During World War Two the US Navy built 4 of the 45,000 tonne Iowa Class Battleships to dominate the oceans and Axis navies. Having visited three of the sister ships in 2013: USS New Jersey (BB-62 in Camden, New Jersey), USS Missouri (BB-63 in Pearl Harbour, Hawaii ) and USS Wisconsin (BB-64 in Norfolk, Virginia) I needed to complete the set and visit the class namesake USS Iowa (BB-61) in San Pedro, California (Los Angeles). I finally made it out there to see “The Big Stick” in late 2014.
With a top speed of 33 knots these huge 270 metre (887 foot) long battleships with a crew of 2,800 (with modernisation this was reduced to 1,560 in the 1980’s) became the flag-ship, big hitting leviathans of the US Navy during World War Two and the Cold War. The battleships were primarily armed with massive 3 x 16″ turrets (9 guns), 20 x 5″ gun turrets, 49 x 20mm and 80 x 40mm AA guns in World War Two. During the Cold War the AA guns were removed, the 5″ guns were reduced to 12 and 8 Tomahawk cruise missile launchers (32 cruise missiles), 4 x 4 Harpoon anti-ship missile launchers (16 missiles) and 4 Phalanx Close-in Weapons Systems (capable of firing 3,000 rounds per minute) were added. This weaponry delivered heavy firepower to support troops in any military action.
These battleships first served the US Navy from 1943 to 1958 before being decommissioned and put into the mothballed reserve fleet. Then USS New Jersey was reactivated for Vietnam War fire support operations from 1968 to 1969 and all 4 battleships were modernised and returned to service in the 1980’s to expand the US Navy fleet during the height of the Cold War. The first was reactivated in 1982 with the last finally retired in 1992, following the end of the Cold War.
USS Iowa (BB-61) Construction
The construction of USS Iowa, the lead ship in this battleship class began in June 1940 at the New York Navy Yard. She was launched in August 1942. The battleship was then commissioned into US Navy active service on February 22nd, 1943 and saw action during World War Two from 1943 to 1945 and the Korean War in 1952.
World War Two
The first significant mission for USS Iowa in World War Two was to head to the Atlantic Ocean on August 27th, 1943 to keep watch for the German battleship Tirpitz. This encounter never happened and the ship returned to the United States in October 1943 in preparation to transport President Franklin Delano Roosevelt across the Atlantic Ocean leaving on November 12th, 1943 to the secret Allied leader conference in Tehran with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. A special bathtub was fitted for the President which can still be seen aboard the ship today (he suffered crippling polio and this made bathing easier). The ship returned the president safely back to the United States on December 16th, 1943.
In January 1944 USS Iowa headed for the Pacific Ocean and by January 23rd was involved in support of operations against the Japanese at the Kwajalein and Eniwetok Atolls. On February 16th USS Iowa sank the Japanese Navy light cruiser Katori. As the Allied offensive rolled on across the Pacific so did the USS Iowa. She saw combat at the Marshall Islands in March 1944 (this was where the ship was first struck by Japanese fire but little damage was suffered), moved on to the Wake Islands later that month and by June 1944 was heavily involved in the Battle of the Philippine Sea (including downing at least 3 Japanese aircraft). Then it was onto the attacks upon the Philippines and Caroline Islands in September 1944, Taiwan and the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. In November 1944 USS Iowa shot down 3 Japanese aircraft during Kamikaze attacks on the Third Fleet. The ships shaft mechanism was damaged during a typhoon in December 1944 and the ship returned to San Francisco for repairs.
Returning to the fight in April 1945, USS Iowa participated in the bombardment of Okinawa then moved on to the attack on the mainland of Japan between May and July 1945. By August 1945 the battleship was supporting the landing of US troops and the surrender of Japan. The battleship earned 9 battle stars in World War Two for meritorious participation in battle or for having suffered damage during battle conditions.
Following World War Two the USS Iowa participated in various training exercises and served in Japan as the flagship for the Fifth Fleet. In 1946 a new radar system was installed and a number of 20 mm and 40 mm gun mounts were removed. With the reduction of the military forces, the battleship was decommissioned and put in to the US Navy Pacific Fleet reserve in the San Francisco Navy Yard on March 24th, 1949.
Korean War (1950-1953)
In July 1951 preparations began to reactivate USS Iowa for Korean War service and she was recommissioned at the San Francisco Navy Yard on August 25th, 1951. Following a refit including the removal of aircraft catapults to create a helicopter landing deck, the installation of new radar equipment (surface, air and fire control radar) and crew training, USS Iowa shipped out to Japan and arrived for her first deployment off the Korean peninsula on April 8th, 1952. This tour of duty continued until October 16th, 1952 providing fire support to the United Nations forces fighting Communist North Korean and Chinese forces in the Chongjin (an industrial area with rail yards), Hungnam (port city, and Koje areas of North Korea. Targets included supply lines, troop concentrations, gun positions, warehouses, rail yards, rail tunnels, bridges and ports. Departing the region on October 17th, 1952 she then headed for port in the United States for an overhaul.
The USS Iowa earned 2 battle stars during the Korean War for meritorious participation in battle. Following the Korean war tour of duty, the battleship served as the flagship for various fleet admirals and commanders; and participated in NATO exercises but was decommissioned again on February 24th, 1958. She then entered the Atlantic Reserve Fleet at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in Pennsylvania and was effectively mothballed for more than two decades.
Cold War Reactivation
In the early 1980’s the 600-Ship Navy strategic plan was championed by President Ronald Reagan to counter the Soviet Navy during the height of the Cold War. The intention was to rebuild and revitalise the US Navy fleet after budget cutbacks following the Vietnam War and restore national pride in the fleet. From information presented at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in California: in 1980 less than 40% of US army divisions, air squadrons and navy ships were rated fully or substantially combat ready. By 1988 following the implementation of such strategic plans, over 80% of all units were combat ready. Increased production of Nimitz Class aircraft carriers and the reactivation of the mothballed Iowa Class battleships with new weapons systems including Tomahawk cruise missiles and Harpoon anti-shipping missiles was integral to this 600-Ship Navy strategic plan.
In 1982 USS Iowa was towed out of retirement and sent first to shipyards in Louisiana and then Mississippi for refit and refurbishment. On April 28th, 1984 within budget and ahead of schedule the old girl was recommissioned into the US Navy, some 26 years after last being part of the regular fleet. Months of training and sea trials followed until February 1985 when the USS Iowa was deployed to Central America on active and humanitarian duties. Many training exercises followed around the world and as part of NATO commitments demonstrating the active muscle of the US Fleet. On January 26th, 1989 off Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, USS Iowa set a record of the longest 16-inch round fired in history, accurately striking a target with a first round 23.4 Nautical Miles away (43.3 kilometres)! Now that’s some impressive accuracy!
On April 19th, 1989 tragedy struck USS Iowa off the coast of Puerto Rico. There was an explosion within the number two 16 inch gun turret that sadly killed 47 crewmen inside the turret. The battleship returned to port in Norfolk, Virginia and a memorial service for those lost was held in their honour. Necessary basic repairs were made and the battleship continued to serve the fleet but turret two was sealed shut and never used again.
Multiple investigations were conducted into the cause of the explosion. The first was by the US Navy claiming it was deliberate sabotage by a disgruntled sailor was rejected and the second investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), assisted by Sandia National Laboratories (they conduct national security and nuclear science research) concluded that it was an over ramming of powder bags that caused the explosion. This conclusion was something the navy apparently disagreed with and stated the cause remained undetermined (even though it was proved that it was possible to cause an explosion in this way).
On October 26th, 1990 USS Iowa was decommissioned for the final time at Naval Base Norfolk. This proud ship had served her country well for decades and only that final sad incident of the turret explosion soured her career. In 1998 she was towed to the Naval Education and Training Center in Newport, Rhode Island and between 1999 to 2001 was reinstated on the Naval Vessel Register and placed in reserve once again. In 2001 USS Iowa was towed to the Navy Reserve Fleet in San Francisco. In 2006 the battleship was put up for donation as a museum but it was not until September 6th, 2011 that USS Iowa was awarded to the Pacific Battleship Center (a nonprofit group) by the Secretary of the Navy.
USS Iowa is now owned and operated by the Pacific Battleship Centre and is berthed at the Los Angeles waterfront in San Pedro, California. You can find the mighty battleship at Berth 87 where she has been permanently moored since June 9th, 2012. Tours are available and you can explore the majority of the battleship above and below deck.
Each of the Iowa Class battleships has something different to show you. USS Iowa has a unique place in US Navy history and the link to FDR makes for some interesting anecdotes whilst you tour around the ship. Well worth a visit, that’s for sure.