As Congress opened hearings yesterday on last April's explosion aboard the battleship Iowa, Gunner's Mate Kendall Truitt, a brush-cut, 6-foot-4 enigma the Navy suggested at one point might have caused the blast, was holding some hearings of his own. Armed with his wife of a year Carole, a stocky policeman's daughter from Detroit with a fondness for handguns, the slender, taciturn 21-year-old was going public with his own story "because of all the disinformation ... all the lies." "We figure the bad press, the lies, were high profile," said Carole Truitt, 20, jutting her chin and answering a question addressed to her husband. "Our side ... the truth of the matter, needs to be just as high profile. There are still a lot of people out there who meet me ... and I say I'm Kendall Truitt's wife. And they say, 'Oh? I thought he was gay.' People still believe it. So we're going to try as hard as we can to get people to realize he didn't have anything to do with the explosion, and that he and Clay weren't having an affair." Clay, of course, is Gunner's Mate Clayton Hartwig, whose death inside the Iowa's No. 2 gun turret left Truitt as the beneficiary of $101,000 in life insurance, and led to Navy inferences that Hartwig had somehow engineered one of the world's most elaborate and far-reaching suicides because of homosexual love gone wrong. Forty-six other crewmen also died in the blast. "With all the lies that have been in the paper, a couple of gay people have written to me and said it's okay to be gay," said Truitt, holding tight to his wife's hand after she tidied his clothes for a picture. "It made me sick. So I turned those letters over to {the Naval Investigative Service} and said, 'Look what you're causing me.' " "One of the people who wrote even kind of propositioned him," said Carole Truitt. "So it's been kind of interesting. ... But if it means spending the next year doing press stuff, that's what we'll have to do. " In addition to telling his story by satellite yesterday to radio and television audiences in Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia, Washington, Tampa and Orlando, Fla., Truitt recounts it in the current issue of Penthouse magazine, which labels him and Hartwig "The Navy's Scapegoats." The article acknowledges that Hartwig and Truitt were cited for dereliction of duty two years ago when they were found rolling around on the Iowa's deck one dark night when they were supposed to be on watch. But it says the two were simply horsing around, and were subsequently stigmatized by the other sailors simply because they were different. "When we got to a port, like when we were in France, we would take a tour or something," Truitt said. "The other guys would just get trashed. ... So behind our backs they would say we must be {gay}. To them, that's what you had to be if you'd rather go to a museum than to a bar and get drunk." Likewise, Truitt and his wife acknowledge that Hartwig was more than a little hurt and angered by their marriage. "He had seen Ken get hurt very badly by another girl," Carole Truitt explained. "I don't think as a friend he wanted Ken to repeat that. ... And that obviously bothered me, because I'm saying, 'Hey, you're standing in the way of a good thing here, buddy.' And I became antagonistic toward him and relations went downhill from there." But even if her husband had not been in the picture, Carole Truitt says, she and Hartwig would never have gotten along. "Our personalities were too similar." Both, she said, were "loners" with few friends and a strong protective streak. And both, she said, were "fascinated with handguns and weaponry," she herself favoring a snub-nosed .38-caliber revolver. Truitt himself, whose leisure-time tastes run to "movies, video games and cruising the mall to look at the babes," is inclined to be impulsive, she explained. Before he met her he had a girlfriend in his hometown of Marion, Ind., and "stole a car once and drove six hours to see her and when he got there she wouldn't see him. "Nice bitch," she said, patting her husband's leg with a smile. "Sweet girl, honey. Sweet girl." The case for the innocence of Truitt and Hartwig, however, hangs on more than their love life. The Navy has suggested that Hartwig, who Truitt says couldn't even install a radio in his car, fabricated some sort of detonator or timing device and sneaked it in among the bags of powder as the Iowa's gun was being loaded. That contention, Truitt says, ignores the fact that the loaders in the turret work so close to each other as to be almost touching ("anybody would have had to see him doing that"), and that Hartwig was actually a last-minute replacement on the loading crew during the firing exercises that day. "He wasn't even supposed to be there," Truitt said. "The key that everybody is missing is that the last words from the gun room before the explosion were, 'Tell them we're not ready {to fire} -- we've got a problem.' ... That's undisputed." Truitt thinks the blast was actually "an accident," caused by some sort of malfunction in the hydraulic system that rams the 2,700-pound projectiles and their bags of explosive propellant into the Iowa's guns. "We had a problem like that on one of the other guns," he said. The rammer, whose speed is controlled by a hand lever, "just sort of took off," slamming a projectile into the barrel at much faster than the desired speed. Luckily, he said, there was no powder in the barrel at the time, and the problem was overcome by replacing the filters and changing the fluid in the World War II-vintage hydraulic system. A similar problem, he believes, could have exploded a 40-year-old bag of gunpowder made unstable by improper storage. Truitt, who was in a powder magazine outside the central part of the turret at the time of the blast, was one of the first people inside afterward, helping flood the powder magazines to prevent further explosions and later wading chest-high through "the dead man's soup" in the flooded chambers to retrieve the charred and shattered bodies of his friends. The Navy, in a news conference shortly after the incident, praised his role in saving the ship. But that was before they found the insurance policy. Once that happened, Carole Truitt said, they were called by the executive officer on the Iowa, saying, " 'Mr. Truitt, I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but there's going to be some press coverage coming out tomorrow morning that's going to accuse you and Clayton Hartwig of being homosexuals and possibly link you to causing the blast. Perhaps you might want to lay low or leave town if you can.' " Since then, the Truitts say, their life has been a particular kind of hell, even though the Navy later backed off somewhat. Truitt has never been charged with anything (he's scheduled to testify at the Capitol Hill hearings tomorrow), the $50,000 insurance policy has been paid off with double its indemnity for Hartwig's accidental death (plus $1,000 because he'd had it for a year), and "people are starting to realize," Truitt said, "that sailors taking out policies on each other like that is not all that unusual." The Truitts say they gave part of the money to Hartwig's parents as "a gesture of compassion," but declined to say how much. Truitt and his wife, however, are more than a little bitter at the Navy. He requested transfer from the Iowa "for emotional reasons" and wouldn't go back on it, he says, for any reason. "That ship is a place where he lost 47 crewmen, most of whom he knew," Carole Truitt said. "It's not something he talks to me about. But I wouldn't let him go back. I'm not going to watch the pain that causes him. I'm tired of watching my husband cry himself to sleep over that ship." These days the Truitts live in Mayport, Fla., where in a kind of exquisite irony he is assigned to look after every sort of explosive device the Navy has in storage, from grenades to torpedoes and missiles. He is scheduled to leave the Navy in February and plans to return to Illinois and enter college, studying "business and finance ... maybe get into something with computers." The aftermath of the Iowa incident, Carole Truitt said, put "tremendous pressures on our marriage. We talked about getting a divorce. He was full of so much rage, and he took it out on me. And I didn't understand." But now, they say, they've worked all that out. And back in Illinois, she says, they plan "to try to start a family." "Two or three kids," he says. "Three," she corrects him. "And I hope all boys."