By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. U.S. Navy Retired) Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
Editor’s note: This is part of a larger blog series to inform readers about the important mission our nation’s Historic Naval Ships serve. You can read about more about USS Iowa here, about USS Olympia here and USS Texas here.
There is another side to Iowa’s history that should never be forgotten, and that is the 47 Sailors who died in an explosion in turret #2 on 19 April 1989. In that event, more Sailors died than in combat aboard the ship during WWII. The tragedy drove home that even in “peacetime,” service aboard warships is inherently dangerous, sometimes resulting in the ultimate sacrifice. Valor and courage may be required at any moment. The event would not be considered a great moment in U.S. Naval history, either the explosion or the flawed investigation that followed, but it is important that the sacrifice of these Sailors be remembered and not swept under the rug, and just as important that the lessons learned at such great cost be remembered, and acted upon.
Next to the aft turret on the USS Iowa there is also a plaque dedicated to the Sailors who died in a series of explosions in turret #2 of the battleship USS Mississippi during training off San Pedro on 12 June 1924. The USS Iowa museum had obtained the plaque from a more obscure and forgotten location in San Pedro and had put it in a place of honor on the Iowa. I found the plaque to be incredibly moving, dedicated to the Sailors who died, “one man for each star in our flag – long may it wave.” A Navy ship was later named after Lieutenant junior grade Thomas Zellars whose body was found inside the turret still gripping the lever to flood the magazine; his first instinct to save his ship, which he likely did, rather than save himself.
I was well aware that there had been a number of major accidents in the first decades of the Navy’s transition to steel warships and that there was a horrific litany of Sailors crushed, burned, scalded and drowned in shipboard machinery accidents. However, I did not previously know the details of the Mississippi turret explosion, so naturally I immediately googled it, and immediately discovered the second accidental explosion in Turret #2 of USS Mississippi in 1943 while she was bombarding Makin Island, killing 43 Sailors. The Navy learned from these tragedies and by the 1930’s, as a result of better procedures and training, such accidents had become increasingly rare, although the danger wasn’t. Reading about these accidents gave me new perspectives on my grandfather’s service as an enlisted Sailor aboard Mississippi’s sister ship USS Idaho in the early 1920’s.
I do not know if there is a memorial anywhere to those who died in USS Mississippi’s second turret explosion, but I intend to look for it. There is a memorial to the USS Iowa crewmen on Norfolk Naval Base overlooking the channel. But I thank the USS Iowa museum for making the history of the Iowa and the Mississippi known and accessible to the American and international public, so that the sacrifice of those brave Sailors who perished will never be forgotten.