A Scapegoat On The Iowa?

From the start, a strong odor of doubt hung over the Navy's official verdict that last year's disastrous explosion on the battleship Iowa was "most probably" set off by a suicidal sailor. Last week, prodded to act by a senator with new findings and a scientific report, the Navy said it would reopen its investigation--and disclosed the first solid evidence that the disaster may have been an accident after all.

The evidence also heightened suspicions that the Navy had tried to sweep the disaster under the rug, scapegoating its own dead crewman rather than admit to problems with its battleships. Last fall's investigation had flatly ruled out an accident conjecturing that Gunner's Mate Clayton M. Hartwig, "a loner, an introverted individual," deliberately touched off the powder bags while loading a 16-inch gun in the recommissioned World War II warship. The blast ripped through the turret, killing Hartwig and 46 other crewmen. Investigators hinted broadly to reporters that Hartwig was a homosexual, despondent over a disappointment in love. They also said they found evidence of a detonator--traces of chlorine, calcium, iron and glycols--inside the gun barrel. But the new report from Sandia National Laboratories, a top nuclear research center in New Mexico, said the chemicals and steel wool are routinely used to clean gun turrets. And a House investigations subcommittee had already concluded that the rush to judgment on Hartwig was "based on evidence inadequate to support the conclusion."

What really happened? After the explosion suspicion first focused on the gun's powder, on the theory it could have grown dangerously unstable in the half century since it was manufactured. But technicians at a Navy research center at Dahlgren, Va., failed in more than 20,000 tests to make the powder explode other than normally. Then Sen. Sam Nunn, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked scientists at Sandia to take a hand in the inquiry. They came up with startling new evidence--that under some conditions, pressure alone might be enough to set off the powder.

That possibility fit neatly with a key fact that the Navy had discounted: the gun's hydraulic rammer was found extended 24 inches too far into the breech according to Sandia, a position where it would have jammed the bags of powder against the base of the shell already locked in place. In a report to Nunn, the Sandia researchers said lab experiments had confirmed that a "high-speed over-ram" could have ignited the powder with a pressure shock.

Sandia's first telephoned results on May 11 raised immediate questions. Four of the battleships had been recommissioned and at least one of them, the Missouri, was out on exercises, if the powder could ignite accidentally, should the ship be warned not to fire its guns? But two days later the Navy responded that the Sandia theory was "not relevant," since no tests had actually been conducted in a 16-inch gun. That brush-off prompted Nunn to send a stinging letter urging "all necessary tests" as soon as possible. With that, the Dahlgren researchers did what they hadn't done before: they simulated the actual conditions of a firing.

Jumbled sticks: In previous tests, Dahlgren thought it had disproved the rammer overrun possibility by repeatedly ramming sets of five bags of powder into a gun breech at high speed, getting no ignition. But in an actual firing, fine range adjustments are made by removing some of the chalk-like sticks of "powder" from the second bag in the stack. That leaves some of the remaining sticks jumbled randomly, not lined up neatly as in the Dahlgren tests. Under those conditions, Sandia showed, the jumbled sticks of powder could shear under pressure and ignite. In the new test last week, Dahlgren removed some sticks; then the bags were stacked and dropped, under heavy weights, onto a steel plate. On the 18th try, the powder ignited.

None of that proved that the powder was to blame, or that the explosion wasn't sabotage. In fact, the ram had been set correctly for low-speed function when the blast occurred. But Iowa gunners testified that the ram sometimes malfunctioned, sticking and then jerking convulsively forward. The new evidence was cause enough for the Navy to reopen the inquiry and to stop firing the 16-inch guns on any of the battleships in service.

It also lent credence to the Iowa's former skipper, Capt. Fred P. Moosally, who left the Navy saying the investigators cared more about "getting things over with" than doing right by his crew. "The rush to blame Hartwig was flat wrong," said Ohio Sen. John Glenn. And in Cleveland, Hartwig's father, Earl, himself a Navy gunner in World War II, felt vindicated at last. "This is what we've been saying all along," he said. "My son is not guilty."