The Transylvania Times -

Hans Nurnberger Recalls USS Iowa Tragedy - Brevard NC


November 19, 2018

Hans Nurnberger and his granddaughter, Cali Reid, visited the USS Iowa. (Courtesy photo)

A grandfather's journey in teaching his granddaughter how to make her way into future endeavors became his own opportunity for closure on a haunted past.

Together, Hans Nurnberger, who is co-owner of Knuckleheads Motorcycle and Small Engine Repair in Rosman, and his 9-year-old granddaughter, Cali Reid, of South Carolina, visited the USS Iowa battleship in San Pedro, Calif., where it is now a museum.

Nurnberger was serving on the USS Iowa the day the number 2, 16-inch, 50-caliber gun turret exploded on April 19, 1989, killing 47 men.

Over the summer, Reid set up a lemonade stand in front of her grandfather's shop on Chestnut Street to raise money to donate to the USS Iowa for renovations.

She raised $175 over five weekends.

After contacting the museum, her efforts were promoted on Facebook by the curator.

Nurnberger and his wife, Jennifer, wanted to reward Reid's work with a trip to California to tour the ship, on which Nurnberger had not boarded since he disembarked in 1989, when he left the US Navy, disillusioned and angry.

"I was nervous," he said. "I hadn't been on the ship in 30 years."

When he boarded, he said, the memories returned.

"So many things happened on that ship, good and bad," he said. "More good than bad, but the bad sticks out. It happened, and I just needed to say my peace and let go, after 30 years."

He joined the Navy in 1985, wanting to get out of his hometown of Newark, N.J., and became a boiler technician on the USS La Salle.

"We lived under the water line; nobody saw us, but without us, nothing happens on the ship," he said. "I loved every bit of it. I was happy, and I loved that lifestyle. I went all around the world, through Europe, the Middle East, and there was a time when we watched Iran and Iraq fly sorties back and forth between each other at night."

After the USS La Salle, Nurnberger moved on to the USS Iowa, where he lived and worked for two-and-a-half years.

"It's a bygone era," he said, "I'm glad to have been a part of it, but there was that one day that screwed it up for me."

And it happened in one moment, he said.

The ship was parked at Roosevelt Roads Naval Station in Puerto Rico, where crews were preparing to perform firing drills for U.S. Navy Admiral Jerome Johnson, who had boarded the ship.

"I heard a thump, and I thought they dropped something," Nurnberger said. "Then, a few minutes later, I heard another thump, and I thought, that doesn't sound right. By the time I turned around, I realized I couldn't see anything, and that something was burning."

The "thump" was the detonation, the gunpowder igniting within the turret and creating a pressurized expansion of gasses, charging a fireball between 2,500 and 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, which traveled at 2,000 feet per second, with a pressure of 4,000 pounds-force per square inch, according to forensic reports.

The explosion released cyanide gas into the turret, as well as carbon monoxide gas, which may have contributed to the second explosion, when the gunpowder powder-handling area of the turret heated.

Explaining how it happened, Nurnberger said the gunpowder had been detonated by an "overextension" of the ram.

Then, the force went down the shaft, igniting the other 320 pounds of gunpowder that was coming up the shaft, and hitting the bottom of the ship, and before returning to the top, lifting the turret off its track and moving it.

"The first explosion is the one that killed the 47 people, and it happened like that," he said, snapping his fingers.

Nurnberger ran to the fire room and relieved the men there, telling them to go to their general core stations, while bells sounded throughout the ship, alerting crews of the fires.

"It was havoc," he said.

Two hours in, with training in firefighting and damage control, Nurnberger said he then manned the hose that was there to cool the turret within which the explosion had taken place.

"The ship was listing because we were pumping so much water into it," he said. "The lower compartments of the turret are where the shells, the gun powder, the nuclear tip shells, regular shells, dummy shells, bunker busters . . . all kinds of different things that can detonate, are stored, so that's why they just started flooding those spaces out so they wouldn't detonate, or else we'd lose the whole front of the ship."

Once the fire was out, Nurnberger said there were orders to turn the turret back around.

"The turret actually lifted off the trolley system it sits on because it was designed to fall off at a certain degree of listing," he said. "They fall into the water so the ship can upright itself. They aren't attached, so when the detonation happened it, the turret lifted and came off its track, and you need a crane to lift it up and put it back forward again."

Unable to complete that task without a crane, the next order was to drain the lower compartments and collect the bodies.

"I didn't expect that day to lose friends," he said.

But the explosion isn't why Nurnberger left the Navy a month later, on May 19, 1989. It's how he said the U.S. Navy handled what he said was an accident.

"What I saw, and what took place later, wasn't right," he said. "We were body bagging people, putting them in freezers, and I saw people throwing stuff overboard."

During the first investigation by the U.S. Navy, the conclusion was that one of the crewmembers caused the explosion in reaction to a love affair with another crew member that ended poorly.

Later, the U.S. Navy changed the story and altered its conclusion to state that there was no evidence that Hartwig was gay, only suicidal, and that he caused the explosion with a detonator.

Critical of these findings, families, media and members of Congress influenced officials to bring in the General Accounting Office of Sandia National Laboratories to conduct an independent investigation, which summarized that there was no evidence of the U.S. Navy's findings, and that, in echoing of what Nurnberger said, "an overram of powder bags into the gun had occurred as it was being loaded, and that the overram could have caused the explosion."

According to reports, the U.S. Navy disagreed, but officially stated that the cause of the explosion could not be determined - again, changing the story.

"It was an accident, but they said we couldn't say anything," he said. "We all knew before we hit port what happened. And then they started saying stuff that wasn't true. It was wrong what they did. The Navy should have come clean with what happened, but they didn't."

Nurnberger said he's proud to be a veteran.

"I'm proud of the things I did on that ship," he said. "I got to see the world. I got to see how other people in other parts of the world live, and I saw that we have one of the greatest nations in the world, but I don't like lying."

As much as he said he loved the life of a sailor, Nurnberger said he "took it all to heart, and got out."

He said the Navy lied about the incident because of politics.

"It's egg on their face," he said. "But there will always be mechanical problems. You have to push the gunpowder in with a ram. It overextended, and there is nothing you can do about it. It was an accident. It happened, and there is no way around it."

There was no counseling offered for what he went through that day, he said, and he said he continued to hear the screams of the sailors in his dreams for years after.

"I'd wake up with night sweats," he said. "It took me years to get over."

Today, he said, his life is good.

When he, his wife and his granddaughter visited the USS Iowa, they were able to get special permission to go into the boiler room where he worked.

"I tried my best to explain to her what I did on the ship," he said. "I'm glad she was with me. She's a good granddaughter. I love her to death. She's intelligent, and being at the age she is now, I'm pretty sure she understood what I was showing and telling her."

Just a 20-year-old kid, then, he said his life today is devotion to family and work.

"I dealt with the past, and now I can live with myself with what happened," he said. "I'm a good person for it now. I'm happy, and in a good place."


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