Yes, the mighty battleships ruled the seas. And specifically, the Iowa-class battleships, were the best warships of the battleship era. And to this day, many so-called experts keep calling for them to end their time as museum ships and rejoin the fleet. Here is why that most likely will never happen: For military history buffs, there is no doubt something romantic about the notion of seeing the United States Navy’s “big gun” fast-battleships steaming out to sea again. It is true that all four of the warships of the Iowa-class, the largest battleships ever built in the United States, were preserved intact so that they’d be able to return to duty. There is occasionally still talk about seeing them back in active service.
However, such dreams aren’t like to come true – and not just because smaller and more mobile guided-missile destroyers can do the job of shore bombardment better. While described as “fast battleships,” the Navy’s warships would require massive crews and would simply be inviting targets in the era of hypersonic missiles and stealth aircraft.
It would likely require a significant makeover, and the United States currently lacks the naval facilities to even take on such a refit.
Today, eight retired U.S. Navy battleships have been maintained as some of the nation’s most impressive floating museums. In addition to the role each played in service of the country in wartime, the retired vessels share a similar story – the elements have taken a drastic toll on those once majestic vessels.
The USS Texas is currently undergoing repairs as her hull is leaking, while significant restorations were required to save the South Dakota-class USS Massachusetts. A special cofferdam was even required to preserve USS North Carolina, another South Dakota-class battleship built just prior to United States’ entry into World War II.
The four Iowa-class battlewagons are generally considered to be in better condition, but USS New Jersey recently underwent the first major replacement of its wood decks in decades. Time continues to be the greatest enemy these warships have faced, and with each passing year, any effort to return them would be a massive undertaking.
There is another issue that would likely keep any Iowa-class battleships from seeing them returned to service – a lack of spare parts. Warships require specialized components and to maintain the Battleship New Jersey museum, volunteers have had to head over to the nearby Inactive Fleet at the Philadelphia Navy Yard to scavenge what they can find.
Then there is the fact that the Navy has continued to dispose of equipment it doesn’t need.
Over a Barrel
Storing and maintaining equipment from retired warships can be costly, but recently it was reported that a nonprofit managed to save several battleship barrels produced for the U.S. Navy in World War II. One that had been destined for a scrap yard will now get a new lease on life in Virginia Beach.
The Coast Defense Study Group was able to acquire a 120-ton barrel, one of nine that remained in storage in Chesapeake. Able to fire projectiles weighing 1,900 to 2,700 pounds with a range of up to 24 miles, it was manufactured during the Second World War for the Iowa-class vessels. The Navy had prepared to purge its inventory of battleship parts a decade ago when the non-profit stepped in and sought to find those barrels new homes.
“They’re historic artifacts,” said Terry McGovern, spokesperson for Coast Defense Study Group. “Why just cut them up into chunks of steel?”
While saved from the torch, transporting the barrels – each 68 feet long – has proven to be no small task. It required finding the right locations, special permits and of course raising the money for the transport and installation. To date, the barrels have found homes across the country, including as part of the Fort Miles Museum in Delaware, and State Capitol in Arizona as part of the state’s World War II memorial (where it joined a 14-inch barrel from USS Arizona).
Efforts will likely continue to save America’s retired battleships, but don’t expect any to ever sail into combat. That is probably for the best. They may look good as museum ships, but the fight is long gone from them.
Now a Senior Editor for 1945, Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military hardware, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com. Peter is also a Contributing Writer for Forbes.