Some weeks ago, I visited the battleship USS Iowa, moored in Los Angeles Harbor. Iowa and her sisters, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Missouri – the famous “Mighty Mo” – were the last battleships commissioned by the U.S. Navy. (There were to be two more, but these were scrapped before they were completed.)
She’s really something to see. From the outside, everything is huge – especially the main battery turrets. The nine 16-inch (406-millimeter) guns are capable of hurling a shell weighing over a ton toward a target twenty miles away. Each gun can be independently targeted. The 5-inch (127-millimeter) dual-purpose (anti-aircraft or anti-ship) are nothing to sneer at either. One of the videos playing was a PR video from the 1950s explaining how the 16-inch gun worked; the announcer said that it was better to give than to receive a salvo from those guns. Yes, indeed. Of course, that would be considered insensitive in these sensitivity-mad times.
Inside, everything is cramped. I frequently had to duck my head to go through doors. Passageways were narrow. Warships are not meant for tall people. It’s amazing that over 2000 people served on board in World War II. I like my elbow room; clearly, I would not have thrived in the Navy. The tour included a glance inside one of the secondary turrets, a visit to the galley and enlisted mess, a glance inside the brig (the on-board jail) and the ship’s laundry room with its gigantic washers and dryers. The exhibit included Lost at Sea, a collection of pictures and other relics from shipwrecks explored by Dr. Robert Ballard.
The wardroom (where the officers ate and relaxed) had a lot of good memorabilia: the flag of Admiral Chester Nimitz, a map of Iowa’s voyages over the decades, various programs and fliers from events of times past. The story of Vicky, the ship’s mascot, was entertaining. (She was once cited for going AWOL.)
Most officers shared quarters (rooms), but at least they had quarters with only one roommate. Enlisted personnel were another matter. The bunks stacked three high that are there now were shown were from Iowa’s 1980s tour of duty; the World War II bunks were five beds stacked up on top of each other. (USS Iowa carried more crew during World War II than during the 1980s.) When President Roosevelt voyaged on board Iowa to North Africa to get to the Tehran Conference, he had his own room. (He also had his own bathtub.) The only other people who had their own quarters were her captain, or any admiral who was on board.
Curiously, Iowa never fought an enemy battleship, though she was in action against some smaller ships. Most of her work was shore bombardment during World War II and the Korean War, as well as anti-aircraft duty. The last of the great battleship versus battleship engagements was the Battle of Surigao Strait, which featured older U.S. Navy battleships, including some that were damaged during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Neither Iowa nor her sisters were there.
The Iowa has changed a lot since she was first commissioned in 1943. The 40-millimeter and 20-millimeter anti-aircraft guns are long gone. During the 1980s, eight of Iowa’s 5-inch (127-millimeter) dual-purpose secondary guns were removed and Harpoon and Tomahawk missile launchers were installed. In addition, 4 Phalanx Close In Weapons System automated 20-millimeter guns were installed to shoot down incoming missiles.
Common military wisdom says that battleships were made obsolete by aircraft carriers and missiles. However, one of the tour personnel I spoke to told me that Iowa could be brought back into fighting condition in six months. It seems to me that there’s something to be said for having a ship that is very strongly built and can throw a heavy broadside, even if the range is limited. Battleships can be sunk, but it takes much effort to do so, especially if escorted by ships prepared for anti-submarine warfare and provided with air cover. Moreover, with the possibility of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) being used as a weapon against the United States, it may be well to have ships that can function and fight without being overly dependent on fussy and fragile electronics.
What’s even more amazing is that the time between Iowa’s design and commissioning was only five years. Today, with endless legal reviews, design changes, political shenanigans, bureaucratic plodding and turf wars, and the modern emphasis on legal compliance rather than real accomplishment, such a great ship would take much longer to design and commission. The most urgently needed weapons system for our country is something to make all the red tape disappear.
Come visit this grand lady of steel. She served for a long time, she sailed many long miles and saw quite a lot, and her current crew (mostly volunteers) keep her in good condition. She has a lot of stories to tell. If you’re a World War II buff like me, or you like seeing big ships, this is a great way to spend a day.
For further reading:
Pacific Battleship, the nonprofit that offers tours of USS Iowa.
Battleships, by Anthony Preston