The USS Iowa battleship — the retired "crown jewel” of the Navy's historic ships — is officially opening to visitors at Berth 87 in San Pedro. The 887-foot battleship opens Saturday as an interactive floating museum.
Valen Watson, a volunteer aboard the ship, says she hopes the USS Iowa will be a boon for the community.
“One of the things I'm most excited about is the fact that we're the only battleship on the Pacific Coast, and I think it will re-energize the military history of our town."
On a gray morning, former USS Iowa crewmember Mike McEnteggart shows off the ship's main deck. McEnteggart first arrived on the Iowa in 1985 — he was 20 years old and fresh out of boot camp.
Across McEnteggart's shoulder is a tattoo of the battleship and "BB-61," the ship's technical name. He leans back on the barrel of a 67-foot gun turret. He served on the ship for four years, and the Iowa was decommissioned for the final time in 1990.
Now the ship begins its second life, and McEnteggart is back to help.
The Iowa's curator is Dave Way. Down below, he travels through the ship's tight passageways to the captain's cabin that once housed a famous passenger.
"This was President [Franklin] Roosevelt's cabin that he used during the crossing over to North Africa to attend the Tehran conference with [British Prime Minister Winston] Churchill and [Soviet Premier Joseph] Stalin," he says.
The leaders planned D-Day in that 1943 meeting. Way stands inside a modest room. Just through the doorway, there's a bathtub that was installed for Roosevelt. It looks a little small for a president, though.
"Well, the one thing you pick up on walking around the ship is creature comforts are secondary. Everything is built around delivering the ordinance to the target," Way says.
After World War II, the Iowa served in the Korean conflict. In the early '80s, the Reagan administration used the ship as part of its Cold War-era strategy.
In his four years on board, McEnteggart never saw combat. Still, he remembers one particularly uneasy encounter with a Russian battleship in the Atlantic.
"They came so close to us once. I bet she wasn't even 100 yards off us," he says.
Most of the Iowa crew was on the main deck that day, and the Russian crew was on theirs.
"We were looking at them and they were looking at us ... we didn't want to fight," he says. "You know, nobody wanted it. It was like 'Oh, they're men just like we are.' "
For McEnteggart, returning to the Iowa is primarily about honoring the memory of some former crewmates. In 1989, an accidental explosion in the second turret killed 47 men and endangered the entire crew. McEnteggart helped put the fire out.
"That's why I'm here today," he says.
When he heard they were restoring the ship, McEnteggart left his home in New York and moved to work on the Iowa. He's back on board and taking his duties as seriously as ever. Even though it won't be leaving port again, McEnteggart plans to stay with the 70-year-old ship for as long as it needs him.
Tickets cost $18. Admission is free for children under 6 — and for visitors to the Southland from Iowa.