WWII battleship USS Iowa overhauled in Richmond, becomes floating museum

The USS Iowa. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Bonelle.

The USS Iowa. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Bonelle.

The USS Iowa, a World War II-era ship that’s the fastest battleship ever built, stands out in the Richmond marina. The 887-foot long gray hull dwarfs the surrounding ships and containers that are scattered around the harbor. Its giant 16-inch guns, capable of firing a shell more than 23 miles, tower over small figures moving across the bow. The people walking around the harbor and across the deck only emphasize the size of the ship, which during World War II housed a crew of 2,150 men.

In nearly seven decades of service, the “Big Stick” has seen both the best and the worst history has to offer. For the next month, it will see Richmond, where it is being repainted before being towed to Los Angeles to become a permanent museum managed by the Pacific Battleship Center.

Over the years, the Iowa has earned nine battle stars and 14 awards. In World War II, it essentially served as a naval Air Force One, ferrying president Franklin D. Roosevelt to a conference with Stalin and Churchill in Tehran – a mission that very nearly ended in disaster when a live torpedo was accidentally fired at it by another American ship. Roosevelt’s physical condition also meant some special changes had to be made. To this day, the Iowa is the only vessel in the U.S. Navy to ever be fitted with a bathtub.

In April 1989, one of the ship’s turrets exploded, killing 47 sailors in one of the worst peacetime disasters in naval history. Despite two separate investigations, the cause was never officially determined.

The Iowa is open Saturdays and Sundays for visitors to learn more. For now, though, visitors can only walk across the ship’s bow.

“We are trying to open as many areas as possible to the public,” said David Way, the ship’s tour manager. “But we have to make sure it is safe.”

Volunteers are working on part of the ship’s exterior, and an air sample has to be completed before the public is allowed inside.

“There are some awkward areas below to get people in and out of,” Way said. “When we walk around there we are always ducking. Now I know why they always had 18-year-olds running around.”

To make up for the limited access while the ship is in Richmond, the Pacific Battleship Center is trying to give visitors a little more by opening up a small military museum. “Plus, you have to have a souvenir shop, so we threw that out there as well,” Way said.

But even though you can only walk across the bow, it is already possible to get a feel of the size and grandeur of the ship. That grandeur was overwhelming for Dan Pawloski, the ship’s operations manager. After 31 years as a carpenter, he is now quitting his job and moving to Los Angeles to permanently work on the vessel.

Pawloski came across the Iowa more or less by accident. His neighbor happened to be the vice-president of the Pacific Battleship Center, and asked him to help out with some paperwork. “They ended up getting the ship, and I was invited to ride along when the ship was towed to Richmond,” Pawloski said. From that moment he was hooked, and spent every free hour he had volunteering on the Iowa.

Surprisingly Pawloski’s sudden passion did not create any marital problems. “It’s a great story,” he said, laughing. “My wife is the ship’s store manager. After the first weekend I came here, I talked her into coming. Since then, she has been here every weekend also. So we’re actually both embedded into the Iowa, we’re both embedded into making this a piece of history.”

The deck of the USS Iowa. Photo courtesy of Jeremy Bonelle.

They have their work cut out for them. Besides the painting effort, the Pacific Battleship Center has partnered with former Disney employees to work on special effects that will make the ship come alive. The command center, or “Star Wars Room” as Way calls it, is the prime candidate. But the staff is already considering other areas, such as the ship’s engine and fire rooms.

But there are some limitations to what they can do. The 70-year-old ship is still part of the reserve fleet, and can be recalled into active duty until 2020. As a result, the crew has to keep certain systems operational, and display the ship in a “dignified” manner, according to Navy criteria. But Way said he does not foresee any problems.

“We want to have a respectable museum, but also an entertaining museum – you can definitely strike a balance,” he said.

The ship is scheduled to be towed to Los Angeles on May 21, where it will ultimately become more than just a museum. The Iowa-class veterans have already scheduled their annual reunion on board. Boy and Girl Scouts can spend the night. Hollywood is next door, and you might well see the Iowa as a prop in next year’s blockbuster.

Still, the crew will be leaving Richmond with mixed feelings after a welcome from the local community. “It will be a bittersweet moment,” Way said. “Los Angeles is home to most of our staff, but we made some great friends here.”

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