Remembering the USS Iowa explosion and aftermath

First came the explosion. Then, the cover-up.
Jeff Schogol Avatar
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It’s been more than 30 years since an explosion inside the number two gun turret on the USS Iowa killed 47 American sailors, but for Mike Carr, it still feels like yesterday.

“I knew all 47 guys inside that turret because as part of the ship’s policy we had rotated between all three turrets,” Carr, who served as a gunner’s mate in the Iowa’s aft 16-inch turret, told Task & Purpose. “We all knew each other rather intimately.”

On April 19, 1989, the day of the blast, the ship was preparing for live-fire training at Vieques, Puerto Rico Naval Training Range.

Carr was wearing headphones that allowed him to hear what the crews in the other turrets were saying.

“At 10 minutes to 10 a.m., somebody came over the phones and said, ‘We’re having a problem, Turret 2, center gun,'” Carr recalled. “Then approximately two minutes later, I recognized Senior Chief [Reginald] Ziegler, who was the chief in charge of Turret 2, yell into the phones: ‘Fire, fire, fire! Fire in center gun, turret 2. Trying to contain it.'”

Then came the blast, which was so strong that it ripped the headphones right off Carr’s head.

The entire ship shook.

Black smoke poured out from the burning No. 2 turret as Carr and other sailors donned their firefighting gear. Then they found two sailors who had been blown from the turret onto the deck.

“I held one in my hands as he passed,” Carr said. “He died in my arms.”

Carr was eventually able to climb into the wrecked turret. The scene inside was too terrible to describe. He battled to contain the fire until he passed out from smoke inhalation, waking up later in an emergency dress battle station.

It took the sailors eight hours to douse the blaze. Luckily, the fire did not set off the powder bags in the other two guns.

In the years since the blast, Carr has surmised what might have happened. It’s possible that the powder bags began to smoke because they were old, so the gun captain rammed the bags with too much power.

“This is just from my experience of three years of working and shooting those guns: Eventually the powder bags ripped … and the rammer head or the rammer chain sparked, and that’s what set off the first explosion,” Carr said.

The guns’ lubricants were the next to ignite, he said.

“The powder door was still open to the center gun — that armored hatch was still open,” Carr said. “That fireball went straight to the bottom of the turret. When we’re doing a shot with more than three shells, you would stage powder bags inside the powder flats. So when that flame came down, all those powder bags went off, and that was the third and final detonation.”

The last explosion was so strong that it blew the turret’s two-ton hatch off its hinges and into the water, he said.

The deadly blast aboard the Iowa marked the first explosion in a battleship turret since 1943, when 43 sailors aboard the USS Mississippi were killed, the Government Accountability Office later determined. But unlike other explosions, the 16-inch gun in the No. 2 Turret was cold, meaning it hadn’t been fired yet.

The loading process for the 16-inch guns. First, the shell is loaded on the tray and rammed into the gun breech. Then powder bags are rolled into the tray. Finally, the rammerman operates a lever to ram them into the breech, which is then closed and locked.

The blame game

It wasn’t long after the Iowa returned home that the Navy seemed to be looking for someone to blame the disaster on. Those people turned out to be Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Clayton Hartwig, whom the Navy had initially claimed had loaded the gun before it exploded, and his best friend, Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class Kendall Truitt.

“Interestingly, I was never read my rights, nor did I realize that I was a suspect,” Truitt told Task & Purpose. “I just thought they had some really strange questions for what I assumed was an honest attempt at an investigation.”

Truitt was in the magazine below the No. 2 turret when the gun exploded above him. He braved the flames, smoke, and carnage inside the turret to turn on sprinklers so that bags of gunpowder would not go off, and he secured hatches so that the accumulating water would not sink the ship, he told Penthouse in a January 1990 interview.

But when investigators learned that Hartwig had named Truitt the beneficiary of a $100,000 life insurance policy, they claimed that Hartwig — who died in the blast — had planted a bomb in the gun. They further claimed Hartwig became suicidal because he and Truitt – who was married at the time – had been lovers but Truitt had rebuffed him.

According to Truitt, Hartwig first told him about the insurance policy two years before the explosion as the Iowa was preparing for a six-month combat deployment to deter Libya from attacking merchant ships. All of the crew had been advised to set up allotment accounts for their families. While at Navy Federal, bankers told Hartwig that buying an extra life insurance policy would only cost $4 per month. He already had policies that named his parents and another friend as beneficiaries.

“He hit me on the shoulder one day, and he’s like, ‘If I ever die, you’re going to be a rich man,'” Truitt recalled. “I was like: OK; I’ll bite; why? He said: “It’s no big deal. Don’t worry about collecting. You’re 19, I’m 23, it’s going to be a while.’ I said, again, this is weird. He said: ‘No, it’s the same thing my dad did.”

Hartwig’s father had seen combat in the Navy as a gunner’s mate, Truitt said. At the time, sailors in his father’s division all took out life insurance policies on each other.

After the explosion, Truitt mentioned the insurance policy in passing to Hartwig’s family. They subsequently wrote lawmakers saying that it was unfair Truitt would receive the money instead of Hartwig’s parents.

“Thus helping Kendall suddenly become a suspect,” Truitt said. “That’s sort of what started the whole thing.”

Another sailor, David Smith, claimed that Navy investigators had coerced him into telling them Hartwig propositioned him and discussed how to use a bomb’s timer, the Washington Post reported in September 1989.

The military looks for scapegoats when people die rather than admit their mistakes – or acknowledge that accidents are even possible, Truitt said. In the case of the Iowa, the devastating blast happened toward the tail end of the Cold War, when the Navy felt it needed 600 ships to counter the Soviets. Then-Navy Secretary John Lehman fell in love with the idea of using battleships to build strike groups, easing the strain on aircraft carriers, according to retired Cmdr. Ward Carroll, a naval aviator who was a spokesman for the Naval Safety Center at the time.

Iowa fires a full broadside of nine 16-inch (406 mm)/50-caliber and six 5-inch (127 mm)/38 cal guns during a target exercise near Vieques Island,

But it soon became apparent that the World War II-era battleships required too much time, money, and manpower to be overhauled, Carroll said. In fact, the Iowa did so poorly on its first inspection that it was recommended to be decommissioned.

The Iowa subsequently went to the shipyard so its power plant could be improved, but its gun systems weren’t updated, he said. It was also clear that each 16-inch gun turret required more sailors than the Navy could afford to assign.

“It’s a classic example of Navy leaders not being willing to speak truth to power and make the hard decisions,” Carroll said. “If this story sounds familiar, it’s because this is kind of the oldest story ever told around the U.S. Navy.”

Rather than admitting that the age of the battleship was over, Navy leaders cut corners on training, manpower, and maintenance to get the Iowa back out to sea, he said.

“The sad thing is I understand what they were doing and why they were doing it,” Truitt told Task & Purpose. “They were trying to build up the Navy. The military eats their own – it takes a while to realize that.”

Facts later emerged that undermined the Navy’s first investigation into the explosion, Truitt said. For example, Hartwig had not been responsible for loading the gun, as the Navy initially claimed.

The Navy’s initial investigation also found that sailors aboard the USS Iowa had decided to experiment with using five bags filled with an unauthorized type of gun powder for the test shoot when the explosion occurred, an August 1991 Government Accountability Office report found.

Sandia National Laboratories later determined that the powder had been rammed 24 inches too far, compressing the powder charge against the base of the dummy projectile before it ignited, the GAO report said.

“Imagine an old timey cap gun, where you remove the caps, and bang them with a hammer,” Truitt said. “This is essentially what happened.”

Although the Navy never officially determined what caused the Iowa explosion, it made a series of changes to how 16-inch guns were operated after independent tests by Sandia National Laboratories showed that powder bags could detonate when accidentally rammed too hard.

Those changes included inspecting the Navy’s entire inventory of powder bags, discarding any bags packed in a certain way that could lead to an accidental explosion, and making sure the rammer control level on 16-inch guns could not be moved to the high speed position while loading powder bags, according to a 1991 Navy-wide message.

More than two years after the deadly explosion, then-Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Frank Kelso reluctantly apologized to Hartwig’s family in October 1991. He offered no apology to Truitt or Smith.

“We did not accuse Kendall Truitt of anything in the investigation or the other gent,” Kelso said. “I regret the accident occurred, obviously. I’m very sorry it ever occurred. I think it was a terrible, terrific tragedy that we had. I’m sorry for anyone’s personal grief or personal anguish over that.”

“I extend my sincere regrets to the family of Hartwig,” he said. “We’re sorry Clayton Hartwig was accused of this.”

‘It smacked of a cover-up’

For Carroll, the former Naval Safety Center spokesman, the Iowa explosion and the Navy’s first attempt to explain it sounded eerily similar to the USS McCain and Fitzgerald collisions in 2017.

“This dynamic is kind of classic with respect to a catastrophe and the that follows it,” said Carroll.

Navy leaders hoped that the media would accept the theory that Hartwig was responsible for the blast so they would not have to answer questions about the underlying causes of the disaster, said Carroll, now director of outreach and marketing for the U.S. Naval Institute.

“What became obvious in time was this was another classic circumstance of mishandling the initial information and creating these causal factors that proved to be inaccurate – and a bit sensational, really, with respect to the homosexual love triangle,” Carroll told Task & Purpose.

“When it’s all said and done, it smacked of a cover-up. Certainly, the families of the fallen sailors were not satisfied with the initial report – and in some ways, those questions have never been fully answered.”

The explosion meant the end of the line for the Iowa. The ship was decommissioned in October 1990.

The other three Iowa-class battleships that had been reactivated were also decommissioned over the next couple years because they were too expensive to operate, their manning needs could not be met, and sailors had to train to operate equipment on them that was not found on other warships, said Ryan Peeks, a naval historian with Naval History and Heritage Command.

“While negative publicity from the Iowa turret explosion did not help the case for keeping the battleships in service, the decision to decommission them was simply a case of Navy leadership finding that other classes of warship provided more capability (especially with regard to carrying cruise missiles) for less money,” Peeks told Task & Purpose.

Coping in the aftermath

Truitt is currently unemployed and looking for work. It’s been hard for him to hold down a job since the explosion 30 years ago.

He left the Navy, attended college, and worked for different contractors that his uncle hired when he developed properties. Eventually, the media attention surrounding him faded away.

But the experience of defending Hartwig from false accusations has left a lasting impression on Truitt that has made it difficult to avoid conflicts.

“I’ve found that I have a heightened sense of right and wrong and I don’t suffer fools very well,” he said. “I have lost a few jobs based on principles when a normal person might have been able to shrug it off. I don’t play politics very well. I’m incredibly direct. It serves me well with managers that appreciate that. It has not served me well in the larger corporations.”

Truitt had been married for four months at the time of the explosion. He and his wife divorced in 1991.

“My wife was supportive for a couple of years, and then had had enough of the press conferences, enough of the drama,” he said.

“My wife’s family was very supportive, but unfortunately, it cost them their business. (They had recently opened a small restaurant in a strip mall that had been growing, “but once they openly supported me in the press, their business quickly failed due to loss of customers,” he said.)

A few of Truitt’s family members could not understand why it was so important for him to clear Hartwig’s name. They just wanted all the notoriety to go away, and eventually, they urged him to move on with his life.

“I didn’t feel like anyone else could defend Clay the way I could, so I felt very alone in my pursuit to clear him and his family name,” Truitt said.

Every year, former sailors who served aboard the Iowa gather in Norfolk, Virginia, to commemorate the accident’s anniversary.

“These men still suffer from PTSD because of everything that happened that day and from the fallout of that tragic accident,” said John Schultz, a crewman on the Iowa from 1983 to 1987. “The biggest thing we concentrate on every year is our shipmates and their healing.”

The annual ceremony allows sailors to talk about the pain they are still going through, said Schultz, the emcee at each year’s event.

Up to 300 former Iowa sailors are expected to attend Friday’s ceremony, which has proven to be a catharsis for veterans still trying to cope with past trauma, he said.

“A wise man once said: ‘Funerals and memorial services are for the living,'” Schultz said. “I see new guys come every year and they sit alone in a chair. I can see the weight that PTSD has put on them. I see that they’re alone. I see that they’re hurt. They just look devastated.

“But yet, one of their shipmates that they served with comes in and they sit down and they start talking. This man, who 30 minutes earlier was just depressed and looked dead to the world is now smiling and laughing and drinking a beer with his friend. That’s the way the healing starts.”