Ten years after Iowa tragedy, only evidence left is memories

BY JACK DORSEY, The Virginian-Pilot
Copyright 1999, Landmark Communications Inc.

This article was posted in at www.pilotonline.com on April 17th, 1999.

NORFOLK -- She floats stiff. Heavy dock lines hold her fast. Automated alarms and dehumidifying machines inside her belly keep her dry in the New England air. Barely audible hums from the electric motors are the only signs that let outsiders know she's still alive.

There is no evidence of the horror that happened aboard the battleship Iowa, 10 years ago Monday, when a routine gunnery exercise turned into an inferno that killed 47 crewmen in Turret 2.

No testimony to the turmoil that followed the April 19, 1989, blast -- with investigators initially laying blame on a petty officer second class, claiming he deliberately took his own life and those of his turret mates as the result of a homosexual shipboard romance gone sour.

The Iowa, which called Norfolk its home until eight years ago, lies idle today in Newport, R.I.

It was moved in September from the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard to the Naval War College and Naval Education and Training Center. Two old aircraft carriers, the Forrestal and Saratoga, wedge her in.

The battleship has changed little in the past decade -- in 56 years really, if one counts the day she was first born in 1943.

Thick cold iron and a teak main deck remain her trademarks, along with three banks of mammoth 16-inch guns. Those in the center turret remain inoperable. The repairs after the accident were mainly cosmetic.

Capt. Bruce B. Fisher, the civilian pilot who brought Iowa to the Newport Naval Base, said he enjoyed a pricey cigar to celebrate the voyage at the conference table that Franklin D. Roosevelt once used at a conference in Tehran, Iran, with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

Then the Iowa was buttoned up again, sealed from the salt spray, rust-producing moisture and any other outside influence.

Maintenance crews inspect her routinely.

There's no grass growing on her teak decks.

``We won't allow that,'' said Lou Jarvis of Portsmouth, who is in charge of inactive fleet maintenance on the East Coast.

Her three 16-inch gun turrets, trained fore and aft, are slick with heavy protective oils.

Even Gun Turret 2 -- especially Gun Turret 2 -- sparkles beneath the morning light.

While the ship has changed little in the past decade, there is much that surrounds the Iowa which has changed dramatically.

This weekend, some of the 1,500 men who served aboard 10 years ago, along with other former crew members, relatives and friends of those who were lost in the explosion, come to Norfolk for the 10th anniversary of that tragic day.

They plan to gather at the Navy Lodge on Hampton Boulevard, meet with the authors of two recent books examining the explosion, then dine together with the families of those sailors who lost their lives.

On Monday, at 10 a.m., near the exact time of the 1989 explosion, many will meet at ``Iowa Point'' on the Norfolk Naval Station, site of a small memorial for the 47 shipmates, and call out the sailors' names.

It is there, overlooking Willoughby Bay and the entrance to the largest naval base in the world, say some former Iowa sailors, that they can best remember their fallen shipmates.

``The families lost crew members. We, the crew members, lost shipmates,'' said John E. Schultz of Virginia Beach, who served aboard the Iowa from 1983 to 1987.

Schultz, who began a Web page for the ship and helped organize the reunion, said that most people outside of the Navy and those who have never been on a battleship cannot understand the pride that former crew members have for such a vessel.

``I served in five other duty stations and two other ships,'' he said. ``People couldn't even spell pride like we did on Iowa.''

But when the ugliness of the explosion and investigation unfolded, during which a crewman, Clayton M. Hartwig, was wrongly accused of intentionally causing the explosion, the bubble burst, Schultz said.

``When that story came out on Hartwig and the whole thing happened, we lost our pride in the ship. It was taken away. We lost our brothers, we lost our shipmates. We lost our pride,'' he said.

There's no way to get it back, other than coming to reunions such as this weekend's, he said.

Some things about the Iowa will never come back.

Its 16-inch guns most likely will always remain silent. The powder used to hurl their shells 23 miles to shore is old. None has been made since the Korean War, and much of it is World War II vintage.

The only powder bags still usable for the Navy's three dozen 16-inch guns are in an underground storage facility in California.

Whole batches of the Iowa's powder, left in unvented barges at the Yorktown Naval Weapons Station through the summer of 1988, had to be thrown out. Heat could make such rounds unstable, and it had been a long, hot summer. One bad grain the size of a thumb in a 100-pound bag could set everything around it off.

A later, civilian investigation overturned the Navy's vengeful-lover theory and determined that the explosion could have been caused by a combination of inexperience on the gun crew and problems and experimentation with the powder.

The explosion started in the center gun of Turret 2, which had been pressed into service abruptly because there had been a misfire on the other bow turret.

A heavy round was rammed into the barrel of the Turret 2 gun, followed by five large bags of propellant. The sailor who was operating the mechanical ramming system had never done it before. Investigators found he may have worked the system too quickly, overramming the powder bags. That could have set them off while the breech was still open, they said, especially if the bags had been altered in an experiment to get better performance.

The resulting flashback killed those around the gun immediately and swept several stories down into the turret, killing all inside.

The 12 survivors were in powder magazines, or in a circular hallway separated from the turret by special explosion-proof hatches.

One gunner in the magazine opened a door into the turret shortly after the blast and saw shipmates burned beyond recognition, several of them frozen in place by the fireball that killed them. Bags of powder not yet at the gun level were still smoldering.

The gunner later flooded the turret, which likely saved the ship.

Time would later do what the explosion could not -- end the Navy's long dependence on battleships.

The Iowa was the lead ship in a four-ship class. The ships are now little more than relics. The Missouri is a memorial in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The New Jersey is in Bremerton, Wash., awaiting a possible new life as a museum. The fourth, the battleship Wisconsin, is in Portsmouth, awaiting a new pier in downtown Norfolk, where it too most likely will become an attraction.

Already short on sailors, the Navy would be hard pressed today to crew the dreadnaughts, each of which requires about 1,500 men. There are other options now. An Aegis-class cruiser, capable of launching Tomahawk cruise missiles more than 1,000 miles, takes a crew of 350.

Also changed since the explosion is the manner in which the Naval Criminal Investigative Service conducts its investigations. The civilian-led agency, which is under military command, was highly criticized for its role in the Iowa investigation, and particularly its treatment of Hartwig.

Ultimately, the NCIS persuaded the Navy to require it to conduct investigations whenever there is a fatal accident with no witnesses. The Navy investigators didn't get onto the Iowa until much of the evidence was gone, swept overboard by the ship's crew in an attempt to ensure safety and maintain morale.

Since the Iowa explosion, the Navy also changed the way it handles its own investigations involving deaths or serious injuries. Instead of appointing a one-person board of inquiry, as it did to much congressional criticism in the Iowa's case, it now convenes a board of several members operating through formal hearings.

Most changed since the explosion, however, are the lives of the families of those who perished.

Earl and Evelyn Hartwig, the parents of gunner's mate Clayton M. Hartwig, who was accused of causing the blast, along with Clayton's sister, Kathy Kubicina, have lost the faith they once had in the Navy and their government.

In October 1991, after Congress forced the Navy to reopen the investigation and scientists at Sandia National Laboratories determined that an overram could have caused the blast, the chief of naval operations, Adm. Frank B. Kelso III, publicly apologized to the Hartwig family. He said there was no proof that Hartwig had deliberately detonated the powder bags.

Over the years, the family spent an estimated $50,000 in legal fees trying to clear Clayton Hartwig's name. The family filed suit against the Navy, contending Navy officials leaked false allegations to make Hartwig the scapegoat for the explosion.

In January, a federal judge recommended dismissing the $12 million suit, saying the federal government is immune from such cases.

The explosion aboard the Iowa changed the lives of not only the families of the 47 sailors who were killed, but also the careers of a number of officers and enlisted members associated with the accident.

Capt. Fred Moosally, who commanded the Iowa at the time and retired a year later, has avoided public comment on the explosion. He said only in a memorial service in Norfolk attended by President Bush a few days after the explosion that he will always remember Turret 2:

``We came together in times of trouble, we shared the good and the bad, the comedy and now the tragedy. The grief we share with you -- their families -- is deep. But we must go on. For we are the crew of the Iowa.''

Moosally, now living in Northern Virginia, said Friday there's not a day that goes by that he doesn't pray for the crew members and their families.

As time takes its toll on the families of the 47, those who still attend the reunions are anxious to carry on for those who can't.

This weekend, as the families gather at the memorial to read the names of those who perished, a special request will be made to remember Jack Thompson, a third class gunner's mate from Greeneville, Tenn.

Thompson's father died several years ago, but his mother, Mildred, attended past reunions and stood each time her son's name was read from the rolls of the 47.

She died April 5, Kathy Kubicina said.

``The last thing that she said to me was: `Please stand up for Jackie because there will be no one at the memorial service to stand up for him,' '' Kubicina wrote in a message to other family members and friends.

``God bless you Mildred,'' she added. ``And we will stand up for Jackie.''

Staff writer Tony Germanotta contributed to this report.