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Volume 17/Issue 9

10 Yrs. Since USS Iowa Cover-up

On Apr. 19, 1989 an explosion on the USS Iowa killed 47 sailors; weeks later, the Navy publicly sought to portray the blast as the suicide attempt of a "troubled homosexual." Later investigation showed that the man in question was neither troubled nor Gay, and that bad powder, equipment in poor repair and untrained personnel were most likely at fault. Some 300 family members of the dead gathered to observe the anniversary at the Norfolk Naval Base site that once was home to the ship, with the family of Gunner's Mate Second Class Clayton Hartwig still pursuing a $12-million defamation suit against the Navy. His sister Kathy Hartwig-Kubicina told reporters, "They blamed an innocent victim and they never corrected that mistake."

The USS Iowa was a relic of World War II, taken out of "mothballs" in the 1980's and put to sea when $500-million worth of repairs had been performed-but not enough for the electrical system to handle 75-watt bulbs, or for doors to stay on rusty hinges, or to avoid the need for sailors to jury-rig machinery with coat hangers and duct tape. Charles Thompson, former Navy combat officer and now television producer, has written a book about his investigation of the incident called, A Glimpse of Hell: The Explosion on the USS Iowa and Its Cover-up, and he describes the ship as "a 59,000-ton accident looking for a place to happen." In the turrets for the Iowa's seven 16" cannon, each 68 feet long and able to shoot a one-ton shell 20 miles, the air was foul, the floor slick with oil, the visibility poor. Some of the powder was left over from the war, some of it moldy, and Thompson says that on the day in question an illegal powder experiment designed by a man without background in the field was in progress. None of that chief petty officer's superiors ever accepted responsibility for giving the go-ahead to the experiment. Thompson says that of the 59 men in the fatal turret, only 13 were actually qualified for the jobs they were doing. Thompson believes the explosion resulted from ramming unstable powder too deep, too fast.

An ensign who was on the bridge at the time of the explosion, Dan Meyer, said he could hear voices and noises from within the turret, and that, "These guys did not die instantaneously. They died very horrible deaths."

At the memorial, Gene Blakely, father of explosion victim Scot Blakely, noted that before the ship returned to base after the explosion, it had been cleaned up and repainted. He said he realized at the time that that meant destroying evidence, and he became suspicious of a cover-up. Blakely had filed a lawsuit of his own against the Navy, but it was dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Hartwig, according to his shipmates, was not at all troubled at the time. He'd just received a security clearance for a posting in London that he was quite excited about, according to his shipmates. Apparently once well before the explosion there had been a Gay rumor, but he was cleared at the time, and there was never any further indication that he was Gay. According to a July 1989 New York Times article, even the FBI's profiling of Hartwig did not so indicate, and Navy investigators had told Congressional officials privately that they did not believe it themselves.

Some of the Navy's key "evidence" was the testimony of Seaman David Smith. He recanted that testimony in Sept. 1989, saying he'd been grilled by Naval investigators for up to 12 hours at a stretch and threatened with 47 charges of murder himself if he did not "cooperate." Cooperate meant swearing that Hartwig had made advances toward him.

In Oct. 1991, the Navy and other investigators admitted the blast may have been an accident. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Frank Kelso, III went on to make a public apology to the Hartwig family, admitting there was no proof that he had detonated the explosion - but not, as the family still seeks, actually exonerating Hartwig.

Following that Oct. 1991 admission by the Navy, GLAAD (the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation)/Los Angeles then-executive director Richard Jennings called on the Navy "to apologize to the Gay and Lesbian citizens of this country," calling the "troubled homosexual" theory "an insulting and insidious attempt to buttress the Navy's policy of prejudice with a yarn concocted wholly out of myths and stereotypes, with absolutely no basis in fact." GLAAD/New York Media Chair Stephen Miller had suggested the Navy's motive for scapegoating a "troubled homosexual," noting that, "Several court cases were then being litigated involving Gay men and Lesbians fighting discharges from the Navy, and the Navy was attempting to defend its discriminatory discharge policy by claiming that Gays were a disruptive influence to proper military functioning."

After $7-million spent on investigating the affair-some of it spent harassing the Hartwigs-the Navy's most recent conclusion is simply that the truth can never be known. Norfolk Naval Base spokesperson Commander Mike Andrews even on the tenth anniversary would say only that the explosion was a "tragic accident." [from NewsPlanet]

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