It’s difficult to grasp just how huge the historic battleship USS Iowa is until you’re standing next to it, and just how important it still is to the city of Los Angeles and the neighborhood of San Pedro. Difficult, that is, until you talk to Jonathan Williams, the president and CEO of the National Museum of the Surface Navy.
“The Iowa is just one small subset of San Pedro,” Williams says as we stand in the parking lot adjacent to this enormous battleship that participated in three wars.
There’s a lot to unpack in that statement.
By “small subset,” Williams means that the Iowa is more than a tourist attraction; it has become the center of a community.
“We are no longer just a museum,” he says. “We are a part of the mission. During the height of the pandemic (when additional medical personnel and resources were brought in for Los Angeles County), the USS Iowa became a hub and office space, with helicopters landing in the parking lot. We believe the days of the museums with great rooms full of artifacts — those days are gone. We are more than a museum; we are a community platform.”
And the National Museum of the Surface Navy?
This museum-in-the-making was officially established in 2019 and will eventually feature exhibits aboard the USS Iowa. It will be the only national museum dedicated to the men and women who “sail on the world’s oceans versus under the world’s oceans or in the sky.”
In other words, no submariners or pilots.
But for now, there is plenty to see and appreciate on this massive ship, and our guide and historian extraordinaire David Way, a walking encyclopedia and statistician when it comes to battleships, leads the way.
“This ship was part of America’s Big Stick Diplomacy,” Way says. “It participated in three wars: World War II, the Korean War and the Cold War.”
And when its guns were not thundering, Way points out, the Iowa helped “preserve commerce and trade. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?”
We follow Way, who knows every nook and cranny of this ship, up and down the ladders that take us to various levels and decks, down hallways, around corners, and in and out of compartments deep within the interior.
During wartime, “the Iowa’s main mission was naval gunfire support,” Way says as we stand near one of the turrets that houses the enormous 16-inch guns. Each turret weighs 292,000 pounds.
“The Iowa has the largest guns ever placed on a warship. These 16-inch guns used 1,900-pound shells and had a range of 24 miles. These battleships are essentially floating tanks.”
If that doesn’t impress you, consider these facts about the USS Iowa, the lead ship in its class:
• When fully loaded, it displaces 58,400 tons.
• Its class includes the fastest ships ever.
• It has a whole lot of armament, including nine 16-inch guns; 12 5-inch guns; 32 Tomahawk cruise missiles; and 16 Harpoon Anti-Ship missiles.
• The armor is considerable, too – up to almost 20 inches in the some of the gun turrets.
• It took about 2,500,000 gallons of fuel to fill
• It carried three presidents: Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
And when you visit, look for images and a display dedicated to Vicky the dog, mascot of the USS Iowa who had his own uniform; hobnobbed with admirals; was present for the surrender of Japan; and slept at the foot of President Roosevelt’s bed when he was aboard in late 1943, on his way to a conference with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin.
The Iowa sadly made headlines April 19, 1989, after an explosion ripped through the Number Two 16-inch gun as the ship sailed toward Norfolk, Virginia.
The blast killed 47 crewmen. After two investigations, the evidence indicated an “accidental powder explosion rather than an intentional act of sabotage.”
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