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“Ship of Presidents” at Los Angeles Harbor

Sailor Kiss Uss Iowa  photo spotThere’s something mystical about the hulking mass of metal of great battleships, with thunderous guns which served duty in WWII and beyond. The Iowa class battleship was the last design of its kind, the seagoing juggernaught of war which saw the end of an era when heavy gunned battlewagon warships fell to the wayside in favor of aircraft and missiles. The USS Iowa is the last surviving of these great ships to become a naval history museum, towed from the mothball fleet in the Richmond channel of San Francisco Bay to a dock in San Pedro, just next to the cruise ship terminal and in the shadow of the Vincent Thomas Bridge. The Iowa has a remarkable history and among the battle ship fleet is known as the “Ship of the Presidents” for the carrying three of the American leaders on board during her various lives. It was the USS Iowa battleship (BB 61) which transported Franklin Delano Roosevelt to the Tehran Conference and his famous meeting with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, making the Iowa the only ship in the US Navy to have a bathtub, added just for Roosevelt.

The USS Iowa design, one of four sister ships to be built, was first ordered in July of 1939, before America was yet drawn into the Second World War, with its keel laid in 1940, launched in 1942 and commissioned on February 22, 1943. These were the fastest of the battleships, able to reach up to 38 knots, recognized by their sleek prow and rather elegant curving hull. After her shakedown cruise in Chesapeake Bay, the Iowa headed across the Atlantic to potentially confront the German dreadnaught, the Turpitz, but the two battleships never met and the Iowa never fired a shot in the Atlantic. In 1944, she joined the Pacific Fleet seeing her first combat in the battle for the Marshall Islands, and later served as carrier battle group escort in the Marianas and in the Battle of Leyte Gulf. The USS Iowa saw her most active battle action in the Korean War, bombarding inland targets with her great 16 inch guns. The ship was decommissioned in 1958, but reactivated in the 1980s, carrying her next two presidents, Ronald Reagan (see Ronald Regean Library & Air Force One) and George H. W. Bush. In April of 1989, the Iowa entered the news for something other than war, when 47 sailors were killed when an explosion ripped through one of the 16 gun turrets. It was first thought that one of the sailors loading the powder for the massive shells, deliberately set off the charge to commit suicide, but later investigations suggested a more freak accident of a static electrical charge.

Tour of the USS Iowa Battleship

FDR Presidents cabin USS Iowa BattleshipA self-guided tour leads visitors through the wardroom where officers would eat and enjoy their off time. Here are photographs of the USS Iowa in action. Just off the wardroom is a woman’s bathroom. Odd for a navy ship before women were allowed to serve, but this one was converted specifically for the wives of presidents visiting the Iowa. From the wardroom, exit the port side where modern freight ships pass up the channel to the container docks, and cross the teak wood decking forward to the gun turrets for an impressive view of the bristling 16 inch barrels. Then to the famous Captain’s Cabin, actually used by the Admirals for whom the Iowa was the fleet flagship, named the FDR Cabin, where the president’s bathtub remains.

Armored battle bridge on USS Iowa BB61 The tour leads past the ship’s five inch guns to the flag bridge and up through the superstructure to the armored bridge. Perhaps one of the more fascinating locations, battle bridge was inside an armed tube of 18 inches thick steel. When not in battle, the captain would sit in the Admiral's chair. One level above is the flying bridge with a magnificent view out over the turrets and the bow. Heading aft, you find the ship’s more modern armament, the Phalanx guns which rapidly fire spent uranium shells and the chaff mortars for deflecting cruise missile attacks and the Armored Box Launchers for Tomahawk and Harpoon Cruise Missiles of current warfare. The tour does not currently go inside the big gun turrets due to their condition, but the shells and powder bags used to fire them are on display on the aft deck. It took six bags of powder to fire the one ton shells.

Visiting USS Iowa Battleship

16 Inch Gun Shell and Powder BagsAdmission to the USS Iowa Battleship Tour is $18 for Adults, $10 for Youth 6-18, $15 for Seniors 62+ and active military with ID. The ship is located at Berth 87 at the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro, called the Pacific Battleship Center, just along Harbor Boulevard (exit off the 110 Freeway). Parking is $1 an hour. A stop of the Red Line light rail train from downtown LA is close by. The Iowa battleship is not yet wheelchair accessible, but they’re working on it More theme tours of the ship are planned in the future. If you can’t get to the west coast, other battleships can be seen around the country. The Iowa’s sister ships, USS Missouri is in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, the USS New Jersey is in Camden, NJ, the USS Wisconsin is in Norfolk, Virginia, while of the generation earlier South Dakota class battleships, the USS Alabama is in Mobile and the USS Massachusetts is in Fall River near Boston. Even the USS South Dakota is preserved (in pieces) in Sioux Falls (see USS South Dakota Memorial). For a little more WWII navy ship history while visiting the Iowa, head down Harbor Blvd to the end where the USS Lane Victory, the WWII Victory Ship is now docked (see USS Lane Victory), not as big as the battleship, but those who carry men and supplies also serve, or cross the bridge to Long Beach and the HMS Queen Mary which carried troops during the war.
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