't speak for anyone else on this.
In the immediate aftermath, the crew of the Iowa responded heroically, fighting to save the ship in what was still a very dangerous situation. The anti-flash measures, most notably the scuttles isolating the powder flat from the turret proper,1 worked well, and a repeat of the fate of the battlecruisers at Jutland was avoided. But there was still the risk of heat soaking into the powder flats and igniting the powder, so the magazines were flooded. It took about 90 minutes to extinguish the fire, and several members of the crew were decorated for their actions during this battle.
Before Iowa had even made it back to port, questions began about the cause of the explosion, and an investigation was ordered. It was to be headed by Rear Admiral Richard Milligan, assisted by Captain Joseph Miceli, who had been responsible for the reactivation of the 16” guns a few years earlier.
They quickly focused in on one of the sailors killed in the explosion, Gunners Mate Guns 2nd Class Clayton Hartwig. They alleged that Hartwig had been in a relationship with another sailor, Kendall Truitt, and when the relationship ended, had sabotaged the gun in a bizarre murder-suicide. This was supported by a life insurance policy Hartwig had taken out, with Truitt as the beneficiary. The investigators claimed to have detected the chemical signature of an igniter trapped under the driving band of the shell, and that interviews and psychological analysis supported the case against Hartwig.
These claims produced outrage among the families of the crew, and the Senate Armed Services Committee demanded an independent investigation, run by the GAO and Sandia National Laboratory. This investigation came to quite different conclusions. The ‘chemical signature’ of the igniter was found on the shells that had been in the left and right guns, and the extent of the Navy’s misconduct in the first investigation was discovered. One sailor who had admitted to receiving advances from Hartwig had been interrogated for 8 hours and threatened with being charged as an accessory, stood a 9-hour watch, then been picked up and interrogated for another 6 hours before confessing. When he was asked to confirm his statement, he recanted, but the investigation ignored his retraction. This was only the most blatant of the numerous errors made by the Naval Investigation Service during the criminal portions of the investigation.
The biggest problem with Sandia’s doubts was the lack of a plausible alternative ignition source. This arrived the day before a critical Senate hearing, when a drop test simulating an overram set off a stack of powder bags. The rammer had two modes, one at high speed for the shells and another at low speed for the powder. If it was operated in the high-speed mode, it might ram the powder bags against the base of the shell hard enough to fracture the propellant grains. The grains in the second bag could burn through and ignite the black-powder igniter patch at the back of the first bag, setting off the entire load of powder. A hasty cleanup had destroyed enough evidence that it was impossible to conclusively prove this theory, but it is in my opinion the most plausible one by far.2
The Navy launched a second investigation, but for some reason left Miceli in charge. He continued to support the initial sabotage theory, but was on increasingly shaky ground. In his book on the accident, Richard Schwoebel, the leader of the Sandia Investigation, portrays Miceli as honestly misguided, apparently unable to believe it was an ordnance failure instead of a human one. Eventually, the Navy punted and the official cause of the accident remains undetermined to this day.
The book A Glimpse Into Hell, by journalist Charles Thompson, claims that there were serious material and personnel problems aboard the Iowa. Crewmembers who were onboard at the time of the explosion do not think it is an accurate portrayal, and I personally find it hard to believe that a ship that had won the Battenberg Cup a mere four years earlier could have fallen so fast. There were some technical issues, including an unauthorized gunnery experiment being conducted at the time of the accident,4 but both investigations ruled it out as a contributing factor.
Turret II was never fully repaired, although most of the damaged equipment was reconditioned and is stowed inside Turret II. Turret II remains sealed, and will not be opened to the public. Every April 19th, a memorial service is held aboard Iowa, and there’s a museum of naval gunnery accidents belowdecks. One former crewman characterized the accident as a really bad day, which we shouldn't let overshadow the memory of all the good days.
Despite the disaster, Iowa and her crew weren't allowed to rest. On June 7th, a European deployment began, taking Iowa to Kiel, Portsmouth, Rota, Casablanca, Gibraltar and Marseilles. In August, a crisis in Lebanon brought the ship into the Eastern Mediterranean, and she was briefly the Sixth Fleet Flagship. I don't have many details, but it could have become very exciting in a hurry. This crisis brought Iowa to Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Corsica and Italy before she returned home in late November. On the Atlantic crossing, she fired the last of 2,873 16" rounds since the reactivation.
At this point, the writing was on the wall for the battleships. Their role as cruise missile platforms had been rendered obsolete by the Vertical Launch Systems entering the fleet, and the demise of the Soviet Union had removed much of the need for extra capital ships. They were simply too expensive to keep around, particularly as they had been designed in an world where manpower was cheap, and that was no longer the case. Iowa only went to sea again briefly after returning home from the Med, and was formally decommissioned on October 26th, 1990. New Jersey followed her in February, while Missouri and Wisconsin saw action one last time, supporting the liberation of Kuwait. Missouri was kept in commission with a skeleton crew until early 1992, to allow her to be present at the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attacks. Iowa's service with the fleet was over, but her story had one more chapter to run.
I'll close this with a list of the casualties of the explosion:
- Tung Thanh Adams - Fire Controlman 3rd class (FC3) Alexandria, VA
- Robert Wallace Backherms - Gunner's Mate 3rd class (GM3)(FC3) Ravenna, OH
- Dwayne Collier Battle - Electrician's Mate, Fireman Apprentice (EMFA) Rocky Mount, NC
- Walter Scot Blakey - Gunner's Mate 3rd class (GM3) Eaton Rapids, MI
- Pete Edward Bopp - Gunner's Mate 3rd class (GM3) Levittown, NY
- Ramon Jarel Bradshaw - Seaman Recruit (SR) Tampa, FL
- Philip Edward Buch - Lieutenant, Junior Grade (LTjg) Las Cruces, NM
- Eric Ellis Casey - Seaman Apprentice (SA) Mt. Airy, NC
- John Peter Cramer - Gunners Mate 2nd class (GM2) Uniontown, PA
- Milton Francis Devaul Jr. - Gunners Mate 3rd class (GM3) Solvay, NY
- Leslie Allen Everhart Jr. - Seaman Apprentice (SA) Cary, NC
- Gary John Fisk - Boatswains Mate 2nd class (BM2) Oneida, NY
- Tyrone Dwayne Foley - Seaman (SN) Bullard, TX
- Robert James Gedeon III - Seaman Apprentice (SA) Lakewood, OH
- Brian Wayne Gendron - Seaman Apprentice (SA) Madera, CA
- John Leonard Goins - Seaman Recruit (SR) Columbus, OH
- David L. Hanson - Electricians Mate 3rd class (EM3) Perkins, SD
- Ernest Edward Hanyecz - Gunners Mate 1st class (GM1) Bordentown, NJ
- Clayton Michael Hartwig - Gunners Mate 2nd class (GM2) Cleveland, OH
- Michael William Helton - Legalman 1st class (LN1) Louisville, KY
- Scott Alan Holt - Seaman Apprentice (SA) Fort Meyers, FL
- Reginald L. Johnson Jr. - Seaman Recruit (SR) Warrensville Heights, OH
- Nathaniel Clifford Jones Jr. - Seaman Apprentice (SA) Buffalo, NY
- Brian Robert Jones - Seaman (SN) Kennesaw, GA
- Michael Shannon Justice - Seaman (SN) Matewan, WV
- Edward J. Kimble - Seaman (SN) Ft. Stockton, TX
- Richard E. Lawrence - Gunners Mate 3rd class (GM3) Springfield, OH
- Richard John Lewis - Fire Controlman, Seaman Apprentice (FCSA) Northville, MI
- Jose Luis Martinez Jr. - Seaman Apprentice (SA) Hidalgo, TX
- Todd Christopher McMullen - Boatswains Mate 3rd class (BM3) Manheim, PA
- Todd Edward Miller - Seaman Recruit (SR) Ligonier, PA
- Robert Kenneth Morrison - Legalman 1st class (LN1) Jacksonville, FL
- Otis Levance Moses - Seaman (SN) Bridgeport, CN
- Darin Andrew Ogden - Gunners Mate 3rd class (GM3) Shelbyville, IN
- Ricky Ronald Peterson - Seaman (SN) Houston, MN
- Mathew Ray Price - Gunners Mate 3rd class (GM3) Burnside, PA
- Harold Earl Romine Jr. - Seaman Recruit (SR) Brandenton, FL
- Geoffrey Scott Schelin - Gunners Mate 3rd class (GMG3) Costa Mesa, CA
- Heath Eugene Stillwagon - Gunners Mate 3rd class (GM3) Connellsville, PA
- Todd Thomas Tatham - Seaman Recruit (SR) Wolcott, NY
- Jack Ernest Thompson - Gunners Mate 3rd class (GM3) Greeneville, TN
- Stephen J. Welden - Gunners Mate 2nd class (GM2) Yukon, OK
- James Darrell White - Gunners Mate 3rd class (GM3) Norwalk, CA
- Rodney Maurice White - Seaman Recruit (SR) Louisville, KY
- Michael Robert Williams - Boatswains Mate 2nd class (BM2) South Shore, KY
- John Rodney Young - Seaman (SN) Rockhill, SC
- Reginald Owen Ziegler - Senior Chief Gunners Mate (GMCS) Port Gibson, NY
2 Some of Iowa’s staff have told me that they think there are serious problems with this theory. I’ve not been given any details, but any new information will result in a revision of this post. ⇑
3 Bloomers are the black bags that serve as weather seals where the guns pass through the turret faceplate ⇑
4 The gun was loaded with five (instead of the normal six) bags of D846 propellant, which was intended for use with the 1900 lb shell. The experiments may have contributed to crew confusion, but they weren't directly causal. ⇑