“The Battleship Of Presidents”
My dad was a naval officer who served in World War II on Guadalcanal, so the Navy (and especially naval vessels) have always held a special interest for me. Tracy and I toured the USS Midway in San Diego about four years ago (we finally got Tracy and Mary out of the brig), and in the past year we’ve had a couple of opportunities to go aboard one of the greatest battleships that has ever sailed the seas.
On a recent Sunday morning (April 19th…the date is important), Tracy and I put on our sea legs and served our second tour of duty aboard one of the most important ships in American naval history…the Battleship IOWA. This ship has served in numerous world conflicts and it’s been a floating museum in San Pedro since 2012. To get in the mood, I started the day with a navel orange, which got me in ship-shape condition.
Built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the USS IOWA (nicknamed “The Big Stick”) joined the Atlantic Fleet in 1943 and was the lead ship of her class of battleship. You’ll see later why she was also nicknamed, “The Battleship Of Presidents.”
We purchased our tickets online (slight discount for buying online…and even a further senior discount for old geezers like me…62 and older) and arrived at the ship shortly after it opened at 10:00 a.m. Before boarding, we were afforded the opportunity to have our photo taken in front of a green screen. It’s here where one can display their finest acting talents.
… we channeled our inner Kevin Spacey and Meryl Streep, covered our ears with our hands and brandished a look of fear on our faces that were definitely Academy award-worthy. Sure it’s cheesy, but we bought the pictures at the end.
As you board the IOWA, there are veteran docents (or should that be docent veterans) who explain the route to take on the self-guided tour. Our vet informed us there would be other vets who, at various venues, would explain more about the ship and its history.
On our most recent visit, as we listened to the naval veteran explain the ship’s history, we looked up and saw what looked like the end of a formal and somber ceremony (that’s why April 19th is an important date).
The most important detail we heard was that there were lots of stairs…and they were very steep. Believe me, they’re not kidding. Watch your step!!!
On our first tour last year, we were led to a room where docents explained the history of the IOWA. This area provided a couple of interesting tidbits.
It just so happens that Vicky (nickname for its real name, Victory) was the pet of Captain John L. McCrae during World War II. The captain’s wife didn’t like Vicky too much, so the pooch became part of the IOWA “crew.”
According to the IOWA website, “The dog quickly won the hearts of the 2700 officers and sailors. He (yes, a boy name Vicky) was outfitted with a special sailors suit and even swam in a 50-yard qualifying test with other sailors.” I’m sure he dog-paddled.
Also from the USS IOWA website, “In November of 1943, the Iowa received the Top Secret mission of transporting President (Franklin) Roosevelt across the Atlantic to the Tehran Conference. Roosevelt’s party included the Joint Chiefs of Staff along with their aides as well as his own presidential staff.
“Roosevelt was no sooner transferred aboard from the presidential yacht Potomac than he noticed a small dog running around. FDR asked his friend, and former Naval Aide, John McCrea where the dog slept. Captain McCrea replied that the dog normally slept at the foot of his bunk and, since the President would have the Captain’s Cabin, he would take the dog up to the Captain’s Sea Cabin by the bridge. Roosevelt, probably missing his little dog Fala, said, “Well John, I see no reason to disrupt this little dogs routine.”
So Vicky slept at the foot of the President’s bed in the Captain’s Cabin during Roosevelt’s 15-day stay on board the IOWA.
Also located in this room, we saw a reproduction of the poker table of President Harry S. Truman. I was going to ask why his poker table was here, but the room was crowded (I’m telling you straight…it was a full house).
On our second visit, the room was unavailable due to the ceremony I wrote about at the beginning of this report. April 19th turned out to be the anniversary of a tragic event that occurred aboard the Battleship IOWA.
Stepping back on deck, we saw a wreath and the reason behind the ceremony. On April 19, 1989, the IOWA was conducting peacetime drills near the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico, when, while preparing to fire Turret 2, an explosion in the center gun room killed 47 crewmen aboard (picture above was taken by a crewman on that fateful day).
There is a plaque commemorating all those who perished that day.
Before entering the Captain’s Quarters, a docent gave us all a quiz regarding famous naval Admirals. When asked about Admiral Halsey, I gave him no “Bull” with my answer.
Now it was time to enter the Captains Quarters where FDR held meetings with high rankings admirals and generals on the way to the Cairo Conference and the Tehran Conference in November and December of 1943.
You’ll remember that Captain McCrae offered his quarters to Roosevelt when he was on board.
… and the famous FDR bathtub.” Because of his polio, Roosevelt was unable to take showers, so the tub was custom built for his time on board. It was like stepping back in history (even my photo came out in black and white).
Tracy and I traversed the narrow hallways…carefully!
…took a look at the galley…
Up the stairs to the next level we climbed…even more carefully.
I quickly realized this ship was a danger if you’re on blood thinners like me.
…while Tracy signaled an SOS that she was touring the vessel with an “idiot.”
Both days we visited, the weather was perfect.
The Battleship IOWA proudly displays its colorful service ribbons. From the IOWA website, “Ships are awarded ribbons and medals just like sailors. When a ship earns a ribbon, all the sailors serving aboard at the time are also awarded that ribbon. The ship’s ribbons are worn on the outside of her bridge wings. The USS IOWA earned 14 different ribbons over her nearly 50 years of service.”
Soon, Tracy eased her way into the Chief Of Staff’s chair (that’s one big chair)…
…while I stood by to see a Time Magazine cover of Admiral “Bull” Halsey on the Level Flag Bridge.
…by a door that weighed 2 tons and walls that were 17 inches thick. Even though we were in a tower of the same name,I don’t think he was conning us.
Of course, it has been equipped with new weaponry like cruise and Tomahawk missiles and updated missile defense systems for those conflicts.
Be especially careful of the lips before the steps…that first step could be a doozy…and your last.
We finally saw where the crew slept…not quite as cushy as the executive officer’s quarters.
Heading back down more stairs, we walked through the crew’s eating quarters, saw a movie about the IOWA class battleships…
Besides Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan (who boarded for the celebration of the restoration and centenary of the Statue Of Liberty in 1986) and George H.W. Bush (who was there for the memorial service for those killed in that freak explosion) have also been guests aboard the IOWA. Reagan came with wife Nancy, which is why the ship has a woman’s restroom (true story).
In 1923, the USS Mississippi also had a tragic accident when 48 crewmen were asphyxiated as a result of an explosion in her Number Two main battery turret (an eerily similar number of casualties as the IOWA sustained…the accident happened off the coast near San Pedro). There is also a plaque commemorating those that lost their lives on the Mississippi.
They were announced over the loud speaker, each mentioned with their time served in the military. Two of them had served aboard the Iowa (one in 1956 and the other from 1988-89).
There’s also an extensive gift shop, and, yes, a place to buy those crazy pictures that they took of us before we boarded.
Battleship USS IOWA Museum
250 South Harbor Blvd. • Berth 87
San Pedro, CA 90731 • Phone: 877.446.9261
Hours: 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. • Ticket Prices: Age 12 – 61 ($18…Online $15) Seniors 62 & Older, kids 6 – 11 & Military with ID ($15…Online $13) • Kids under five (Free)
Parking Lot: Forts Ho is Free…$2 each subsequent hour
Directions From South (San Diego) – Take the 5 freeway north to 405 north. Take exit 37 to merge onto I-110 S toward San Pedro. Take exit 1A to merge onto CA-47 N toward Vincent Thomas Bridge/Terminal Island/Long Beach Take the South Harbor Blvd exit continue on S. Harbor Blvd. Proceed to the Battleship parking lot
Directions From Northern (LA) – 405 south to exit 37 to merge onto I-110 South toward San Pedro. Take exit 1A to merge onto CA-47 N toward Vincent Thomas Bridge/Terminal Island/Long Beach. Take the South Harbor Blvd exit continue on S. Harbor Blvd.
Proceed to the Battleship parking lot