Department of the Navy
NAVAL Ordnance Systems Command
Washington, D.C. 20360
From: Vice Admiral K. S. Masterson, USN (Retired)
Vice Admiral L. M. Mustin, USN (Retired)
To: Chief of Naval Material
Via: Commander, Naval Ordnance Systems Command
Subj: USS NEWPORT NEWS (CA-148) Turret Explosion, 1 October 1972
Ref: (a) Conference 2 Oct 72 in HZ NAVORDSYSCOM among Admiral Kidd (CNM), Vice Admiral Sappington (COMNAVORDSYSCOM) and others
Encl: (1) Conf details comments
1. (U) Pursuant reference (a) we have inquired informally into the subject explosion, to assist the Chief of Naval Material, and other officers and officials as requested, in matters related thereto.
2. (U) The explosion resulted from the high-order detonation of a projectile in the fore of the center gun of turret two, which vented mainly to the inside of the turret. By some mechanism not clearly apparent, this ignited additional powder charges in all three hoists. The resulting high-energy flame propagated downward almost instantly from charge to charge in the hoists, blowing apart the hoist casings between decks in the way of ignited charges, until for some reason also not apparent, the propagation stopped just above the handling room level. Some 720 pounds of powder burned in the hoists. Twenty men died.
3. (C) If flame propagation down the hoists had extended a few feet further, into the handling room level below the armor deck, the extent of possible further damage and casualties might have been catastrophic. The loading scuttles at the bottom of the hoists would have been no protection if the hoists themselves had blown apart, as they did in the levels above. Events could then have led to a magazine explosion, from which the survival of the ship herself would have been in question.
4. (C) In our judgment this casualty was not caused by inadequate manning, training, experience, maintenance, or operating procedures in NEWPORT NEWS; nor by defective design of the material involved. Rather, we conclude that it was caused by the premature functioning of the projectiles auxiliary detonating fuze, which resulted from defective fuze manufacture and inadequate product acceptance inspection.
5. (C) The NEWPORT NEWS casualty adds emphasis to what, in our judgment, has become an unsatisfactory present situation with respect to Navy gun ammunition, specifically ammunition safety for fleet users. Since 1965 there have been 23 shipboard in-bore projectile explosions, which have cost millions of dollars, degraded combat readiness, and taken 24 lives. The rate per shot fired at which these explosions have occurred since that date has increased by a factor of more than 25 over the rate for the preceding nineteen years since the close of World War II. The hardware defects which cause such explosions are documented and wide-spread. Statistically, the next fleet in-bore projectile explosion could occur at any moment. It could cost us a ship.
6. (C) In our further judgment, the correlation is clear between the foregoing situation and the organizational changes of recent years which have degraded command management and control over ammunition technical matters. The chain of that command is now so diffuse that effective hard-nosed control, with authority, responsibility, and accountability, does not appear to exist. It once did. We consider that it must be reestablished. More lives are hostage until it is.
7. (U) Enlosure (1) contains additional details, including recommendations for consideration by the Chief of Naval Material and COMNAVORDSYSCOM. Also is the enclosure are certain recommendations which appropriate levels of fleet command may wish to consider.
8. (U) This report is classified CONFIDENTIAL for administrative security pending release of the formal investigation. It may be declassified thereafter.
K. S. Masterson
L. M. Mustin