If I had a dream job it would be as an investigative reporter/photographer. I wouldn’t cover current events; no, I would cover news stories 20 years after they had occurred and try to find out what we got right and what we got wrong. It would be to remind people of the names of the Challenger and Columbia astronauts, to recall mistakes, and to celebrate the sacrifices and triumphs of events and to look at how they have changed the world or one person. It would also be for a major publisher so I wasn’t afraid of being sued for libel.
News reporting is hard work, finding two reliable sources to corroborate a story can be a fairly monumental task, especially under a deadline. All too often you are not reporting the truth, but a viewpoint. You go in with a preconceived notion, or your source is promoting their own agenda.
With print journalism’s slow death, and smaller newspaper budgets, investigative journalism has mostly disappeared. We tend to get sound bites and copies of press releases as our news. Being unbiased in reporting is nearly impossible, even watching football the announcers always seem to favor the other team.
17-year-old me recalls turning on the news in mid-April of 1989 and hearing about a massive explosion in the number two turret of the USS Iowa. Forty-seven crew members lost their lives in a training accident. An open breach caused five powder bags to exploded inside the number 2 turret center gun crumpling the bulkhead doors and killing everyone in the turret’s upper levels, 12 men in the lower turret survived when their blast doors held.
Over the next five weeks it turned from an accident into an alleged act of sabotage. And then the news cycle ended. The Navy had named a crew member for planting a explosive timer into one of the powder bags. I went to college, the Gulf War started and I forgot about the tragedy on the USS Iowa. Instead we heard about the USS Missouri and Wisconsin firing nearly 1200 shells into Iraq and watched a new reporter on CNN named Wolf Blitzer report the nightly war status.
Meanwhile, a second investigation and a congressional inquiry into the Iowa were initiated. Almost a year and a half later in October of 1991, the explosion was ruled an accident.
Two officers had convinced the captain that Naval Sea Systems Command (NavSea) had authorized gun testing using experimental loads. It was later revealed the contact at NavSea didn’t have the authority to allow such testing.
The crew had been testing the 16 inch guns using 40 years old powder. It had been adjusted to correct for the difference in burn times due to age and improper storage. Their testing was to see if they could increase the ship’s firing range. The bags stated not for use with the 2700 lbs shells they were firing. The bags were intended for the lighter high-explosive shells weighing 1900 lbs. In initial tests they they recorded the longest shots fired from a battleship.
In an earlier test a bag had start smoldering as it was loaded into the gun but they closed the breach in time and the gun only misfired, lightly damaging the ship. In later drop testing of these bags, using the same load as the Iowa the entire test setup was destroyed in an explosion.
Also, as the ship was returning to port after the explosion the captain instructed the crew to throw damaged parts overboard and repaint the interior of the damaged turret. This matter greatly complicated the investigations.
As a result of this testing and additional investigation, the accused crew-member was cleared, the Navy offered its regrets to the family, and the cause was determined to be an accidental explosion. No senior officers were officially reprimanded or reduced in rank. The best friend of the sailor they had named as the saboteur was denied re-enlistment likely due to his vocal objection to the initial report. In a Washington Post article in 2001 the captain was quoted as saying, “Only God knows what really happened in that turret. We’re never really going to know for sure.”
The USS Iowa was decommissioned the year following the explosion and the turret was never put back into service. She is currently a museum ship in Los Angeles, CA.
The USS Iowa is a ship rich in history. She took part in many battles and shore bombardments in WWII and the Korean War. She served as Admiral Willis Lee’s and Admiral Halsey’s flagship. She has carried presidents Roosevelt and Reagan.
My family went on the tour several weeks ago, it was a great experience. And it’s a great way to pay your respects to the 47 sailors who died serving their country.
However, she is in dire need of new decking.
For more information about the explosion aboard the Iowa there are two books A Glimpse of Hell : The Explosion on the U. S. S. Iowa and It’s Cover-up by Charles C Thompson II and Explosion Aboard the Iowa by Richard L Schwoebel. There is also a movie called A Glimpse of Hell.