Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Battleship USS Iowa going to L.A. as Museum

Maritime vessels from another age are prized as pieces of living history. They link us to our past. They tell us stories of who we were and who we are as a people.

Navy warships, big and small, give us a direct link to friends and family who years and years hence, in times long past, served to do their duty as needed by a grateful nation.

Our Navy is blessed with preserving ships that our fathers, our grandfathers, and maybe even those in our lineage that go even further back, have served on.

To touch a rail, walk up a ladder, open a hatch, or maybe just look out from a fantail or a bridge, where maybe our father or grandfather might have been - ah, that's a feeling that doesn't escape you when visiting one of these old ships of the line.

The USS Iowa, BB-61, is one of these ships.

She was the lead ship of her class of battleships and the fourth in the United States Navy to be named in honor of our 29th state. Owing to the cancellation of the Montana-class battleships, Iowa is the last lead ship of any class of United States battleships. She was the only ship of her class to have served in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II.

Today, the great battleship USS Iowa, which once carried one of America's greatest wartime Presidents, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, across the Atlantic, saw action there, then saw action off Japan, and even served in the Korean War.

She will now start her journey from San Francisco Bay in Richmond, California, to Los Angeles where it will find its new home.

The USS Iowa was a favorite of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

The great ship was launched on the 27th of August 1942 which First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt attended and was sponsored by Ilo Wallace who was the wife of Vice President Henry Wallace), and commissioned on 22 February 1943 with Captain John L. McCrea in command.

She was the first ship of her class of battleship to be commissioned by the United States. The Iowa class battleships were a class of fast battleships ordered by the United States Navy in 1939 and 1940 to escort the Fast Carrier Task Forces which would operate in the Pacific Theater of World War II.

Six were ordered during the course of World War II, but only four were completed in time to see service in the Pacific Theater. Two were never completed.

The Iowa's main battery consisted of nine huge 16" / 50 caliber Mark 7 guns. In her heyday, she could could hurl her 2,700-pound armor-piercing shells to reach enemy ships and troops more than 24 nautical miles away.

Her secondary battery consisted of twenty 5"/38 caliber guns in twin turrets. These could hit targets up to 12 nautical miles away. With the advent of air power and the need to gain and maintain air superiority came a need to protect the growing fleet of Allied aircraft carriers; to this end, the Iowa was fitted with an array of Oerlikon 20 mm and Bofors 40 mm anti-aircraft guns to defend Allied carriers from enemy air-strikes.

She was so liked by FDR, that she carried President Franklin D. Roosevelt across the Atlantic to Casablanca en route to a crucial 1943 meeting in Tehran, Iran, with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Josef Stalin during World War II.

The ship's company, knowing that FDR was coming aboard, actually installed a bathtub - as an amenity for the beloved president - along with an elevator to shuttle our wheelchair bound famous president between decks.

One interesting story concerning the USS Iowa happened on that trip when as she carried FDR. The Iowa carried President Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and World War II military brass to Casablanca, French Morocco, on the first leg of the journey to the Tehran Conference.

The story starts after refueling and gathering her escorts.

Among the vessels escorting Iowa on this trip was the destroyer USS William D. Porter which had been involved in a major mishap the night before when her anchor tore the railing and lifeboat mounts off a docked sister destroyer while maneuvering astern.

The next day, a depth charge from the deck of the Porter fell into the rough sea and exploded, causing the Iowa and the other escort ships to take evasive maneuvers under the assumption that the task force had come under torpedo attack by a U-boat.

On the 14th of November, at Roosevelt's request, Iowa conducted an anti-aircraft drill to demonstrate her ability to defend herself.

The drill began with the release of a number of balloons for use as targets. While most of these were shot by gunners aboard the Iowa, a few of them drifted toward the William D. Porter which shot down the balloons as well.

Believe it or not, the USS Porter, along with the other escort ships, decided to also demonstrated a torpedo drill by simulating a launch at none other than the Iowa. This "drill" suddenly went wrong when the #3 torpedo aboard USS William D. Porter discharged from its tube and headed toward Iowa.

The Porter attempted to signal Iowa about the incoming torpedo, but owing to radio silence, she was forced to use a blinker light.

The destroyer misidentified the direction of the torpedo and then relayed the wrong message informing the Iowa that the Porter was backing up rather than telling them that a torpedo was in the water.

In desperation the destroyer finally broke radio silence using codewords that relayed a warning message to the Iowa regarding the incoming torpedo. After confirming the identity of the destroyer, Iowa turned hard to avoid being hit by the torpedo.

President Roosevelt, meanwhile, had learned of the incoming torpedo threat and asked his Secret Service attendee to move his wheelchair to the side of the battleship. Not long afterward, the torpedo detonated in the ship's wake, and finding that the battleship Iowa was unhurt during the incident - she did something that I've never heard of before.

It wasn't over, to my knowledge, Captain John L. McCrea in command of the Iowa did something never that I had never heard of before.

Captain McCrea ordered the Iowa's main battery of guns, yes, her 16 inch guns, to be trained on the destroyer USS William D. Porter out of concern that the smaller ship may have been involved in some sort of assassination plot to kill the president.

The Iowa readied her guns on her target awaiting confirmation that it was indeed an accident. When all were convinced that the incident was indeed an "accident", the Iowa resumed delivering the president to the conference.

She completed her Presidential escort mission on the16th of December by returning the President to the United States.

Roosevelt addressed the crew of Iowa prior to leaving by stating, "... from all I have seen and all I have heard, the Iowa is a 'happy ship,' and having served with the Navy for many years, I know - and you know - what that means."

He also touched on the progress made at the conference before concluding his address with "... good luck, and remember that I am with you in spirit, each and every one of you."

It's no wonder that they were fond of him.

When transferred to the Pacific Fleet in 1944, the Iowa shelled beachheads at Kwajalein and Eniwetok in advance of Allied amphibious landings and sailed in defense of our aircraft carriers operating in the Marshall Islands and off the Philippines. It battered the Japanese island of Hokkaido and was among the Allied ships in Tokyo Bay for Japan's surrender.

And yes, she did serve as the Third Fleet's flagship. She flew Admiral William F. Halsey's flag at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.

Placed into reserve after the war, it was called back into service for the Korean War. After the USS Iowa was involved in raids on the North Korean coast, she became known as "the gray ghost of the Korean coast." In eight months, her 16 inch guns lobbed 4,000 shells. That's twice as many as she fired in World War II.

After the Korean War, she was decommissioned into the United States Navy's reserve fleet - yes, better known as the "mothball fleet."

Critics saw battleships as obsolete and too expensive to operate. Most saw Aircraft Carriers as more efficient. In 1958, the Iowa was retired again and was idled for the next 26 years.

She was reactivated in 1984 as part of the 600-ship Navy plan under President Ronald Reagan who wanted to narrow the gap between our at the time ill-equipped Navy and the huge Soviet Navy threat. She operated in both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets to counter the recently expanded Soviet Navy.

She was a formidable presence at NATO exercises and in the Persian Gulf in the 1980s.

The USS Iowa was decommissioned for the last time in 1990, and believe it or not she was surprisingly initially struck from the Naval Vessel Register in 1995. Thankfully, she was reinstated from 1999 to 2006 to comply with federal laws that required retention and maintenance of two Iowa-class battleships.

On 17 March 2006, the Secretary of the Navy exercised his authority to strike USS Iowa and USS Wisconsin from the NVR (Naval Vessel Registor), which has cleared the way for both ships to be donated for use as museum ships.

But wait, the United States Congress was "deeply concerned" over the loss of the naval surface gunfire support that the battleships provided, and had noted that "navy efforts to improve upon, much less replace, this capability have been highly problematic."

As a partial consequence, Congress passed Pub.L. 109-163, the National Defense Authorization Act 2006, requiring that the battleships be kept and maintained in a state of readiness should they ever be needed again.

Congress has ordered that the following measures be implemented to ensure that, if need be, Iowa can be returned to active duty:

1.Iowa must not be altered in any way that would impair her military utility;

2.The battleship must be preserved in her present condition through the continued use of cathodic protection, de-humidification systems, and any other preservation methods as needed;

3.Spare parts and unique equipment such as the 16-inch (410 mm) gun barrels and projectiles must be preserved in adequate numbers to support Iowa, if reactivated;

4.The Navy must prepare plans for the rapid reactivation of Iowa should she be returned to the Navy in the event of a national emergency.

These four conditions closely mirror the original three conditions that the National Defense Authorization Act of 1996 laid out for the maintenance of Iowa while she was in the "mothball fleet".

This storied vessel languished for years in the U.S. Navy's "mothball fleet."

But no more, in 2011, Iowa was donated to the Los Angeles-based non-profit Pacific Battleship Center and will be permanently moved to the Port of Los Angeles to serve as a floating museum and memorial to battleships.

Today is May 15th, 2012, by next Sunday four Crowley Maritime Company tugboats will come along side the Iowa and guide her under the Golden Gate Bridge and out of the San Francisco Bay.

So right now, this great battleship, the USS Iowa is being prepared for its journey to Los Angeles where it will be a floating museum. Her new home will be as a floating museum in the Port of Los Angeles.

"In the last century, this was battleship country," said Robert Kent, director of the Pacific Battleship Center, the group that campaigned to win the Iowa for Los Angeles. "All of our battleships called it home in the period from 1920 to 1940, when Franklin D. Roosevelt sent them to Pearl Harbor to put pressure on the Japanese."

The Iowa has been tied up at a Richmond, Calif., dock since March. With a 60-foot mast looming over a body more than 15 stories tall, the ship must wait for low tide before passing beneath the Golden Gate Bridge.

"Even then," according to Kent, "it will have less than 20 feet of clearance."

The ship won't be easy to glimpse on its journey south. It will make the trip about 50 miles out at sea.

"We'll be well beyond smaller vessels and more conventional traffic," said Chris Peterson, who oversees tugboat operations for Crowley Maritime, the tug Warrior's owner. "We'll have plenty of sea room in case of some emergency."

The sea-going tug Warrior is a 7,200-horsepower powerhouse. She will chug down the coast with the massive ship in tow. They will take three or four days to reach Southern California.

It's not Crowley Maritime company's first time around the block with a battleship. Crowley also moved the Iowa's sister ships the USS New Jersey and the USS Missouri - both are now floating museums.

In 2004, the State of New Jersey officially designated the battleship USS New Jersey as a historical place. This cleared New Jersey for placement on the National Register of Historic Places, a list to which New Jersey was officially added in 2004.

As for the USS Missouri, since 1998, she sits just 500 yards from the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor's Battleship Row on Oahu in Hawaii. A fitting place to be, considering that it was in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where World War II started - and on the deck of the Missouri with the signing of the Japanese surrender was where World War II officially ended.

In 2001, Crowley Maritime towed the Iowa from the East Coast and through the Panama Canal - "with inches to spare", Peterson said - en route to a fleet of rusting old warships in Suisun Bay near Martinez, California.

No maneuvers quite as tight are anticipated on the upcoming trip. The biggest challenges will be strong currents in the San Francisco Bay and busy maritime traffic on the Southern California coast, Peterson said.

The unoccupied battleship will be connected to the tug by a tether one-third of a mile long.

After arriving off of Southern California, she will anchor at a spot three miles off Seal Beach where - for several days - the 45,000-ton Iowa will sit while divers scrub her hull of any invasive species she might have picked up in San Francisco Bay.

Then it will be towed to a temporary berth in the Port of Los Angeles' Outer Harbor, awaiting what Kent described as a "grand entry" on June 9th. That's when tugs will tow it the final two miles and into place at San Pedro's Berth 87.

Unlike the City of San Francisco which is known for being extremely military unfriendly, and which not only shun but actually protested the opportunity to get the USS Missouri there, those in Southern California appreciate the grandeur and history of one of the biggest U.S. battleships ever built. 

An invitation-only "commissioning ceremony" is set for July 4th. Then, starting on July 7th, the USS Iowa will open to the public for tours and remain as a central attraction on the community of San Pedro's waterfront.

The Pacific Battleship Center raised $5 million to secure the Iowa for Los Angeles, Kent said. The state of Iowa donated $3 million to the effort, which won out over bids from Vallejo, San Francisco and Stockton.

"We're bringing back to L.A. the last battleship left in the world," Kent said. "It's a class of ships that no longer exists, and it's the last one to go into museum status."

The USS Iowa hearkens Americans back to a time of Glenn Miller, Big Bands, Rosie the Riveter, Norman Rockwell's painting series entitled Four Freedoms, War Bonds, scrap drives, tires and gas and food rationing, radio shows, and FDR's fire side chats.

She was built when presidents said a prayer to the nation to boost its morale, when people and politicians prayed aloud without reprimand from government workers, when folks believed in hard work to get ahead, and everyone believed that Uncle Sam was on our side.

She became a symbol of faith and love of country, and an earnest desire to live in world the rallies behind freedom to fight tyranny.

I'm sure there are a few Battleship Sailors out there who still remember the Iowa's days at sea. I'm sure there are those who can recall sailing toward the sun in the distance.

I'm sure there are those who still remember standing on deck not knowing, that one day, their great ship would sit in Tokyo Bay to bear witness to the end of that great war.

And yes, I'm sure they'd join me in saying thank you and may God Bless you, The Pacific Battleship Center, and all involved - for your great work.

Story by Tom Correa

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