The Iowa: Ending a Grievous Error

October 19, 1991

The Navy has at last revised its official verdict on the tragic explosion aboard the battleship Iowa. Careful investigations of the prevailing conditions inside the ship's 16-inch gun mount, the ammunition bags used to feed the cannon and the equipment used to load it have led to the conclusion that in all probability the fatal blast was an accident.

Since 1989, naval officers have stoutly maintained the explosion could have been caused by only sabotage. A mean-spirited probe of the friendship of two Iowa sailors, Clayton M. Hartwig and Kendall L. Truitt, resulted in charges that Petty Officer Hartwig, who died, had sparked the blast in a despondent suicide. That ugly and unsubstantiated claim unfairly added hardship to several families' heartache.

It is understandable that the Navy wanted to protect its investment in resurrecting the heavy gunships. The performance of battleships during the Persian Gulf war as artillery platforms, missile launchers and seats of command vindicated the claims of supporters. Early fears about the vulnerability of the battleships' "outmoded" bag-loaded weapons were shown to be groundless when experts noted that Army guns were also bag-loaded.

But the way to preserve important military assets is not to find scapegoats and vilify them when something goes awry.

The uproar over the Hartwig allegations led to a General Accounting Office inquiry. Scientists from the Sandia National Laboratories determined from laboratory tests with loaded ammunition bags that the Iowa's bags could indeed have ignited accidentally. In addition, the scientists said, the force of the blast apparently pushed the lever controlling the speed of a charging ram into its "slow" position, misleading initial investigators about the cause.

The Navy has offered apologies to the Hartwig family and to other families distressed by the badly flawed earlier investigation. That is fitting and proper, even if it comes too late to ease the suffering that the vilification caused. The battleship itself already has been decommissioned, since the Navy concluded it could no longer afford such large, heavily manned, fuel-guzzling vessels. Perhaps with this new verdict and apology, the Iowa's lost sailors can begin to sleep in peace as their once-proud vessel slips quietly into history.

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