Battleship Gunners Look To Their Guns With Pride
Apr. 23, 1989
NORFOLK, Va. (AP) _ Sailors aboard the USS Wisconsin, sister ship to the USS Iowa where 47 men were killed last week in a gun turret explosion, opened their ship Saturday to talk about their pride in battleships and sense of loss.
''The one thing on our mind is the tragic loss of many of our ex- shipmates,'' said Capt. Jerry M. Blesch, commander of the Wisconsin. With only four battleships in the Navy, many aboard the Iowa once served on the Wisconsin.
''These are all old ships,'' said Lt. Matt Schatzle, 25, of Gulfport, Miss., who commands the three 16-inch guns of the Wisconsin's turret No. 3. ''The crews have a connection with all the old sailors who served on the same ships back in World War II. ... They do the same jobs, they face the same dangers.''
An explosion ripped through the Iowa's No. 2 turret Wednesday during gunnery exercises off Puerto Rico. The cause of the blast was under investigation. The gun's 2,700-pound projectile is fired by six 110-pound bags of black powder.
At the time of the explosion, there were 58 men in the turret, which extends six decks into the 887-foot ship. The 11 who survived were all in the lowest deck, loading powder from the ship's forward magazines, the Navy said.
Navy teams that entered the turret immediately after the blast found the No. 2 gun's breech open and undamaged, with the practice projectile that the gun was to have fired still sitting there, The New York Times reported in Sunday editions.
This indicated that the explosion occurred as the six bags were being loaded into the gun and before it was ready to fire, the Times said, quoting unidentified sources who have seen initial reports on the disaster.
Navy gunnery officers have further narrowed their estimate of the time of the explosion to the point when the bags were being transferred from a powder hoist to the gun, the newspaper said. They said the flame and gases released by the explosion, which killed everyone in the upper part of the turret, also went down the powder hoist to the lowest deck.
The officers said that if the transfer of powder to the guns had been complete, the hoist also would have been sealed off.
Pentagon spokesman Jim Turner said Saturday he had no new information on the investigation. The ship is expected to arrive at its home port here on Sunday and a base memorial service is scheduled for Monday with President Bush.
Aboard the Wisconsin, a Texas sailor was undaunted.
''To me, this is the gunner's ultimate dream,'' said Gunner's Mate 1st Class Billy Owens, pointing into the gun room filled with the immense breech of the 16-inch gun.
''There is a big boom, rattle and shake when it goes off. I just like hearing them go off. It's the ultimate experience. Little guns go bang. The big ones boom,'' said the 29-year-old Corpus Christi native.
In the turret, conditions are cramped and the equipment old. Maintenance, said the crew, is a daily ritual.
''One of the things about these guns is the pride they instill,'' Schatzle said. ''Everything in the gun room is mechanical; there are no computers. The men actually do things. They can take apart the equipment like a car. They get dirty. It's a hands-on job, and it's something that the gunners are proud of. ... It's a team and team effort.''
''It has brought home the fact that it is a dangerous occupation and that things can go wrong and will go wrong in the future,'' Blesch said. A Kentucky native, he compared gun duty to coal mining, where cave-ins and injuries occur.
Critics have argued that the battleships are too old - especially the 16- inch guns - to be effective, something Blesch disputed.
''These are magnificent ships. The Iowa withstood the turret blast and today is steaming to port, essentially battle ready. What other ship could?'' he asked.