The Madeleine Brand Show

The Madeleine Brand Show is a daily, two-hour program that looks at news and culture through the lens of Southern California. Hosted by Madeleine Brand

USS Iowa gets resurrected as a museum in San Pedro

by Jennifer Sharpe | The Madeleine Brand Show

The USS Iowa's final days at Terminal 3 in Richmond, Calif. before it heads down to San Pedro on May 20, 2012. Jennifer Sharpe

It’s a blustery morning at the Richmond shipyards, but that hasn’t stopped a small crowd of mostly grey-haired men in black leather vests from showing up early at the gate. Across Terminal 3’s parking lot, a rust streaked castle of steel awaits them.

The Blue Knights Law Enforcement Motorcycle Club are typical USS Iowa fans. Connoisseurs of badass American-made mechanical design. To them, this 1942 feat of naval architecture is the ultimate battleship. Yet up until recently, the Iowa had been languishing in a mothball fleet thirty miles up the Sacramento River.

“I actually went up a couple of months ago, took pictures of it out in Suisun Bay -- what I could see from the road because I’m just fascinated by all the old ships sitting up there. And then when I found out they were gonna clean it up and bring it down here -- to walk onboard, its like something I never experienced,” said Denny McCue, a semi-retired printer who's become part of the large volunteer effort. “To be a part of bringing something like this back to life. When it’s fully painted in about two or three weeks, she’s gonna look awfully nice.”

In late May, the Iowa departs to Berth 87 in San Pedro, California where it will live out its final incarnation as an interactive museum.

Staring down one of the 45,000-ton warship’s nine massive 16-inch gun barrels, I try to imagine the crater the Iowa could make in the East Bay landscape behind me. Tour Manager, museum curator, and so-called “naval nerdologist,” David Way, explains that the Iowa and its three sister ships were so uniquely powerful, they inspired new terminology. They’re “superdreadnoughts,” a class of battleships that shelled Japanese factories, and through psychological presence alone helped hasten the end of WWII.

“Normally with an air attack, you would hear the planes, an air warning siren would go off, but these ships were out at sea. First thing you hear is falling shells,” said Way. “Some of the workers at the plants were not coming back for a week, they were absolutely scared to death because of the impact of being on the receiving end of these massive guns. If you’re looking off the coast, and you know those guns can reach in some twenty something miles, it gives you something to worry about. Just the fear factor is pretty credible.”

From the Japanese surrender to the Persian Gulf War, the Iowa’s elaborate history makes for a long Wikipedia entry. David Way says his cabinets are overflowing with photos and ephemera he hasn’t even gone through yet. He grapples with what to include in the museum and how to present it. Like, what note to strike with the fact that it’s the only battleship in the world that’s got a bathtub? It was installed for polio-stricken FDR before he sailed across the world to meet Churchill and Stalin at the Tehran Conference.

“Initially our staff thought this should be a real revered area. But that bubble was kinda burst with one of the crew members from the Cold War era. He was laughing and he said, well actually, every month, we would raffle off a bath in the captain’s bathtub,” said Way. “And he goes, we really didn’t care too much that it was Roosevelt’s bathtub, but it was more fitting that it was a captain’s bathtub and we were taking a bath in it. So I was like, ok, so much for that reverence.”

He says that, corny as it may sound, sharing the history of the ship feels like a holy crusade to him. And he's not alone. Four of the people currently working onboard are such devotees, they’ve decided to pick up and move down to Southern California with the ship. Mike McEnteggart is one of them.

“Well I left behind my family, my friends, even my girlfriend, just to help restore the ship again,” said McEnteggart. “I drove 3,000 miles, my truck is right over there. Talked to a lot of people, thought long and hard about and yeah, came up with the decision. I basically grew up on this ship. I served on it from November ‘85 to December ‘89.”

McEnteggart was even on the ship when it suffered a terrible turret explosion on April 19, 1989. “I was the first responder,” said McEnteggart. “Lost a lot of friends that day.”

The Turret 2 accident killed 47 crew members. At the time, the Navy explained it as a homosexual gunner’s post breakup suicide blast, but in a 60 Minutes expose, Mike Wallace uncovered information suggesting the Navy’s allegations against Clayton Hartwig were unfounded. Part of a coverup hiding the fact that the aging ship had become a known safety hazard.

Twenty years later, the battleships are long gone. They’ve been replaced by destroyers, cruisers, and aircraft carriers. And in fact, the Iowa remains the last available battleship in the world that hasn’t already been destroyed or turned into a museum. Yet the Pacific Battleship Center, the preservation team behind its comeback, has had a hard time finding it a home on the west coast. Bay Area resident Denny McCue thinks it “totally sucks” that San Francisco turned it down.

“San Francisco didn’t want it. They said they’re not a war town. So Vallejo tried to get it, it didn’t work out, the money wasn’t there,” said McCue. “They came up with the money down in Los Angeles and it’s going to be a real beautiful spot down there for it. They expect a half a million visitors a year, minimal. So you know, San Francisco doesn’t need the money. I’m sorry, I’m being cynical.”

But to David Way, who lives in Orange County, San Pedro may have been the Iowa’s destiny all along.

“Before the battle fleet moved to Pearl Harbor, the fleet used to anchor out off Long Beach in San Pedro,” said Way. “There’s a lot of famous pictures with just all these battleships, cruisers and carriers, anchored off the coastline. You know, Lexington, Saratoga, the Old West Virginia, Tennessee, California battleships… It was battleship country.”

On May 20th, the spruced up Iowa, with its polished brass, restored decks, fresh paint, and sealed Turret 2, will be escorted by FDR’s yacht, The Potomac, out of the San Francisco Bay, then tugged down the coast for its final voyage at sea. Denny McCue will be waving from the shore.

“I’ll be here when they push off and go underneath the Golden Gate. I’m sure I’ll be taking pictures like crazy,” said McCue. “It’s going to be resurrected and live who knows how many more decades. It’s 50, 60 years old now, you know? Actually it’s more, it’s 70 years old! My goodness, she looks good for 70 years old doesn’t she?

Move over Queen Mary, there’s a superdreadnought coming to town.

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