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Mon Apr 19, 2021, 05:42 PM

32 Years Ago Today; A Firing Exercise goes terribly wrong in Turret 2


Debris and smoke fly through the air as USS Iowa's Turret Two's center gun explodes

USS Iowa turret explosion

On 19 April 1989, the Number Two 16-inch gun turret of the United States Navy battleship USS Iowa (BB-61) exploded. The explosion in the center gun room killed 47 of the turret's crewmen and severely damaged the gun turret itself. Two major investigations were undertaken into the cause of the explosion, one by the U.S. Navy and then one by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Sandia National Laboratories. The investigations produced conflicting conclusions.

The first investigation into the explosion, conducted by the U.S. Navy, concluded that one of the gun turret crew members, Clayton Hartwig, who died in the explosion, had deliberately caused it. During the investigation, numerous leaks to the media, later attributed to U.S. Navy officers and investigators, implied that Hartwig and another sailor, Kendall Truitt, had engaged in a homosexual relationship and that Hartwig had caused the explosion after their relationship had soured. In its report, however, the U.S. Navy concluded that the evidence did not show that Hartwig was homosexual but that he was suicidal and had caused the explosion with either an electronic or chemical detonator.

The victims' families, the media, and members of the U.S. Congress were sharply critical of the U.S. Navy's findings. The U.S. Senate and U.S. House Armed Services Committees both held hearings to inquire into the Navy's investigation and later released reports disputing the U.S. Navy's conclusions. The Senate committee asked the GAO to review the U.S. Navy's investigation. To assist the GAO, Sandia National Laboratories provided a team of scientists to review the Navy's technical investigation.

During its review, Sandia determined that a significant overram of the powder bags into the gun had occurred as it was being loaded and that the overram could have caused the explosion. A subsequent test by the Navy of the overram scenario confirmed that an overram could have caused an explosion in the gun breech. Sandia's technicians also found that the physical evidence did not support the U.S. Navy's theory that an electronic or chemical detonator had been used to initiate the explosion.

In response to the new findings, the U.S. Navy, with Sandia's assistance, reopened the investigation. In August 1991, Sandia and the GAO completed their reports, concluding that the explosion was likely caused by an accidental overram of powder bags into the breech of the 16-inch gun. The U.S. Navy, however, disagreed with Sandia's opinion and concluded that the cause of the explosion could not be determined. The U.S. Navy expressed regret (but did not offer apology) to Hartwig's family and closed its investigation.

Preparation for fleet exercise
On 10 April the battleship was visited by commander of the US 2nd Fleet, Vice Admiral Jerome L. Johnson, and on 13 April Iowa sailed from Norfolk to participate in a fleet exercise in the Caribbean Sea near Puerto Rico. The exercise, titled "FLEETEX 3-89", began on or around 17 April under Johnson's command. Iowa served as Johnson's flagship during the exercise.

Throughout the night of 18 April, Turret Two's crew conducted a major overhaul of their turret in preparation for a firing exercise scheduled to take place the next day. The center gun's compressed air system, which cleansed the bore of sparks and debris each time the gun was fired, was not operating properly.

Also on 18 April, Iowa's 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 19431945, and were designed to fire 1900 lb (861.8 kg) 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 (20 mi; 30 km) 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 Gunner's Mate Second Class 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.

The rammerman's position was of special concern, as ramming was considered the most dangerous part of loading the gun. The ram was used to first thrust the projectile and then the powder bags into the gun's breech. The ram speed used for the projectile was much faster (14 feet (4.3 m) per second) than that used for the lighter powder bags (1.5 feet (0.46 m) per second), but there was no safety device on the ram piston to prevent the rammerman from accidentally pushing the powder bags at the faster speed. Overramming the powder bags into the gun could subject the highly flammable powder to excessive friction and compression, with a resulting increased danger of premature combustion. Also, if the bags were pushed too far into the gun, a gap between the last bag and the primer might prevent the powder from igniting when the gun was fired, causing a misfire. None of Iowa's rammermen had any training or experience in ramming nonstandard five-bag loads into the guns. Complicating the task, as the rammerman was shoving the powder bags, he was also supposed to simultaneously operate a lever to shut the powder hoist door and lower the powder hoist car. Iowa crewmen later stated that Turret Two's center gun rammer would sometimes "take off" uncontrollably on its own at high speed. Furthermore, Backherms had never operated the ram before during a live fire shoot.

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 (300 mi; 480 km) northeast of Puerto Rico, steaming at 15 knots (17 mph; 28 km/h).

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."[30] 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!"[34] 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. About this same time, Hanyecz yelled over the phone circuit, "Oh, my God! There's a flash!"

Iowa's Number Two turret is cooled with sea water shortly after exploding.

At 09:53, about 81 seconds after Moosally's order to load and 20 seconds after the left gun had reported loaded and ready, Turret Two's center gun exploded. A fireball between 2,500 and 3,000 F (1,400 and 1,600 C) and traveling at 2,000 feet per second (610 m/s) with a pressure of 4,000 pounds-force per square inch (28 MPa) 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, including cyanide gas from burning polyurethane foam, which filled the turret. Shortly after the initial explosion, the heat and fire ignited 2,000 pounds (910 kg) 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. All 47 crewmen inside the turret were killed. The turret contained most of the force of the explosion. Twelve crewmen working in or near the turret's powder magazine and annular spaces, located adjacent to the bottom of the turret, were able to escape without serious injury. These men were protected by blast doors which separate the magazine spaces from the rest of the turret.

Immediate aftermath
Firefighting crews quickly responded and sprayed the roof of the turret and left and right gun barrels, which were still loaded, with water. Meyer and Kissinger, wearing gas masks, descended below decks and inspected the powder flats in the turret, noting that the metal walls of the turret flats surrounding several tons of unexploded powder bags in the turret were now "glowing a bright cherry red". Meyer and Kissinger were accompanied by Gunner's Mate Third Class Noah Melendez in their inspection of the turret. On Kissinger's recommendation, Moosally ordered Turret Two's magazines, annular spaces, and powder flats flooded with seawater, preventing the remaining powder from exploding. The turret fire was extinguished in about 90 minutes. Brian Scanio was the first fireman to enter the burning turret, followed soon after by Robert O. Shepherd, Ronald G. Robb, and Thad W. Harms. The firemen deployed hoses inside the turret.

After the fire was extinguished, Mortensen entered the turret to help identify the bodies of the dead crewmen. Mortensen found Hartwig's body, which he identified by a distinctive tattoo on the upper left arm, at the bottom of the 20-foot (6.1 m) deep center gun pit instead of in the gun room. His body was missing his lower forearms, legs below the knees, and was partially, but not badly, charred. The gas ejection air valve for the center gun was located at the bottom of the pit, leading Mortensen to believe that Hartwig had been sent into the pit to turn it on before the explosion occurred. Mortensen also found that the center gun's powder hoist had not been lowered, which was unusual since the hoist door was closed and locked.

Navy pallbearers, attended by an honor guard, carry the remains of one of the victims from the turret explosion after its arrival at Dover Air Force Base on 20 April 1989.

After most of the water was pumped out, the bodies in the turret were removed without noting or photographing their locations. The next day, the bodies were flown from the ship by helicopter to Roosevelt Roads Naval Station, Puerto Rico. From there, they were flown on a United States Air Force C-5 Galaxy transport aircraft to the Charles C. Carson Center for Mortuary Affairs at Dover Air Force Base, Delaware. Meyer made a rudimentary sketch of the locations of the bodies in the turret which would later contradict some of the findings in the U.S. Navy's initial investigation. With assistance from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the U.S. Navy was able to complete identification of all 47 sets of remains on 16 May 1989. Contradicting FBI records, the U.S. Navy would insist that all the remains had been identified by 24 April 1989, when all of the bodies were released to the families. The FBI cut the fingers off the unidentified corpses to identify them later. Body parts which had not been matched to torsos were discarded. Many of the remains were released to family members for burial before they were positively identified. Most of the bodies recovered from the center gun and turret officer's booth were badly burned and in pieces, making identification difficult. The bodies discovered lower in the turret were mostly intact; those crewmen had apparently died from suffocation, poisonous gases, or from impact trauma after being thrown around by the explosion. An explosive ordnance disposal technician, Operations Specialist First Class James Bennett Drake, from the nearby USS Coral Sea was sent to Iowa to assist in unloading the powder in Turret Two's left and right guns. After observing the scene in the center gun room and asking some questions, Drake told Iowa crewmen that, "It's my opinion that the explosion started in the center gun room caused by compressing the powder bags against the sixteen-inch shell too far and too fast with the rammer arm". Drake also helped Mortensen unload the powder from Turret One's left gun. When Turret One's left gun's breech was opened, it was discovered that the bottom powder bag was turned sideways. The projectile in Turret One's left gun was left in place and was eventually fired four months later.

Morse directed a cleanup crew, supervised by Lieutenant Commander Bob Holman, to make Turret Two "look as normal as possible". Over the next day, the crew swept, cleaned, and painted the inside of the turret. Loose or damaged equipment was tossed into the ocean. No attempt was made to record the locations or conditions of damaged equipment in the turret. "No one was preserving the evidence," said Brian R. Scanio, a fireman present at the scene.[46] A team of Naval Investigative Service (NIS) investigators (the predecessor of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service or NCIS) stationed nearby on the aircraft carrier Coral Sea was told that their services in investigating Iowa's mishap were not needed. At the same time, Moosally called a meeting with all of his officers, except Meyer, who was working in Turret One, in the ship's wardroom. At the meeting, Iowa's legal officer, Lieutenant Commander Richard Bagley, instructed the ship's officers on how to limit their testimony during the forthcoming investigation into the explosion. Terry McGinn, who was present at the meeting, stated later that Bagley "told everybody what to say. It was a party line pure and simple".

On 23 April Iowa returned to Norfolk, where a memorial service was held on 24 April. Several thousand people, including family members of many of the victims, attended the ceremony at which President George H. W. Bush spoke. During his speech, Bush stated, "I promise you today, we will find out 'why,' the circumstances of this tragedy." In a press conference after the ceremony, Moosally said that the two legalmen killed in the turret were assigned there as "observers". He also claimed that everyone in the turret was qualified for the position that they were filling.

Shortly after the memorial service at Norfolk on 24 April, Kendall Truitt told Hartwig's family that Hartwig had taken out a $50,000 double indemnity life insurance policy on himself and named Truitt as the sole beneficiary. Truitt was a friend of Hartwig's and had been working in Turret Two's powder magazine at the time of the explosion, but had escaped without serious injury. Truitt promised to give the life insurance money to Hartwig's parents. Unsure if she could trust Truitt, Kathy Kubicina, Hartwig's sister, mailed letters on 4 May to Moosally, Morse, Costigan, Iowa's Chaplain Lieutenant Commander James Danner, and to Ohio Senators Howard Metzenbaum and John Glenn in which she described the life insurance policy. She asked that someone talk to Truitt to convince him to give the money to Hartwig's parents.

Investigation conclusion
On 15 July 1989 Milligan 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 overrammed into the center gun by 21 inches (53 cm), but had been done so under Hartwig's direction in order to trigger the explosive timer that he had placed between two of the powder bags.

Donnell, on 28 July, endorsed Milligan's report, saying that the determination that Hartwig had sabotaged the gun "leaves the reader incredulous, yet the opinion is supported by facts and analysis from which it flows logically and inevitably". Donnell's superior, Atlantic Fleet Commander Admiral Powell F. Carter, Jr., then endorsed the report, adding that the report showed that there were "substantial and serious failures by Moosally and Morse", and forwarded the report to the CNO, Carlisle Trost. Although Miceli had just announced that test results at Dahlgren showed that an electronic timer had not caused the explosion, Trost endorsed the report on 31 August, stating that Hartwig was "the individual who had motive, knowledge, and physical position within the turret gun room to place a device in the powder train". Trost's endorsement cited Smith's statement to the NIS as further evidence that Hartwig was the culprit. Milligan's report was not changed to reflect Miceli's new theory that a chemical igniter, not an electrical timer, had been used to initiate the explosion.

On 7 September, Milligan and Edney formally briefed media representatives at the Pentagon on the results of Milligan's investigation. Edney denied that the Navy had leaked any details about the investigation to the press. Milligan stated that the Navy believed Hartwig had caused the explosion, citing, among other evidence, the FBI's equivocal death analysis on Hartwig. Milligan displayed two books, Getting Even and Improvised Munitions Handbook, which he said belonged to Hartwig and provided "explicit" instructions on how to construct detonators and bombs. Milligan and Edney said that there was no proof that Hartwig was homosexual. Edney then stated that the investigation had proved that the Iowa-class battleships were safe to operate and that the powder in use on the ships "is stable and ready to use".

Most of the victims' family members criticized the Navy's conclusions. Many of the families told media representatives of private misgivings that the victims had expressed to them about problems with training and the dangerous gunfire experiments occurring on Iowa before the explosion. Hartwig's family disputed the allegations that he was depressed and suicidal.

Several journalists immediately began questioning the results of Milligan's investigation. John Hall, a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, wrote a series of four articles beginning on 17 September that revealed that Iowa was engaged in illegal powder experiments when the gun blew up; that conflicts of interest were evident in the investigators assigned to the inquiry; that many of the ship's crew were improperly or inadequately trained; and that evidence did not support the Navy's theory that Hartwig caused the explosion. The Associated Press picked up Hall's story and it was run in other newspapers throughout the United States. Robert Becker and A. J. Plunkett from the Daily Press wrote a lengthy story which criticized Milligan's report in detail. ABC reporter Robert Zelnick wrote an op-ed piece, which ran in The New York Times on 11 September, heavily criticizing the Navy for, in Zelnick's words, "scapegoating a dead seaman." Television newsmagazines 20/20 and 60 Minutes both ran stories questioning the Navy's conclusions. The Washington Post, in contrast, ran a story by George Wilson that generally supported the Navy's findings.

On 3 October, Donnell disciplined Iowa's officers in response to findings in Milligan's report. Moosally and Bob Finney, Iowa's operations officer, were given nonpunitive "letters of admonition" which were not placed in their permanent personnel records. Kissinger and Skelley received punitive letters of admonition which were placed in their records, as well as fines of $2,000 and $1,000 respectively. Donnell suspended both fines. Shortly thereafter, the Navy issued a statement explaining that the safety violations and training deficiencies found aboard Iowa during the investigation were unrelated to the explosion. Two weeks later, a panel of thirteen admirals recommended that Moosally be given another major command, stating that Moosally was "superbly fit" for such responsibility. Milligan was one of the admirals on the panel who supported the recommendation. After 60 Minutes producer Charles Thompson asked Brent Baker and Chief of Naval Personnel Jeremy Michael Boorda about the recommendation, Moosally's name was withdrawn.

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Reply 32 Years Ago Today; A Firing Exercise goes terribly wrong in Turret 2 (Original post)
Dennis Donovan Apr 19 OP
Archae Apr 19 #1
dsc Apr 19 #4
Aristus Apr 19 #2
hlthe2b Apr 19 #3
11 Bravo Apr 19 #5

Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Mon Apr 19, 2021, 05:51 PM

1. The US Navy totally botched their "investigation."

And then when Sandia showed what really happened covered it up more.

That whole "Hartwig planted a bomb" theory was pure fiction from the same assholes who tried covering up Tailhook.

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Response to Archae (Reply #1)

Mon Apr 19, 2021, 05:54 PM

4. it wasn't botched

this was a purposeful game of blame the fag.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Mon Apr 19, 2021, 05:52 PM

2. I remember the ongoing investigation like it was yesterday.

The Armed Forces were almost cartoonishly homophobic back then. The investigators kept coming back to the hypothesis of a homosexual relationship between Hartwig and Truitt over and over again, and the media kept putting the unsupported supposition in the spotlight.

The officers in charge, looking to their careers, couldn't have the explosion be the result of poor training and preparedness, and poor fire-team execution. It had to be evil perverted nasty un-American hommasexshuls!

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Mon Apr 19, 2021, 05:53 PM

3. Tragedy does not begin to describe the aftermath.

I can't imagine being the family members of those falsely accused.

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Response to Dennis Donovan (Original post)

Mon Apr 19, 2021, 06:08 PM

5. A long read, but well worth the time. Thanks for sharing this.

Although I served in the US Army, I grew up the son of a career naval officer, and I remember this tragedy well.

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