Battleship Mystery: Back in 1989, One of the Navy's Last Battleships 'Big Guns' Exploded
"Investigators started with the conclusion and tried to retrofit evidence to it."
The U.S. Navy covered itself with shame thirty years ago while investigating a fatal explosion on board the battleship USS Iowa. The World War II veteran Iowa and her sister dreadnoughts sported three 16-inch, 50-caliber three-gun turrets. Each 67-foot-long naval rifle was capable of flinging 1,900- or 2,700-lb projectiles at targets over twenty miles away. Forty-seven sailors perished on April 19, 1989, when the center gun in Turret 2 detonated while conducting highly suspect gunnery experiments in waters northeast of Puerto Rico. The Weapons Department leadership evidently directed the turret crew to deploy an expressly forbidden combination of powder and projectiles.
It was expressly forbidden for good reason—because it was unsafe. When used with the heavyweight armor-piercing projectiles, five (rather than the usual six) bags of the type loaded up that fateful morning could produce excessive temperatures and overpressure. A catastrophic explosion could result.
Unwilling to admit that an accident may have taken place, especially when rulebreaking may have contributed, navy investigators and senior officers circled the wagons and scapegoated the dead. The official line was that a homosexual gunner’s mate, the “gun captain” or supervisor for the Turret 2 center-gun crew, had deliberately set off the explosion because he was distraught at being jilted by a fellow sailor. The sum total of the evidence: that he had made his supposed ex-lover the beneficiary of his life-insurance policy. To substantiate their theory, navy investigators sifted through the ruins, repeatedly claiming to have found foreign material—that is, material not normally present in Turret 2—amid the wreckage. These traces, they insisted, constituted the remains of an explosive device used to set off the powder bags prematurely. In other words, this was no accident.
Investigators started with the conclusion and tried to retrofit evidence to it.
Thankfully, a skeptical Congress commissioned Sandia National Laboratories—an anchor of the nation’s nuclear weapons complex—to conduct a competing investigation of the Iowa blast. Sandia physicist Richard L. Schwoebel, who headed the competing study, recounts the experience in Explosion Aboard the Iowa, a book released to mark the ten-year anniversary of the disaster. Schwoebel’s account is the most compelling work you’ve never heard of, in large part because—unlike the navy’s attempts to manufacture a tale of murderous misconduct—it is relentlessly scientific and objective in tone and approach.
Over time, the Sandia inquisitors were able to conclusively debunk the notion that an improvised ignition device had left behind residue to posthumously indict the culprit. They accounted for every single substance, showing it was commonly present in gunnery spaces. They also managed to replicate conditions that could have produced an accident. Experiments determined that the “rammer,” a hydraulic device whereby gun crews thrust projectiles and powder bags into the gun breech before firing, could ignite the powder if used at top speed to shove in bags containing certain varieties of powder “pellets” oriented in certain directions within the bags. Varieties like the one in use on April 19.
After conducting field trials using bags randomly selected from the inventory on board Iowa at the time of the disaster, the Sandia team concluded that the probability of an explosion ranged from one in seventy to one in sixteen. The odds of an explosion weren’t high during any single gun shoot. But the battleships expended hundreds of rounds during their service lives in the 1980s and early 1990s—over a thousand during Desert Storm alone. Do the math. In other words, Sandia Laboratories proved that there was a non-trivial chance that an accident had occurred, while the navy leadership denied that possibility while insisting that an impossible set of circumstances comprised the true story.
The late historian Robert Conquest once quipped that the best way to explain the “behavior of any bureaucratic organization” is by “assuming that it is controlled by a secret cabal of its enemies.” The U.S. Navy’s enemies must have gloated at its handling of the Iowa aftermath; they could scarcely have arranged a bigger embarrassment. Conquest, then, would probably point to the nature of bureaucratic institutions to explain navy investigators’ and the leadership’s conduct. Bureaucracy is a machine built to execute routine tasks the same way again and again. Human beings run the bureaucratic machinery; defensive instincts drive them. Perverse incentives result.
Ingrained bias within individuals and the institution prodded navy representatives to blame a dead gunner for the cataclysm. Doing so exonerated the service—obscuring the improper practices employed on April 19 while vindicating the battleship program as a whole. Under the press of bureaucratic imperatives, they yielded to what mathematician Jordan Ellenberg calls “the oldest false syllogism in the book”: it could be true; I want it to be true; therefore, it is true. QED.
It’s worth mentioning that the navy leadership ultimately redeemed itself. In part, and belatedly. On October 17, 1991, Admiral Frank Kelso—the newly installed chief of naval operations, and an officer encumbered with little baggage from the Iowa affair or its fallout—apologized formally for the botched investigation. Some takeaways from this sad episode: Never dissemble, no matter how embarrassing some incident may be. Ordinary folk see through subterfuge, respect candor, and forgive a great deal. And never, ever speak ill of the dead. Especially when the dead are your comrades-in-arms. People will not soon excuse you for that sin.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific. The views voiced here are his alone.