The Navy’s Scapegoats | by Gerald Posner
“Looking to one side, I saw my division officer wedged between the range finder and a computer. It was the first body I saw. His head was gone, and he had no arms. It was almost as if he was naked. His clothes had been burned off him. He would have been wearing leather boots there, but there were no boots there, just his burned feet. He was contorted a little bit, pushed in there. We had trouble getting him out. We ended up having to pull the computer off him. When they pulled him out of there, on his back you could see a little bit of khaki.” That gruesome scene is what Gunner’s Mate Third Class Kendall Truitt described to Naval investigators within days of one of the worst peacetime accidents in the Navy’s history – the April 19, 1989, explosion in gun turret No. 2 aboard the U.S.S. Iowa. Until this Penthouse interview, the graphic contents of a 45-minute videotape of Truitt’s statement to Navy investigators have never been made public. On the video, Navy investigators were stunned by what Truitt described seeing inside the damaged gun turret.
“In other sections, some of the bodies had been blown apart. After we had pulled the first body out, we were looking around. There, near center gun, there were no bodies to speak of, just pieces. The largest piece was half an arm, maybe a foot. There should have been four people in the gun room itself.” Later, Truitt walked through chest-high liquid that he dubbed “dead men’s soup,” a ghastly mixture of water, hydraulic fluid, blood, and body parts.
This tape is critical evidence, because it is the most contemporaneous statement taken from an eyewitness about the disaster. On the tape, Truitt, one of only 11 survivors of an accident that claimed sailors, describes the confusion surrounding the blast, the efforts he made to prevent 124,000 pounds of powder from exploding, and his many trips into the turret to find the bodies of his friends.
As a result of that interview, the Navy knew that Truitt was almost single-handedly responsible for averting a much greater catastrophe. He was one of the only survivors to have stayed for nearly 15 hours, risking his life in the rescue work. And, in fact, within days of the accident, the Navy acknowledged his heroic performance.
But shortly thereafter, Truitt’s life became a nightmare. The Navy–unable or unwilling to face its own failures–leaked unfounded rumors regarding homosexuality and possible complicity in mass murder. Irresponsible journalism fueled the flames, giving those stories worldwide distribution and credibility. It was a total and complete turnaround, based largely on secondhand information and unfounded gossip. But before the Navy would admit it was wrong, Truitt and his family had their lives shattered. Now, for the first time completely and fully, 21-year-old Kendall Truitt tells how a national hero became a vilified scapegoat.
On April 19. 1989, the day of the accident, the U.S.S. Iowa, one of four World War II battleships taken out of moth-balls during the Reagan arms buildup, was 330 miles northeast of Puerto Rico. It was about to commence a day of test firing its guns, the world’s largest naval weapons, 16-inch guns that fire 2,700-pound projectiles up to 24 miles. Truitt and seven other sailors were nearly 60 feet below deck, in a turret’s sixth-floor magazine, where more than 50 tons of explosive powder is routinely stored for any firing exercise. The magazine rooms are considered the ship’s most dangerous, and are sealed off from the rest of the turret by explosive-proof walls.
Unknown to Truitt and his fellow seamen, the strange sound they heard at 9:55 A.M. was an explosion in the center gun at the top of the turret. The blast instantly killed the sailors in the two adjoining gun rooms and the turret officers’ booth. It also sent a giant 3,000-degree fireball mushrooming through the turret’s lower chambers at more than 2,000 feet a second. Sailors on those floors died from either the flames or smoke inhalation. The explosive-proof walls surrounding the magazine rooms housing Truitt and his fellow sailors saved their lives that morning.
Unaware that 47 of their friends were now dead, one of the sailors ventured into the main turret chambers. In the adjoining room, also sealed by explosive-proof walls, were three more survivors, the last in the turret. Beyond their room, the extent of the blast became clear.
Inside the powder flats, a large room with 25-foot ceilings where explosives are stored while being hoisted to the top of the turret, there was cause for major alarm–burning powder bags. The explosion had killed the turret’s electrical supply, and the flames now gave the only light. The room was filled with smoke and the strong odor of gas. Calls for other survivors went unanswered. Then, through the haze, the bodies of three men could be seen frozen upright holding a fire hose. For Truitt and the other survivors, it was time to evacuate. The burning bags could explode at any moment, setting off a chain reaction that could blow the Iowa into small pieces around the Caribbean. The Navy will not confirm or deny whether the Iowa was armed with nuclear weapons on the day of the explosion, a factor which could have significantly worsened the disaster.
On his way up the narrow metal ladder leading to the deck, Truitt remembers that “there was smoke everywhere. I couldn’t breathe. It was suffocating.” But Truitt’s day was just beginning. He realized that the only way to save the ship was to flood the powder magazines and prevent an explosion. One of the other sailors had tried’ to turn on the water valves during the evacuation, but he was new to the ship, and was not certain he had opened the right valves. A mistake could be fatal. The only way to ensure that the flooding was under way was to re-enter the depths of the damaged turret. Truitt ignored the danger and returned to the magazines near the burning powder charges.
“None of the first people arriving with the fire crews knew much about the turret,” he recalls. “They didn’t even know where the magazines were. So I decided to make the trip, and told them to just watch the hole for me, in case I didn’t come back up.” While the first rescue teams gathered on deck, the 21-year-old sailor returned to the lowest depths of the gun maze. “It was terrible down there–real hard to breathe and see. I didn’t know if I was going to make it.” He cranked the sprinkler valves to their full open position. Then he went to the powder flats to see if it was flooding. There he discovered a new problem. In their haste to evacuate, the sailors had forgotten to secure the doors and hatches–the flooding could endanger the entire ship. Less than ten feet from the burning powder bags, Truitt secured the room’s doors and waited until the water came rushing in, before scrambling up the ladder.
Although Truitt had just performed his most heroic and important task, he was determined to stay at the scene and “help as much as possible.” Upon returning to the deck, he volunteered for the rescue crew. During the next 12 hours, he made seven trips to discover his friends’ bodies and lead the way around the maze of turret No. 2. What he faced in those seven journeys through the gun decks are scenes Truitt will never forget. The graphic descriptions he gave to Navy investigators within days of the accident emphasize the extent to which the scenes are branded in his mind.
But he persisted in the stomach-wrenching work. And when he was not finding and retrieving bodies, he was returning to the powder flats and checking on the progress of the flooding. “I knew I had to keep busy. If I stopped for a moment and really thought about what had happened, I probably would have broken down. By the time I finished at 1:00 A.M., I just crashed out. I don’t think I’ve ever been that tired.”
By the time the Navy investigators took Truitt’s video statement, they knew that by flooding the burning powder flats and magazines, and securing the doors and hatches. the 21-year-old sailor had probably saved the ship from a complete catastrophe. But Kendall Truitt was “just doing [his] job.” He recalls, ‘At first I didn’t know anything about what was going on. I just knew we were starting to list, and I thought the ship was going down. I knew I had to do as much as possible to help. I didn’t know what the damage was outside the turret. I just did the best I could.” To the Navy, the modest Truitt was a hero.
On April 24, a memorial service was held at the Iowa’s home port in Norfolk, Virginia. President Bush and the international press corps gathered there. The Navy also paid tribute to Truitt, asking him to say a few words to the media. His wife Carole recalls the day vividly. “1 was so proud of Ken. People were coming up to me and saying he had saved the ship. A commander came to me and said, ‘Mrs. Truitt, I just want you to know you have a very brave husband, and you should be very proud of him.'”
Truitt remembers it as a sad but proud day. “I felt bad because friends of mine had died. I felt real bad. But it was also good to know that what I had done had been appreciated. The captain of the Iowa called Carole and me into his office to congratulate me. He was real pleased.”
Following the service, Truitt took some leave and visited his parents in Marion, Illinois. He had left Marion two years earlier as a normal teenager in a conservative and uneventful corn-farming community. The eldest of three sons in a strict Methodist household, Truitt was a talented high school athlete. Tall and good-looking, he was a sought-after date by the town’s girls. But in the spring of 1989, he returned home as something quite different–a hometown boy who had made it big. Truitt fondly recalls his return: “It was really something. We were in all the papers up there. I was a hero. I spoke on the [Illinois] Senate floor, and they passed a special resolution honoring me.”
While the Truitts were celebrating their newfound status in Illinois, on May 3, Kathleen Kubicina, the sister of one of the dead seamen, was writing a letter to Naval authorities. In it she disclosed that her brother, Gunner’s Mate Second Class Clayton M. Hartwig, had named Kendall Truitt as the sole beneficiary on a $50,000 life insurance policy, with double indemnity for accidental death. But Kubicina complained that her brother had had a falling-out with Truitt, and had decided to remove his name as beneficiary’ and instead list his own parents. She wanted the Navy’s help in changing the policy so her parents could collect on the premium.
To the Naval Investigative Service (N.I.S.), this information provided the first suggestion, however remote, that the explosion might be anything other than an accident. If true, it raised a possible motive: that Truitt may have killed Hartwig for the insurance money, knowing that he was about to be eliminated as the policy’s beneficiary. The Navy was not dissuaded from this suspicion, despite the fact that in order to have collected on the policy, Truitt would have had to blow up Hartwig and the rest of the turret while somehow escaping injury himself, something far from certain in any explosion. Though logic argued against such an involvement, the Navy pursued the connection with vigor, soon discovering that Hartwig had named his parents as beneficiaries for his $50,000 servicemen’s group life insurance policy. The policy naming Truitt was issued when the Iowa was heading for a then dangerous Persian Gulf in September 1987. Even though the Navy knew that it was not unusual for a sailor to name a close friend as a beneficiary, it acted as though it had unearthed a smoking gun in a criminal case. In an action separate from the continuing inquiry into the cause of the Iowa explosion, the Navy assigned 150 agents to the newly opened criminal investigation.
The Navy found tidbits of information to support the complex case it was trying to construct. Graffiti in some of the men’s toilets suggested that Truitt and Hartwig were lovers, and other sailors taunted them about being gay. The ship’s records also showed that in early 1987, Truitt and Hartwig had been charged with “dereliction Of duty.” When they both were supposed to be on night watch, two other sailors had spotted them rolling around on the floor. Although the light was dim and the sailors had to use flashlights to focus on the scene, they were convinced that they had seen two men embracing. Hartwig and Truitt were indignant in their defense at the time, adamantly declaring that they were merely “horsing around” and wrestling. The Navy nonetheless took a stripe away from Hartwig. To the N.I.S. investigators, the bathroom graffiti, the teasing by fellow shipmates, and the incident on watch were all the evidence needed to set the “homosexual lovers” theory in motion.
In addition, other unrelated facts were put together to make a case against the two sailors. Truitt had been arrested in April 1987 for possessing a stolen car. He eventually pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and paid full restitution of more than $4,000. The Navy considered this episode evidence of a criminal character flaw in Truitt, even though it worked against part of its own theory-since Truitt had stolen the car in order to visit his girlfriend in Marion, it was difficult to imagine that he had become a practicing homosexual following his arrest. But the Navy ignored the contradictions and plunged ahead in its rush to find a culprit.
Truitt had a six-month subscription to Gung Ho, and Hartwig was a subscriber to Soldier of Fortune, both paramilitary-adventurer magazines. Truitt also owned an out-of-date copy of an Army munitions book, while Hartwig had Getting Even: The Complete Book of Dirty Tricks, about settling scores with your enemies. Although magazines and books like these are not unusual in military households, the Navy gave them the sinister interpretation that they proved the two sailors were interested in and capable of assembling military devices, including explosives. Added to this developing but weakly supported scenario was the fact that when Truitt’s locker had been searched in 1987 at the time of his stolen-car arrest, the Navy had discovered a grain of gunpowder. A grain from one of the powder charges for the Iowa’s 16-inch guns is not a typical speck of powder, but resembles a roll of 40 stacked quarters. For that reason, many sailors collect them as souvenirs for their civilian friends and relatives. But the gunpowder grain found in Truitt’s locker was given new significance–in addition to his having the know-how, “explosives” had been found in his possession.
Two last pieces of hearsay fueled the Navy’s case. First were press reports that Truitt and Hartwig had taken out joint life insurance policies on each other. This disclosure sparked the Navy’s interest, since it would represent an unusual move. It was also false. There hadn’t even been a discussion between the two sailors about taking such action, but at the time the Navy accepted it as true. Finally, the N.I.S. investigators were told ‘that after Truitt married in December 1988, Hartwig had a falling-out with his friend. The N.IS. looked at this development as an indication of Hartwig’s anger over being spurned as a lover. From the perspective of wild speculation, the case was starting to take shape.
Complicating the matter for Truitt, his ability to remain calm and steady under tremendous pressure was now being interpreted to his disadvantage. On the 45-minute video taken shortly after the accident, Truitt was able to describe horrendous scenes with an almost detached coolness. On the occasions I spoke or met with him, he was the Navy professional at all times, never appearing especially emotional. This coldness could certainly be off-putting But it is not a crime to be unsympathetic. The very trait the Navy admired, that allowed Truitt to calmly make seven journeys through the ravaged gun turret. was now turned around to establish him as a cold-hearted conniver.
But Truitt himself was not aware that he was the subject of the Navy’s scattered investigation. On May 15, he turned in a letter to his commanding officer requesting a transfer from the Iowa for “emotional reasons” Truitt recounts. “I was walking around in a daze. Nobody went through what t did–none of the other survivors did what I did. I pulled out bodies, I ID’d bodies, I made seven trips into the turret. The bodies were still there, and I was passing my friends time and time again. These had been my friends. I wasn’t sleeping well or eating well. I tried to avoid the turret. And when I did go in there, I could see the bodies, just where I found them. I became tired of bringing the ship home to my wife and having it be around us all the time.”
The next day, May 16, without any prior warning, Truitt was called into a small enclosed room at N.I.S. headquarters (he describes it as a “closet”) and grilled by two agents for more than three hours. They asked to search his locker on the ship. “I had nothing to hide, so I agreed,” Truitt recalls. In his locker they found a lead foil used as a cleansing agent between the powder bags. Again, the investigators knew that sailors commonly took these foils as souvenirs. Yet the foil was added to the growing N.I.S. list of suspicious materials. The investigators then asked to search Truitt’s house. Again he agreed.
That afternoon, the N.I.S. officers took Truitt home. This time they quizzed Carole Truitt. She is still bitter when she remembers that day: “They asked me real personal questions and were very rude and abrasive. They asked me things like, ‘Were your husband and Clay Hartwig friends?’ ‘Did you like Clay Hartwig?’ ‘What type of friend was Clay Hartwig to your husband?’ ‘Did you have sex with your husband prior to marriage?’ ‘Did you ever have sex with Clay Hartwig, or with Clay Hartwig and your husband at the same time?’ ‘Do you think Clay Hartwig was a homosexual?'”
The questioning continued for two hours. Then the N.I.S. officers started searching the Truitts’ home. They rummaged through underwear, personal letters, and high school yearbooks, among other private items. They look notes the entire time. “I felt so violated by what they had done,” Carole recalls. “I cried for an hour after they left. It was like I had been raped.”
For the next two days, the Truitts barely functioned, almost in a daze. They could not believe that the Navy, after praising Ken as a hero only two weeks earlier, was now investigating him for links to the accident that almost claimed his own life. But from their questions, Truitt knew what they were insinuating. “It was really terrible. I could tell they were trying to make Clay and [me] out to be homosexuals. That is just a big lie.”
Truitt is the first to admit that he and Hartwig were very close friends. The 24-year-old, six-foot-one Hartwig, a devout Seventh-Day Adventist, had been in the Navy for nearly three years before Truitt met him. He was shy and introverted, a bookworm on Naval history, and was often the subject of merciless taunting by his fellow sailors. He was different from most of the crew, and as a result, deemed fair game for practical jokes and insults. The six-foot-four Truitt decided to befriend Hartwig, and he told the other sailors to “knock it off.”
“Clay and I just hit it off from the start,” Truitt remembers. “He became my best friend on the ship. And when we had port leave, we spent the time together. He was very honest, and that was one of the reasons he became such a good friend. We really appreciated each other. We had a lot of the same interests, like cars, music, and guns, and we would stay up late at night and talk to each other. The other guys would get on our backs because we wouldn’t do illegal things–we wouldn’t smoke, drink, all that stuff that a lot of the guys liked to do. When we got to a port, like when we were in France, we would take a tour or something. We liked to learn something about the place we were in–the other guys just liked to get trashed. Half the guys can’t even remember the last time they were in France, they were so trashed. So some of the guys disliked us for being separate and not being part of the gang–so behind our backs they would say we must be faggots. To them, that’s what you had to be if you’d rather go to a museum than to a bar and get drunk.”
Truitt admits that on his first full cruise on the Iowa, the other sailors “really razzed Clay and me.” The taunting continued for several months. “Then finally the guys let up and sometimes teased us to our face,” Truitt remembers. “But it didn’t really bother me. I knew it wasn’t true, so I could take it. But it bothered Clay a lot more. Sometimes he would joke around and say that if the guys didn’t stop picking on us, that he was just going to end it all and not be around one day. I knew him real well–he was just fooling around and trying to be tough. It didn’t mean a thing.” But the rumors of suicide talk worked their way back to N I.S investigators, who later heard it from four witnesses. Even though Hartwig’s eventual psychological profile would contradict a suicidal tendency, the Navy gave the locker-room talk credence.
Truitt also acknowledges that his friendship with Hartwig cooled after his December 1988 marriage. The two friends had been discussing a joint career in the Drug Enforcement Administration when they got out of the Navy. With his marriage, Truitt postponed his plans to enter law enforcement, and Hartwig was upset. “Also, it meant I wasn’t going to be spending all of my free time now with Clay since I had Carole. He didn’t like it.” Hartwig, like many men when their best friend gets married, felt abruptly left out of his buddy’s new life. In addition, he did not like Truitt’s new bride. When Truitt asked Hartwig what he thought of their new engagement ring, Hartwig stood up and curtly told Truitt, “You’re f###ing crazy, man. This marriage isn’t going to last two months.” Ken Truitt felt that changes were to be expected in such a close friendship when one of the friends gets married. “We still continued to be real good friends. We spent a lot of time together. So it wasn’t like all of a sudden we weren’t buddies anymore. It was just different.”
It should not have taken very long for the N.I.S. investigators to learn that their major hypothesis was incorrect. There was no evidence to support the innuendoes and aspersions that a jilted homosexual lover was the motivation for the explosion. Not a single sailor came forward to say he knew for a fact that either Hartwig or Truitt was gay. (One sailor initially told the N.I.S. that Hartwig had once made a “pass” at him, but later recanted it, saying that he had been under a great deal of pressure during the long N.I.S. interrogation.)
Within days of its commencement, the N.I.S. investigation was stymied. Making little headway in its newfound conspiracy theory, the Navy tried the case in the national media. “Raw intelligence data,” otherwise known as unsupported gossip, was leaked to the press.
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