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USS Iowa: The U.S. Navy’s Most Powerful Battleship Ever Turns 80

USS Iowa
USS Iowa. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

In my 9 months at 19FortyFive (whoa Nellie, where does the time go?), Yours Truly has penned several articles on battleships, including: (1) the vaunted Iowa-class; (2) the USS Washington (BB-56), which scored the only one-on-one battleship kill of WWII; and (3) then-Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf’s smashing victory in recorded history’s last battleship vs. battleship engagement.

This time I’m focusing on the Iowa (the ship, not the class), as I was duly informed via an email from the National Museum of the Surface Navy that just a few days ago marked the 80th birthday, i.e. commissioning anniversary, of the USS Iowa (BB-61).

USS Iowa Early History and Specifications

Iowa had her keel laid at the New York Navy Yard (now Brooklyn Navy Yard), and she was launched on 27 August 1942, sponsored by then-Second Lady Ilo Wallace (wife of Henry A. Wallace, 33rd VPOTUS). Two days subsequent to that 22 February 1943 commissioning date, Iowa put out to sea for her shakedown cruise in Chesapeake Bay. Thanks to the cancellation of the Montana-class battleships, Iowa turned out to be the last lead ship of any battleship class in the USN.

At the time of her commissioning, Iowa and her sister ships displaced 58,460 tons fully laden and sported a hull length of 887 feet 3 inches, a beam width of 108 feet 2 inches, and a draft of 37 feet 2 inches. Crew complement was 151 commissioned officers and 2,637 enlisted men. Max speed was 33 knots (38 mph). Armament consisted of nine 16-inch/50 caliber Mark 7 main guns, twenty 5-inch/38 caliber Mark 12 secondary guns, fifty-two 20mm Oerlikon antiaircraft guns, and a whopping seventy-six of the iconic 40mm Bofors ack-ack guns.

WWII and What Might Have Been

Iowa entered “real-world” operational service, doing so on 27 August 1943 by getting underway for Argentia, Newfoundland as a counterweight against the German Kriegsmarine battleship Tirpitz. Although this would-be showdown never came to fruition – indeed, USN and Kriegsmarine battlewagons fought each other nary a single time during the WWII – the voyage nonetheless enabled Iowa to stake a historical claim as the only ship of her class to serve in the Atlantic Ocean during that war. Later that year, she carried FDR across the Atlantic to Mers-el-Kébir, Algeria, en route to a conference in Tehran with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin, earning high praise from the POTUS.

In January 1944, Iowa transferred to the Pacific Theatre and finally made her combat debut on the 29th day of that month, supporting the carrier air strikes by RADM Frederick C. Sherman’s Task Group 58.3 against the Marshall Islands atolls of Eniwetok and Kwajalein.

In one of the great ironic twists of historical fate, none of the Iowa-class BBs got to face off against Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) battleships, thus leaving it to naval historians and armchair admirals alike to debate ‘til the cows come home about who would’ve won a hypothetical clash between the Iowas and the IJN’s mighty, 18-inch gun-packing Yamato and Musashi.

That doesn’t mean Iowa was totally deprived of the satisfaction of getting to fight enemy surface warships. On 17 February 1944, she and her sister ship USS New Jersey (BB-62) teamed up to sink the IJN light cruiser Katori – with a loss of all hands, 315 officers and enlisted sailors – off of the island of Truk.

USS Iowa’s last official act of WWII was to fly Admiral “Bull” Halsey’s flag during the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.         

USS Iowa: Cold War Reactivation and the Tragedy of 1989

Iowa was decommissioned on 24 March 1949…only to be recommissioned on 25 August 1951 to participate in the Korean War. Accordingly, she saw plenty of action the following year, including: (1) gun strikes against North Korean supply routes at Wongson-Songjin on 8 April 1952; (2) a bombardment in support of South Korea’s I ROK Corps on 13 April, which destroyed six DPRK gun emplacements, seriously damaged an enemy divisional headquarters, and turned 100 Communist troops into good Communists, i.e. dead ones; (3) shutting down four railroad tunnels at Tanchon on 20 April; (4) a 25 May bombardment at Chongjin, a merely 48 miles from the Soviet border that effectively destroyed Chongjin’s industrial center; and (5) multiple strikes in the month of October that turned out to be the last time Iowa would fire her guns in anger.

Iowa was decommissioned a second time on 24 February 1958 and ended up missing out on the Vietnam War…only to be given a *third* lease on life on 28 April 1984 as part of then-POTUS Ronald Reagan’s and then-SECNAV John F. Lehman’s agenda for a 600-ship Navy; all of the 20mm and 40mm guns along with eight of the 5-inchers were cashiered in favor of 32 Tomahawk cruise missiles, 16 Harpoon antiship missiles, and four Phalanx CIWS guns.

On 19 April 1989, tragedy would strike the ship in the form of an accidental powder explosion, caused by an over-ram in turret two, that killed 47 crewmembers. On 26 October 1990, Iowa was decommissioned for the last time, and she was stricken from the Naval Register on St. Patrick’s Day 2006.

Due to the timing of her final decommissioning, Iowa just missed out on the opportunity to participate alongside her sister ships USS Wisconsin (BB-64) and USS Missouri (BB-63) as the last battleships in history to fire their shots in anger, pummeling Iraqi shore targets during the Persian Gulf War AKA Operation Desert Storm. 

A Fitting Retirement: A Floating Museum

In 2011, the venerable ship was donated to the Pacific Battleship Center, and the following year she was permanently moved to Berth 87 in the Port of Los Angeles as a museum ship. On a personal side note, my good friend Andrew Silber, then-owner of the Whale & Ale Pub and Restaurant in San Pedro, Calif, was one of the local community leaders who played a key role in securing Iowa’s final home. I’ve done the tour at least a half-dozen times, and it never gets boring. I highly recommend it.

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS)

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).