RICHMOND, Calif. — Firing its 16-inch guns in the Arabian Sea, the USS Iowa shuddered. As the sky turned orange, a blast of heat from the massive guns washed over the battleship. This was the Iowa of the late 1980s, at the end of its active duty as it escorted reflagged Kuwaiti oil tankers from the Persian Gulf through the Strait of Hormuz during the Iran-Iraq war.
Some 25 years later, after years of aging in the San Francisco Bay area’s “mothball fleet,” the 887-foot long ship that once carried President Franklin Roosevelt to a World War II summit to meet with Churchill, Stalin and Chiang Kai Shek is coming to life once again as it is being prepared for what is most likely its final voyage.
Not far from where “Rosie the Riveters” built ships in the 1940s at the Port of Richmond, the 58,000-ton battlewagon is undergoing restoration for towing May 20 through the Golden Gate, then several hundred miles south to the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro. There it is to be transformed into an interactive naval museum.
On May 1, ownership of the Iowa was officially transferred from the Navy to the Pacific Battleship Center, the nonprofit organization that has been restoring the boat for its new mission.
“This means everything — it’s going to be saved,” John Wolfinbarger, 87, of San Martin, Calif., who served aboard the USS Iowa for almost two years in the mid-1940s and recently began giving public tours of the old ship during repairs here.
“When it gets down to San Pedro, it’s going to be the happiest day of my life, like coming home!” he said, watching the mast being reattached.
For the past decade, the lead ship of her battleship class known as “The Big Stick” has sat in the cold and fog, anchored with other mothballed ships in nearby Suisun Bay. This spring, workers began scrubbing and painting the Iowa’s exterior, replacing the teak deck and reattaching the mast in preparation for the museum commissioning on July 4.
Jonathan Williams, executive officer of Pacific Battleship Group, has been overseeing the project, which will exceed $4 million upon completion. Williams credited his dedicated his staff and volunteers, along with the financial contributions from the state of Iowa, for making the restoration possible.
“The U.S. Navy, MARAD (United States Maritime Administration) and the crew that mothballed the battleship over the past 22 years did an excellent job and kept the heart and soul of Iowa alive,” said Williams.
“Things are on track and we are following our schedule as planned,” he said. “We are trying to make sure nothing is missed as the process is complex.”
The fast Iowa-class battleships, ordered by the Navy in 1939 and 1940, could travel at a speed of 33 knots. The Iowa, first commissioned in 1943 and again in 1951 and 1984, saw duty in World War II and the Korean War. It took part in escorting tankers in the Persian Gulf during the Iran-Iraq war before being decommissioned in 1990.
During World War II, when transferred to the Pacific Fleet in 1944, the ship shelled beachheads at Kwajalein and Eniwetok in advance of Allied amphibious landings and screened aircraft carriers operating in the Marshall Islands.
It was one of two ships of its class camouflaged during World War II— and it also was the only one with a bathtub, which was put in for President Roosevelt. The Iowa also served as the Third Fleet flagship, flying Adm. William F. Halsey’s flag as it accompanied the Missouri at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.
A dark part of the ship’s history took place in 1989, when 47 sailors were killed in an explosion in the No. 2 gun turret. After the blast, the Navy alleged a crewmember caused the explosion as a result of a failed relationship with another male crewmember. A follow-up investigation found the explosion was most likely the result of human error.
Most visitors are immediately drawn to the sight and firepower of the Iowa’s nine16-inch guns, which could send an armor-piercing shell the weight of a small car 24 miles. When the ship was modernized during the 1980s, it was outfitted with Tomahawk cruise missiles, Harpoon anti-ship missiles and Phalanx gun mounts. It was also one of the first ships outfitted to carry a drone for reconnaissance flights.
Future plans for the Iowa include an interactive tour experience that will allow the visitor to experience what life at sea was like during active duty. Among the highlights will be viewing the inside of one of the main gun turrets, seeing the 17.5-inch armored conning station on the bridge and viewing Roosevelt’s stateroom.
There will also be tours of secondary weapons, missiles, engineering, armor and special spaces. An ADA accessibility plan calls for an elevator to be installed from the main deck to one below for access to the main exhibit areas. The museum is scheduled to open on July 7.