Military-Grade Awesome

USS Iowa BB61, a visit to the Last Battleship

USS Iowa, BB-61 in distance dwarfs nearby railroad tankers

Last weekend Super-Spouse and I visited the USS Iowa Battleship as she sat in the docks of Richmond, California, being prepared to be towed south towards her new home in the Port of Los Angeles as a floating museum. I say the “last battleship”, because of all the battleships to have ever been built (that are not resting at the bottom of the sea), the Iowa is the last functional “Big Stick”, and is just now emerging from the Naval Reserve Fleet to be donated as a museum. Her sister ships USS Wisconsin (BB64), USS Missouri (BB63), and USS New Jersey (BB62) have already opened to the public as attractions in Norfolk VA, Pearl Harbor HI and Camden NJ respectively. This isn’t really the end of her official career however, as congress has ordered that the Iowa be maintained in such a way that if needed in a national emergency, the ship can be returned to active duty.  That’s right, the old battleship is still technically able to be called back into action and scare the living bejesus out of whomever she trains her guns on. A sleeping giant if there ever was one. Our trip was brief and limited to the forward decks, as much of the ship is being renovated and is still closed for safety reasons. It was officially the last weekend she would be open to the public in Northern California, which lost its chance to host her permanently in San Fransisco after the SF Board of Supervisors inexplicably threw the baby out with the bathwater, and told the Navy to piss-off with their battleship in a political protest. A sad state of affairs for a city with such a long and rich naval and military history, akin to cutting your nose off despite your face. But I digress… The Port of Los Angeles meanwhile eagerly awaits the arrival of their proud old American warrior that helped defeat some of the meanest and darkest powers of modern history, and had a career that spanned nearly 50 years. They may have to wait just a bit longer however, because although last weekend was supposed to be the “last day”, they aren’t quite ready yet! There is a LOT of grunt work that still needs to be done. They are looking for volunteers, most especially if you have prior Navy and/or battleship experience, or skills they might find useful. Even if that skill just means helping man the parking lot booths or kiosks. For most ex-sailors that might mean becoming reaquainted with your old friends paint-chipper, grinder and paint-brush. On our visit, they were actively stripping off all the old Red Fir and Teak planking, most of which was in pretty terrible shape. The salvageable stuff will be reused, and pieces of the discarded teak are being sold as mementos to help fund the museum. Some old Iowa sailors were on board as hosts, and one of them pointed out a divot on turret two, where the Iowa had taken a hit from a 5″ Japanese gun. Amazing.

Divot visible in shadow between scaffolding and lower "box"

She even still retains her “President’s Bathtub” installed for Franklin D. Roosevelt during WWII, although it wasn’t available for viewing.

My Dr Strangelove jokes went unappreciated

Next door they had an exibit with interesting WWII and even Gulf War era displays, and nice pier-side catering for burgers and dogs.

If you are on the west coast and have some free time this weekend, take a trip out to the Iowa to show your support and check out this mighty old warship. It is an experience you won’t soon forget, and well worth the $10 a person donation. She’s located at 1411 Harbour Way South, Richmond, CA  94804, although I’d call ahead to make sure they are still taking visitors. She tentatively leaves Norcal on 20 may, 2012, which is subject to change due to a million variables. For more information or to volunteer, visit

  • The Professor

    Great article Sparky! I've wondered what the status of the Iowa was. The last I heard of her was quite a few years ago when there was an explosion in one of her turrets that killed a bunch of sailors, and the Navy was trying to blame a gay sailor for the accident. I never heard of how that turned out.
    Anyway, its great to hear that she'll be kept in a state of readiness, just in case. I know the power structures have all changed and battleships are mainly just big targets now, but it just seemed so strange that the US Navy didn't have a single functioning battleship. I wish I had time to drive over to Richmond, I'd love to see the old girl.

    • The Hartwig incident was a major cluster@#$% by the navy, involving a massive cover-up spanning 3-4 investigations, all headed by someone who had a huge conflict of interest.

      The whole story is mind-boggling. Keep your eye on Captain Miceli, who was in charge of/involved in every investigation. He just also happened to be the one in charge of bagging the powder charges that were used on the Iowa, which were later shown to be a major contributing factor in the explosion. And it was his substitution of polyurethane foam jackets on the bags instead of the older silk versions that created cyanide gas when they burned, which killed many of the crewmen.

      Deflect, delay, deny and derail. It's amazing anything ever got solved. And it's quite fascinating.

      • fodder650

        That wiki entry is an interesting read. I remember when it happened and all the investigations surrounding it as well. Thanks for linking that since it caught me up to date on it. Also, for a wiki entry, its very well researched and reported even.

        • I had recently joined the Navy and was still in training when it happened, and remember how confusing the news reports were, always contradicting each-other. Also, the culture of the day was such that the mere mention of gays in the Navy caused immediate high emotional reactions, the perfect smoke screen. It was used quite often to get someone's way, much in the same way sexual harassment became the "nuke-button" just a few years later. I knew something was up as soon as they dropped the "homosexual" bomb. And it just did not make logical sense either. All he had to do was walk down the ladder to where the powder bags were stored and set one off if he wanted to blow up the ship. Everything they "theorized' was just plain stupid. Sadly, it was also kinda titillating unless you really thought about it. I'm glad some folks in a position to do something about it saw though the smoke and kept after the truth.

          The wiki article is admittedly one sided, but kinda necessarily because of all the crap they pulled trying to derail the investigations. And I agree, it is a rarity and a jewel for Wiki. Someone should grab a copy of it before the trolls and know-it-alls mess it up.

          I also just learned there was a book written about it and a movie made. I never heard about either while I was in. Go figure.

      • The Professor

        I just finished reading the Wiki entry (thanks), and I must say that rarely have I uttered as many curse words while reading an article. Like you say, the story is mind-boggling. Miceli should be in Leavenworth, and all of the Naval officers involved in the investigation, with a very few exceptions, should have been busted down to seaman and thrown out.
        And as usual, the families of the victims got nothing, not even an apology.
        What bastards.

      • These old battleships have always impressed the hell out of me, and I like that we keep them around. I feel like the ability to concentrate high rates of 'dumb' ordinance fire over an extended range is something we might want to have around, even in a future of million dollar smart weapons and guided missiles. Maybe especially in that future.

        Maybe you can speak to this a little better than me, but it seems like the 80s wasn't exactly the Navy's decade. From the crash on the Nimitz in 81 that killed 14, 6 of whom were on dope, to this explosion, with the Vincennes shooting down the Iranians in between (plus an F-14 shot down an Air Force F-4 in 88). Then the 90s kicked off with the Tailhook scandal and the Saratoga shooting a cruise missile into the Turkish Mauvenet. All in all (and I know I didn't get everything), I feel like that paints an unpleasant picture of the leadership at that time.

        I have always been skeptical of talk of an organization's 'culture' being some kind of root cause, it seems like committee speak for no one taking responsibility. When you look at all the though, there certainly seems to have been some cultural complacency. I know the Nimitz incident was the impetus for the Navy to stop accepting casual drug usage, and I hope they learned from all these incidents and came out stronger. I think that is the case, one thing I would say with reasonable certainty is that I doubt something like the Iowa incident could happen now and NCIS would not do an investigation.

  • craigsu

    Nice to see the Iowa being held in readiness. The Gundam Planet Space Battleship Fleet can always use another vessel.

    • fodder650

      That or it can be the sister ship to the Yamato on its way to save the human race.

  • As near as I can tell the US Navy didn't loose a single battleship in a naval engagement. The only losses were at Pearl Harbor and the Maine in Cuba (which might have been an internal explosion).

  • jeepjeff

    This isn’t really the end of her official career however, as congress has ordered that the Iowa be maintained in such a way that if needed in a national emergency, the ship can be returned to active duty. That’s right, the old battleship is still technically able to be called back into action and scare the living bejesus out of whomever she trains her guns on.

    Hey, that was important in the Movie. I'm glad Congress is paying attention to Hollywood's recent Educational Films.

    (Actually, it's a cool idea in spite of the stupid movie. Despite my sarcasm, I approve.)