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Launched Aug 26 1996.

 

 

BOOK REVIEW

  By Leigh D. Johnson, Renton, WA

 

How the Battleship Maine Was Destroyed by H.G. Rickover, US GPO, 1976, LC 76-600007 [no ISBN shown].


"The laying of blame for the Maine disaster on the Spanish was not really a hoax but distortion of the facts by press, politicians, bureaucrats and professional naval officers. All of them told and believed the story as they wished it might have been."

Saturday Evening Post, Nov'76 page 34.

Rickover describes a battleship explosion of February 15th, 1898, in Havana harbor. The prevalent Sabotage Syndrome thereafter was similar to that seen after in-flight breakups of the dH Comet, & TWA800. For a modern investigator considering an airliner ullage-ignition, the Maine’s coal-bunker (where Rickover states ignition first occurred), presented a flammable environment similar to that found inside today’s near-empty aircraft fuel tank.

Rickover's monograph includes drawings, photographs, political- and mishap- history, analysis of wreckage, detailed notes, and several appendices; together that totals to 173-pages. Rickover presents an analysis documenting errs in two earlier Navy investigations — done in 1898 & 1911 -- of the Maine explosion, each claiming a different external mine scenario. Instead Rickover tells his readers that the cause was a coal fire in a bunker adjacent to the ammunition magazine.

Today’s investigators will read that about a century ago various navies had investigated mishaps and documented:
  • differing combustion qualities with aging of fuel (coal);
  • differing combustion qualities with aging of powder;
  • and studied fire-safety aspects of cooling & venting a ship’s bunkers and magazines.

Rickover devotes about half of this book to the historical background surrounding the Maine disaster. Using this human-centered history, Rickover offers us some insight into the "human factors" affecting the Navy’s investigators. Rickover’s portrait of the "investigators" will be welcomed by observers who recall a few aircraft mishaps regarded as "mysterious" -- where it seemed the human factors specialist was called in to explain how only the pilot could have caused the mysterious accident. Of such investigations a seasoned observer would then wonder: Perhaps the human factors specialists should instead study the investigators, and reveal to us the considerations that prejudiced those "investigators" toward the human-element as "cause".

Was there an "accidental" internal explosion? Was there "sabotage" done by an external explosion? Rickover details a history of accidental mishaps, and describes the disagreement and contrasting opinions within the Navy Department of 1898. Reading the following excerpts from that intra-Navy debate, a reader might infer something about the characteristics of those men likely to embrace the external mine scenario (mostly ship operators and politicians), and characteristics of the men likely to believe it an "accident" (technical men in ordnance, construction, or engineering). Furthermore, we see that each background brings a preferred hypothesis or bias to the immediate post-mishap investigation, with some men feeling a stronger desire to protect some "corporate" image.

Only days after the1898 Maine disaster, in the February 18th edition of the Washington Evening Star the Navy’s leading ordnance expert, Philip R. Alger, was quoted:

"...Magazine explosions ... produce effects exactly similar to the effects of the explosion on board the Maine.... seeking the cause of the explosion of the Maine’s magazine, we should naturally look not for the improbable or unusual causes, but those against which we have had to guard in the past. The most common of these is through fires in the bunkers. Many of our ships have been in danger various times from this cause ... a fire in the Cincinnati’s bunkers actually set fire to fittings, wooden boxes, etc, within the magazine and had it not been discovered at the time it was, it would doubtless have resulted in a catastrophe on board that ship similar to ... the Maine."

T. Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, disagreed with such "accident" sentiments. Rickover writes, "Roosevelt was upset.... Roosevelt thought that the Navy’s ordnance expert was taking the ‘Spanish side.’" Roosevelt wrote that the Maine had been the victim of a "dirty act of treachery". Suggesting his choice for a proper investigative hypothesis, a few days after the Maine explosion T. Roosevelt wrote ,

"All the best men in the Department agree that, whether probable or not, it certainly is possible that the ship was blown up by a mine ..."

Rickover paints Roosevelt as recognizing the hazards of accidents aboard Navy ships, but hints at Roosevelt’s investigative perspective toward any "accident" hypothesis, writing that Roosevelt "worried lest such views weaken the Navy’s standing ..."


Note::
The reader may wish to read a paper by Lekberg which explores effects of personal backgrounds and biases on accident analyses.

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