When the number 2 gun turret aboard the USS Iowa blew up during gunnery practice off Puerto Rico on April 19, 47 men in or near the gun chamber were killed. Their shipmates clearly expected that the Naval Investigative Service (NIS) inquiry into the disaster would establish that a freak accident had caused a spark to ignite the silk bags of gunpowder used to fire the massive gun. But last week, a very different theory began to emerge. One Pentagon source said that “for his own protection” 21-year-old Gunner’s Mate Third Class Kendall Truitt was being transferred from the Iowa to a shore base in Florida. And published reports said that Truitt and his former close friend, Gunner’s Mate Second Class Clayton Hartwig, 24, who died in the blast, may have been involved in a “special relationship”—and a bizarre murder or suicide scheme that caused the explosion. In a news conference last Friday, Truitt and his
wife swiftly denied that he was a homosexual or had ever been involved in homosexual activities. And Truitt added: “I think the navy is at a loss. I think they are looking for a scapegoat.”
The Washington Post quoted an unnamed source as saying that the investigation had narrowed down to a criminal probe of the two sailors. However, the gun turret was so extensively damaged that the investigation may not prove conclusive. And Truitt has not been charged with any wrongdoing. Last Friday, Truitt confirmed that Hartwig had named him the beneficiary of a $120,000 life insurance policy—“because he was my friend.” But Hartwig’s family is contesting payment on the policy, insisting that the friendship between the two men ended six months ago, when Truitt got married.
Hartwig’s sister, Kathleen Kubicina, 36, of Cleveland said that her brother was a
“loner” who did not make friends easily, and that he wrote home frequently about the end of his friendship with Truitt. She said that naval investigators made an exhaustive search of her brother’s bedroom, adding that her brother was “not a crazed mass murderer who would kill 47 innocent men.”
Various media reports said that the NIS is considering two possibilities: that Truitt may have triggered the explosion to claim the insurance money; or that Hartwig— depressed by the end of the relationship— caused the blast in an attempt to kill himself, Truitt or both of them. They were both in the turret at the time of the explosion, but Truitt survived because he was in the lower magazine level, helping to load bags of gunpowder. According to the Post, the NIS is investigating the possibility that Truitt may have tampered with one of the powder bags.
Truitt, meanwhile, told the Newport News, Va., Daily Press that the NIS was “trying to find an easy way out.” He added: “Right now, they’ve got a closed mind. They’ve decided I somehow was the cause of the explosion, which isn’t true. Or, two, that Clay committed suicide. And that, too, I can’t believe is true. He never expected to die. I was his best friend.”
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