The Battleship USS Iowa (BB-61) “The Big Stick”

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.

When the President met The King:
The Iowa Class Battleships: USS Iowa (BB-61), USS New Jersey (BB-62), USS Missouri (BB-63) and USS Wisconsin (BB-64)

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.

USS Iowa (BB-61) under construction in the New York Navy Yard looking forward from about amidships on July 3rd, 1942
USS Iowa (BB-61) under construction in the New York Navy Yard looking forward from about amidships on July 3rd, 1942 (Photo Source: United States National Archives)
Workmen installing the forward 16" gun turrets of USS Iowa at the New York Navy Yard  circa Autumn 1942
Workmen installing the forward 16″ gun turrets of USS Iowa at the New York Navy Yard circa Autumn 1942 (Photo Source: United States National Archives)
USS Iowa (BB-61) during her shakedown period on April 4th, 1943
USS Iowa (BB-61) during her shakedown period on April 4th, 1943. Not all gun mounts are fitted at this stage and bridge modifications were still to be made (Photo Source: US Navy)

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.

Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill at the Tehran Conference November 1943
Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill at the Tehran Conference November 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.

USS Iowa (BB-61) entering Majuro atoll in the Marshall Islands on February 4th, 1944
USS Iowa (BB-61) entering Majuro atoll in the Marshall Islands on February 4th, 1944 (Photo Source: US Navy)

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.

USS Iowa (BB-61) underway in 1944 with WW2 camoflage pattern
USS Iowa (BB-61) underway in 1944 with WW2 camouflage pattern (Photo Source: US Navy)

Post War

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.

USS Iowa (BB-61) off San Francisco in 1946
USS Iowa (BB-61) off San Francisco in 1946 (Photo Source: US Navy)

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.

USS Iowa (BB-61) Off Koje, Korea, firing her 16-inch guns at enemy coastal defenses Korean War
USS Iowa (BB-61) firing her 16-inch guns at enemy coastal defenses of Koje, Korea in 1952 (Photo Source: U.S. Naval Institute Photographic Collection)

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.

USS Iowa (BB-61) firing its 16-inch guns off the starboard side during a fire power demonstration on August 15th, 1984
USS Iowa (BB-61) firing its 16-inch guns off the starboard side during a fire power demonstration on August 15th, 1984 (Photo Source: US Navy)

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!

USS Iowa fires a full broadside of nine 16-inch (410 mm)/50-caliber and six 5-inch (130 mm)/38 cal guns during a target exercise near Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, on 1 July 1984. Shock waves are visible in the water (Photo Source: US Navy)
USS Iowa fires a full broadside of nine 16-inch (410 mm)/50-caliber and six 5-inch (130 mm)/38 cal guns during a target exercise near Vieques Island, Puerto Rico, on 1 July 1984. Shock waves are visible in the water (Photo Source: US Navy)

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.

US NAvy USS Iowa's Number Two turret is cooled with sea water shortly after exploding on April 19th, 1989
USS Iowa’s Number Two turret is cooled with sea water shortly after exploding on April 19th, 1989 (Photo Source: US Navy)

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).

Final Decommissioning

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.

US Navy USS Iowa (BB-61) today at San Pedro, California
USS Iowa (BB-61) today at San Pedro, California
US Navy USS Iowa (BB-61) today at San Pedro, California
USS Iowa (BB-61) with her battle stars and awards displayed
US Navy USS Iowa (BB-61) today at San Pedro, California
“The Big Stick” comes courtesy of those big 16 inch guns
US Navy USS Iowa (BB-61) today at San Pedro, California
16 inch and 5 inch gun turrets
US Navy USS Iowa (BB-61) today at San Pedro, California
The awards were earned by an excellent crew and enforced by the big guns
US Navy USS Iowa (BB-61) today at San Pedro, California
The view from the bridge area
US Navy USS Iowa (BB-61) today at San Pedro, California below deck
From the bridge to below decks you can explore much of the USS Iowa – that’s an AGM-84 Harpoon missile
US Navy USS Iowa (BB-61) today at San Pedro, California FDR Bath
The Captains quarters and the special bath fitted for FDR in 1943
US Navy USS Iowa (BB-61) today at San Pedro, California Officer Quarters & galley
Officers quarters & galley
US Navy USS Iowa (BB-61) today at San Pedro, California Phalanx Harpoon Tomahawk Missiles
In the 1982 refit Phalanx close-in weapon system, Tomahawk cruise missile launchers and Harpoon anti-ship missile launch tubes were fitted

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.


NavSource Online

Pacific Battleship Centre

The Veteran’s Association of the USS Iowa

USS Iowa turret explosion



15 Comments Add yours

  1. I never had the pleasure of the visiting and going over the ‘IOWA’ and the ‘WISCONSIN’ when I visited the USA in 2010, I did however get to visit the ‘MISSOURI’ (twice) going over to the US from Australia and also n the way home(which will forever be etched in my memory as the time I was arrested by Hawai’i 50) and the ‘NEW JERSEY’. I also on that visit took in the ‘HORNET’ berthed at Alameda,Ca and the ‘USS CONSTITUTION’ in Boston.

    What struck me was the difference in the way these ships were treated; ‘The Big Mo’, and ‘Old Ironsides’ with the utmost love, care and consideration, the other two, two ships which,in my opinion for what it’s worth, entitled to much more of the attention bestowed on the other two vessels put together. The ‘Big J’ is the most decorated battleship in US Naval history, with 19 battlestars; and if it wasn’t for the sterling efforts of the volunteers and people working to keep it open for the people I dread to think what would happen to this magnifient ship, same goes for the ‘HORNET’.

    I did a post back in 2012 voicing my disgust and dismay there are a few photographs that I took not very good I’m not much of a photographer which will give you some idea as to what I’m talking about;.

    Just as an aside; I got banned from having my letters to the editor of the SMH some years ago for criticizing David Dale for using a non word, That word was ‘earnt’; there is no such word it should have been earned, and for this the SMH stopped publishing my regular letters, I trust you will not be so harsh on me 😀

    Cheers beari.

    1. Deano says:

      Thanks and now corrected. A minor slip up as I had used the correct word throughout. Not sure why I wrote that on the photo caption – put it down to a very late night!

      The New Jersey didn’t look too bad in 2013 so they may have done some work on her. I stepped aboard the USS Hornet way back in 1998 and then she wasn’t really a proper museum and was very much worse for wear but was fun to explore. I am pleased to say I had no Five-O issues in Hawaii but saw plenty who did! I am sure you have a good tale from that?

      The first time I saw the USS Constitution she was under restoration. I returned also in 2013 and it was good to see the masts back up and so forth. They jokingly say she is the only Boston team to never lose a “game”!

  2. gpcox says:

    What a fantastic post, you sure do put me to shame! The USS Iowa is a grand ‘ol lady.

    1. Deano says:

      Thanks. Now I just need to get back to Houston someday to see USS Texas (BB-35) the WW1 era battleship

      1. There is no way you can be put to shame with the work you do gp; you should be inordinately proud of what you do.

      2. Deano says:

        I second that!

  3. Girl Gone Expat says:

    My husband would absolutely loved to visit the battleship USS Iowa. He spent a whole day visiting Battleship Texas when we were in Houston last fall. I was on training with the company, but was happy to send him on this day trip alone, I never built up an interest around war ships, or wars in general. While he on the other hand seems to love it. Military museums, war movies from WWI/II, was ships etc etc. Guess it comes natural if you’re a veteran yourself.

    1. Deano says:

      It is easy to get caught up and lose a whole day visiting these types of places. I wasn’t able to get to the USS Texas when I was in Houston. I would have liked to check it out as it is one of the very few WW1 era ships still around. What branch of the service was your husband in?

      1. Girl Gone Expat says:

        Yes, he mentioned that:) I might not get the terminology right in english but he was basically in a medical support role in the army. I guess that’s what led him to become a nurse later on:)

  4. cyborg512 says:

    Just an FYI, the USS Iowa is not “The Big Stick”. That was the New Jersey ‘s nickname as she was the first the sail on active duty. She was all alone as Iowa got refitted with the new bridge design. She was our big stick to smack Hitler’s fleet and she could have done it easily. Being from Iowa I’m rather proud of the old girl and her sisters. Even created computer models of all four ships (available at Just search for the Iowa on that web site).

    1. Deano says:

      Hi there, you have a lot of reason to be proud of the USS Iowa and her sister ships! The USS New Jersey was known as the “Big J” by crewmembers though, not the “Big Stick”. The USS Iowa was on active “Tirpitz watch” in the Atlantic by August 1943 and then the Pacific by early 1944 (BB-61 commissioned Feb 1943 as the lead ship of the Iowa Class).
      The USS New Jersey wasn’t on combat duty until early 1944 in the Pacific and sailed en route with the USS Iowa to the Pacific theatre (BB-62 commissioned May 1943). The Iowa was in dock for maintenance in Dec 1944 and in dry dock from January to March 1945. The New Jersey soldiered on but was also in dock for overhaul in the last few months of the war in 1945 before heading out again in July 1945. Hope this helps:

  5. Dai Parry says:

    I have already visited the Missouri in Pearl Harbor and I intend visiting the New Jersey and North Carolina in October. I’m afraid I’ll have to leave Wisconsin and Iowa for future US visits. These Ships represented the zenith of Battleship design and power and am delighted they have been preserved as meuseums for future generations to visit.

    1. Deano says:

      They are impressive to see, yet alone soaking in the history whilst walking the decks!

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