The Navy learns humility

October 21, 1991|By New York Times

TWO AND A HALF years after the explosion aboard the battleship Iowa that killed 47 sailors, the event remains a tragic mystery. What changed dramatically Wednesday was that the Navy acknowledged it could live with the mystery. No closer to a definitive explanation, it announced that it had repudiated its original charge that one of the crewmen who died was responsible.

The evidence, some of it washed overboard as survivors cleaned up and attended to the dead and injured, remains bafflingly incomplete.

Simply put, the Pentagon won't pin such a horror on a dead sailor without clear and convincing proof. Adm. Frank Kelso, chief of Naval Operations, sent out apologies to the family of Clayton Hartwig, a gunner's mate second class, for accusations that had not met that standard. He apologized to the families of others who died for the Navy's inability to account for the tragedy after all this time.

The Navy initially speculated that Hartwig "must have" planted a chemical detonator in the powder train of one of the vessel's 16-inch guns. That fantasy was based on a pseudo-scientific FBI psychological profile of the sailor and on a trace of an allegedly "foreign" substance in the turret that turned out to be a common residue. Those conclusions evanesced last year when scientists replicated an explosion of the weapon's gunpowder.

Only a military mind set that demanded certitude could produce a charge as categorical as the libel on Hartwig's memory. It is becoming to a naval power, and no sign of weakness, to deal with service personnel and their families with candor, compassion and a willingness to admit doubt.

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