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Can the USS Iowa be San Pedro’s “big stick”?

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The first glimpse I got of USS Iowa came as I drove down the hill to the harbor in San Pedro. I say “glimpse” because I really only saw a sliver through the buildings. It was, of all things, battleship gray and tubular. When I finally got onto Harbor Boulevard, which parallels the Channel, the Iowa dominated the horizon, and I could tell that the tubular thing I’d been looking at from a few blocks away was the 60-foot barrel of one of the Iowa’s nine 16-inch guns.

USS Iowa firing during 1984 naval exercise

The USS Iowa firing its 16-inch guns during a fire-power demonstration during naval exercises off Puerto Rico in 1984. (Dept. of Defense photo)

The Iowa, a World War II battleship about to become a museum, arrived from mothballs in the San Francisco Bay Area a few weeks ago. It’s scheduled to open to the public in San Pedro a week from Saturday (July 7). It’s now officially in its “quiet period,” I guess, as the final retrofits are being finished so it can receive the public.

My first impression—actually, my impression for the whole time I walked along Harbor Boulevard looking through the chain-link fence at the ship—is that the thing is huge. But it was built to be huge, a visible warning of the immense power it had, and by extension, that America had.

The USS Iowa, through the chain-link fence at its new berth in San Pedro. The ship is nearly three football fields in length. It runs from First Street to Third Street.

The Iowa was the first of four battleships put into service late in World War II. (The others were the New Jersey, the Wisconsin, and the Missouri.) They’d been planned in the late 1930s, before the war began. But the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941 sidelined all of the battleships in the U.S. fleet—five were sunk and the other three damaged. (Six of the eight returned to service before the war ended.)

The Iowa and her sister ships were intended to answer two Japanese battleships, the Yamato and Musashi, which were ordered in 1937. The Iowa-class battleships were slightly longer than the Japanese, but had smaller guns (the American battleships had nine 16-inch guns, and the Japanese had nine 18-inch guns). The Japanese battleships could also carry a few airplanes. All of the American Iowa-class battleships survived World War II; neither of the new Japanese battleships did.

The combat decorations awarded to the USS Iowa from 1943-1990 are affixed to the structure just behind the bridge.

The world had changed in the quarter-century between World War I and World War II. While dominating the seas was still the goal of navies, technology had introduced new ways to do that. Battleships, in part because of their immense size and their lack of maneuverability, were vulnerable to torpedoes. And they were also vulnerable to bombs dropped by planes launched from a new type of naval vessel, the aircraft carrier.

Obsolete though it may have been the day it was commissioned, the battleship was still a projection of raw power—immense, ironclad, and with guns that could shoot explosive projectiles that weighed nearly a ton and a half almost 25 miles. A Navy spokesman described the power decades later as lobbing “explosive Volkswagens from Long Beach to Catalina.” It’s an image that has stuck with me for decades.

That’s the power I saw through the chain-link fence in San Pedro. And the history. The Iowa, once known as “The Big Stick,” is now remembered as the Battleship of Presidents. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and George H. W. Bush were all aboard it. Its strategic value may have weakened over time, but it stood by for 45 years, the “big stick” Presidents could use to back up their soft words.

The Iowa is now the centerpiece of another battle—the economic reinvigoration of San Pedro. The hope is that it can do what nothing else has been able to: bring people to the port and get them to leave some of their money.  The question is whether it’s a big enough stick to do that, or if—as it was when it was commissioned almost 70 years ago—the previous generation’s answer.

The Pacific Battleship Center, which will operate the floating museum, has posted an admission price of $18 to tour the Iowa, $10 for retired military, and free for active-duty military. (This pricing structure probably would have brought far more visitors when San Pedro still had its navy base, army base, and air-force base.) Iowa residents can also visit for free—payback, clearly, for the state’s contribution of $3 million toward preserving and relocating its namesake to San Pedro.

The USS Iowa’s fore guns. The barrel of each is nearly 70 feet long. The bore is 16 inches in circumference. The guns could fire a 2,700-pound explosive projectile a distance of 24 miles.

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