It’s hard to recall the number of times I have cruised past the battleship USS Iowa, sitting forlornly at anchor as part of the mothball fleet in Suisun Bay (northeast of San Francisco). Tied off on the end of a cargo ship lineup, it clearly stood out with a low and sweeping sheer line. Those 16-inch gun turrets made it look just plain menacing.
Commissioned in 1943, a veteran of WWII, Korea, and the Cold War, USSIowa was now just an unused and unwanted ship with a glorious history. Nicknamed “Big Stick,” she was the first of four Iowa-class battleships built, the last battleships ever to be built for the U.S. Navy.
These were the behemoths, the fast battleships designed to keep up with and protect the aircraft carriers. Born of a different time, cheered on by a nation at war, they were lions in the shaping of world history. With 50 years of service, and waning mechanical ability, USS Iowa was permanently decommissioned in 1990 following an explosion in turret number 2.
Saved from an ignoble fate in June 2011, she was towed from San Francisco to San Pedro to see new life as a public museum (San Francisco had turned it down). Under the auspice of the non-profit Pacific Battleship Center, their volunteer working group has performed beautifully, and USSIowa saw her first visitors on the Fourth of July weekend of 2012. It is not yet completely finished, but I can’t wait to go aboard.
LOS ANGELES HARBOR
It was a sunny morning when I nosed my Nordic Tug 32 Norma Jean out of Marina del Rey and headed south. From outside the Los Angeles Harbor breakwater, you can look down the main channel and see the mast of USS Iowa at berth 87. Before heading to your marina, it’s worth a ride down the channel to see the uncluttered profile of this sleek ship tied up on the San Pedro waterfront.
At nearly 900 feet, the high bow flare drops to only 20 feet of freeboard at the canoe stern when combat laden. Four GE steam turbines each spun a shaft with a 20-ton propeller, driving the ship at 33 knots. It’s a 60,000-ton armored speedboat, an impressive piece of early-1940s design, engineering, and mechanics.
Adjacent to USS Iowa shoreside is the Los Angeles Maritime Museum and Park, also worth a visit—and just south of the museum is Ports O’ Call Village. There is no guest docking at the ship. A marina and park is under construction next to the museum, but for now, it’s the West Channel for guest docking. If you need fuel, Jankovich Company fuel dock is right on the way.
There are several marinas and yacht clubs in this basin, and I pulled into Cabrillo Marina for a guest slip. This is a well cared for and nicely situated marina. It’s an easy and safe bicycle ride back over to USS Iowa. If you’re afoot, the Free Downtown Trolley’s regular loop stops at the Doubletree Hotel in the marina, and also makes stops at Port’s O’ Call and USS Iowa. On the way is 22nd Street Landing, a great spot to eat overlooking the basin, and there are multiple fresh fish restaurants in Ports O’ Call Village
VISITING USS IOWA
Once aboard, it’s a step back in history. During World War II, attacks by enemy planes on ships were deemed modern warfare, and this ship boasted the highest anti-aircraft firepower in the entire U.S. Navy. Through multiple-type weapons systems, she could have 150 gun barrels providing skyward defense at any one time. All of the smaller guns were removed when the ship was re-outfitted with missiles in the early 1980s, but many of the mounts remain.
The self-guided tour is well marked, and you can tarry as long as you like at any one spot. The starting entrance is into the Officers Wardroom. The bridge is open to walk through, although the heavily armored combat bridge (reminiscent of USSMonitor) is roped off but still viewable. Original equipment is still mounted on bulkheads throughout the ship. President Roosevelt’s cabin (and head with a bathtub) while traveling to the 1943 Tehran Conference is on the tour, as is the crew galley and mess deck.
I spent most of my time on the decks, intrigued with the design and wartime utility of the New York Navy Yard shipbuilders. The majority of the main deck is open to visitors, as are smaller weapons decks on multiple levels. The original main deck was teak-planked, and some still remains. During the 1980s re-fit, damaged teak was replaced with Douglas fir due to cost and availability. Much of that fir has since rotted, presenting yet one more maintenance challenge to the hardworking volunteers.
THE BIG STICK
The business end of the Big Stick was the three huge gun turrets. Each turret mounts three 16-inch guns that could be fired individually at different elevations, or in concert as one massive salvo. A 2,700-lb. armor piercing projectile could be hurled on target 24 miles away—smaller projectiles went further. This was no small feat, considering it was a blind shot over the horizon using 1940s range-finding equipment and a slide rule for calculation.
Each turret is a self-contained complex, dropping several decks into the ship. The top two decks are the gunhouse and gun pit, machinery and electrical is in the middle, and the bottom decks were the magazines with shells and powder bags. For each shot, one projectile and six powder bags came up via hoist to the gun deck—a good crew would fire every 30 seconds. When all three guns in the turret were seeing action, the working crew could be up to 80 men.
The turrets are not yet open to visitors, but will be as refurbishment allows. The future plans also include access to the smaller 5-inch gun turrets, gunnery control centers, the engine room, and crew living spaces. Needless to say, visitor support is crucial to help make these plans a reality.
The century of American battleships lasted from 1896 to 1995. Direct descendants of the Ironclads used in the Civil War, the U.S. Navy built a total of 49. Tough ships with tough crews, not one was lost in combat action with an enemy. Tragically, USS Maine sunk in Havana Harbor in 1896 from an internal explosion, and Utah, Oklahoma, and Arizona were all sunk at Pearl Harbor. Most of the others have been scrapped or intentionally sunk, but USS Iowa deservedly joins the few saved as memorials or museums. She has well earned this honor.