Proponents said the 16-inch guns of the U.S. navy battleship Iowa represented the pinnacle of naval war technology. Critics said they were outdated and dangerous. Whatever the truth, 47 men on a USS Iowa gun crew were killed last week in one of the worst
peacetime accidents in U.S. naval history. And naval officials ordered all their same-calibre guns silenced until a commission of inquiry had established the cause of the disaster.
The accident occurred on the morning of April 19 as the Iowa—one of four mothballed Second World War battleships refitted and recommissioned during the Reagan defence buildup of the early 1980s—took part in exercises 300 miles northeast of Puerto Rico. The men of the 58,000-ton Iowa had finished testfiring the three 16-inch guns of its number 1 turret. Number 2 was about to follow suit when, suddenly, a tremendous explosion ripped through the sealed steel gun room at the top of the multilevel turret. Every man in the five top levels died almost at once, senior officers said later. But by some quirk, 11 men
in the turret’s lowest level—the powder magazine, more than 30 feet below deck—survived with only slight injuries.
Suspicion centred on the gunpowder that sailors use to blast a 2,695-lb. projectile a maximum range of 23 miles. They were either loading, or were about to load, five silken bags—each containing 110 lb. of powder—into the breech of one of the turret’s guns when the fatal blast occurred. The Iowa’s 16-inch guns—and those of its sister ships, the Missouri, the New Jersey and the Wisconsin—are the largest in use by any navy. And some experts say that the guns have not changed much in concept since they were introduced before the First World War.
After the flag-draped coffins of the victims had been flown to the U.S. mainland from Puerto Rico, retired Rear Admiral Gene LaRocque, an outspoken critic of Reagan-era defence policies, fired a salvo of his own. The Iowa and the other recommissioned U.S. battleships had “old-fashioned ammunition, old-fashioned technology and old-fashioned wiring,” he said. He speculated that the wiring may have malfunctioned, igniting the gunpowder prematurely, or that a gun’s breech mechanism may not have closed properly, causing a backfire. But Capt. Larry Seaquist, who commanded the Iowa until May, 1988, insisted that “this remains the finest naval gun in the world.” Meanwhile, Admiral Carlisle Trost, chief of naval operations, ordered that no 16-inch gun should be fired until the accident’s cause is known. But some experts said the death of every eyewitness might make it impossible to reach firm conclusions. In any case, the sharp divisions of opinion surrounding the 16-inch gun seemed merely the opening shots in a battle of words that might well outlast—and overshadow—the official inquiry itself.
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