Uncle Sam wants you -- in the dark

The Navy is trying to sink an exposi of the phony "gay" scandal behind the explosion on the USS Iowa.

Published August 18, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Ten years ago this summer, the families of 47 Navy sailors were grieving over the loss of their loved ones after a gun turret exploded on the battleship USS Iowa as it steamed through the Caribbean, off Puerto Rico, on April 19, 1989.

Now they have reason to grieve again, for the Navy has effectively suppressed the results of the lone independent investigation of the accident. That investigation lays blame for the deaths squarely where it belongs: on the Navy itself.

In April, W.W. Norton published "A Glimpse of Hell: The Explosion on the USS Iowa and Its Coverup" by Charles C. Thompson, a highly regarded Washington author and veteran investigative producer for CBS's "60 Minutes" and other network news programs. Among Thompson's past triumphs were discoveries that the Pentagon had paid $500 for toilets, that the $1 billion a copy B-2 Stealth bombers weren't invisible to radar, that the Bradley Fighting Vehicle could catch on fire and, ranging further afield, that Elvis died of a drug overdose, not a heart problem. As testimony to its accuracy, "A Glimpse of Hell" was praised by reviewers and chosen by the Military Book Club as its main selection last March.

While Thompson's reputation is sterling in publishing circles, however, respect for his work is apparently not shared by the U.S. Navy, which refused to cooperate with the writer after he began to peel away the rotten layers of official misconduct coating the Iowa affair. The Navy has now blocked sales of the book in bookstores on military bases -- retail venues critical to the success of such a book.

It's easy to understand why. Among Thompson's major discoveries was that the Iowa, a World War II battleship de-mothballed at immense expense during the Reagan administration's naval expansion in the 1980s, was "a 59,000-ton accident waiting to happen." But what most people remember about the disaster is that the vicious explosion in gun turret No. 2 was deliberately set off by a homosexual sailor -- Gunner's Mate 2nd Class Clayton Hartwig, 24 -- in a murderous, suicidal response to being rejected by a gay shipmate.

But that was false, as Thompson discovered. Hartwig was not gay, nor was his friend who died with him in the blast. They had not had a love affair, pleasant or tormented. Thompson traced the slander to Navy detectives who browbeat one sailor into making a false statement that gay revenge was at the bottom of the accident, then peddled the dirt to credulous reporters -- in particular NBC's Fred Francis. Francis repeatedly libeled the dead sailor with stories of gay sex, all based on anonymous sources. Francis still covers the Pentagon for NBC, and still stands by his stories, now shown to be patently absurd.

The sailor's false statement was later retracted, a fact that the Navy also covered up in its zeal to pin blame for the affair on Hartwig. Naval officials even went so far as to conceal the retraction from FBI agents who worked at the agency's behavioral studies unit and who produced a "psychological autopsy" buttressing the detectives' theory. The Navy's coverup also included the suppression of evidence showing that Hartwig couldn't possibly have caused the explosion.

Why was the Navy so anxious to blame Hartwig for the blast? Blaming the victim deflected attention from the Navy's own culpability. That culpability included bad maintenance of the 16-inch guns, unsafe working conditions, poor ship leadership and the use of half-century-old gunpowder.

"The environment was one notch above hell," Thompson writes. "It was hot, grimy, nasty, hazardous and cramped. The Iowa turret decks were slippery, coated with hydraulic fluid and oil. A tumbling shell could pulverize a man. One misstep in the gun house and a sailor could plunge into the pit, where he might be crushed to death by moving machinery or by an elevating or traversing weapon. Friction and static electricity were constant sources of anxiety. A spark could trigger an explosion."

"Some men couldn't handle life in the turrets. They were prostrate with fear every time the guns were discharged."

In fact, as Thompson discovered in letters and interviews, many sailors aboard the Iowa were as certain as Captain Ahab's crew that they were steaming toward death.

While the Navy's unhappiness with such a book is understandable, any effort to suppress it would be illegal. Unlike private bookstores, taxpayer-funded shops at military bases cannot refuse to stock a book just because the Pentagon doesn't like it.

But that's exactly what has happened to "A Glimpse of Hell," according to Thompson. The author has filed a Freedom of Information lawsuit against the Navy, an effort that has already pried loose some nuggets. Among the documents he's obtained are a sheaf of internal Navy e-mails showing how officials canceled his lecture and book-signing at the Naval Historical Center museum in Washington. The Navy's explanation was that the museum couldn't host such an affair because "litigation of this incident is still pending." (The Hartwig family, who maintain that the Navy made Clayton a scapegoat to conceal problems with gunpowder, is suing the Navy for defamation.) "Associating the Navy Museum and thus the Navy with Mr. Thompson in that context could have been misleading and confusing to the litigants, and detrimental to the legal process," Rear Adm. John D. Hutson wrote to Donald L. Lamm, chairman of W.W. Norton.

How making space for a book signing in the museum could affect "the legal process" was not explained. Navy officials contacted by Salon Books refused to expound upon their previous statement.

The Navy's efforts to suppress sales of the book went further. According to internal e-mail, the Navy banned author signings at any PX, effectively killing book sales at stores where it presumably would find its most eager, and important, readers: Navy sailors.

"I will call book wholesalers and tell them not to set up book signings with this author," a Navy public affairs officer wrote to fellow staff on April 15. She added, "I don't think we should send e-mail to the field."

Another officer wrote: "I guess we need to let whoever sets up the book signings, be it the stores or the vendor, know of the Pentagon's concerns."
"I think we all agree," wrote another. "We will work with wholesalers to insure no book signings."

Book signings can dramatically increase sales -- if they're coordinated with newspaper, radio and television coverage, according to W.W. Norton publisher Donald Lamm, reached by telephone in California, where he's taking a sabbatical to write a book on 20th century political memoirs. "It's like a gathering storm," he said of the synergy between signing and publicity. "We seldom send an author 2,000 miles just to do a signing."

Conversely, the cancelation of bookstore signings rattles up and down the merchandising chain. Cancelations can depress a store's orders for a book and dampen media coverage beyond review sections, which are read by relatively few people; many newspapers don't even have review sections. Local broadcast outlets almost never pay attention to books unless an author's nearby appearance has been featured in the paper. When a signing is canceled, everything else folds with it.

The Navy insists it hasn't "banned" Thompson's book, but canceling signings has certainly diminished, if not entirely dried up, orders.

"It's a Catch-22," Thompson complains.

A spot check found the book was not stocked by major Navy PXs at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., the submarine base at New London, Ct., or Norfolk, Va., headquarters for the Atlantic Fleet and the Iowa's former home port. Presumably, the thousands of former crew members and their families who attended a melancholy USS Iowa reunion at the Norfolk base in April when the book came out would have been interested in buying a copy, but it wasn't available in any of the local PXs.

Thompson suspects, but cannot prove, that the Navy-induced chill spread to wholesalers, who rely on continued good relations with the global network of PXs.

"When they call book wholesalers and tell them that this thing is not in favor with the Pentagon, a bookseller is probably not going to stock that product," he says.

And that really hurts a book like "A Glimpse of Hell," says Seymour M. Hersh, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of investigative books on the Army's coverup of the My Lai massacre and the Soviet downing of Korean Airlines Flight 007 ("The Target Is Destroyed"), among other military-oriented titles.

"I got letters from people who served in the intelligence community who bought it at PXs," Hersh said of "The Target is Destroyed." "I certainly know we sold copies in PXs because I heard from military people in Japan and other places," Hersh reported in a telephone interview. "If they're doing it, there's no question they're really hurting the ability of someone who's writing critically about the military to make a living."

No one in the Navy, meanwhile, has disputed the accuracy of Thompson's book.

"Every word in this book is true," Clayton Hartwig's sister, Kathy, tearfully declared at a publication party in Washington.

Thompson's book may be a special case. After all, the Pentagon didn't interfere with Hersh's searing book about My Lai, or Gregory Vistica's scorching reprise of the 1992 Tailhook naval aviator scandal, "Fall From Glory: The Men Who Sunk the U.S. Navy."

Perhaps that's because so many of the Navy officers involved in the USS Iowa scandal are still on duty, including Navy detectives who leaked false theories of Hartwig's sexuality to the media. Moreover, none of the officers responsible for the Iowa disaster were punished, even after Congress held hearings on the Navy's own investigation and concluded it was deeply flawed.

True to his calling, Thompson has thrown himself into investigating the Navy's blackballing of his book with the same doggedness that characterized his inquiry into the causes of the USS Iowa disaster, digging up documents that could lead to a lawsuit.

If he can prove what he suspects, "I'll have a pretty good torts claims act, based on what I've been able to get so far," he told Salon Books. "That is interference with commerce, and it's being done by a branch of the government, and that just can't be."

By Jeff Stein

Jeff Stein is the coauthor, with Khidhir Hamza, of "Saddam's Bombmaker: The Daring Escape of the Man Who Built Iraq's Secret Weapon." He writes frequently for Salon on national security issues from Washington.

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