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South Jersey

Monday, March 26, 2001

`Big J's' sister battleship Iowa heads to new West Coast home

Visit these related links:
  • USS Iowa Veteran's Association - Track the ship's progress here
  • Read more than 300 USS New Jersey articles going back to 1939
    Courier-Post Staff

    The battleship USS Iowa passes through the Panama Canal this week, just as its sister ship, the USS New Jersey, did to reach Camden on its final voyage.

    The Iowa's trip could be its last, too. It is traveling in the opposite direction from the New Jersey, which traveled west-to-east from Bremerton, Wash., around North America before docking in Philadelphia in November 1999. The ship was moved last year to Camden, where it is undergoing refurbishment in preparation for its planned opening as a floating museum on Sept. 2.

    The Iowa, meanwhile, is headed from Newport, R.I., to a mothball facility in Suisun Bay near San Francisco.

    The two massive but sleek battlewagons of the Iowa class - the largest of all U.S. battleships - share many similarities.

    They are nearly identical in appearance - only their names and bow numbers are markedly different. Both served in World War II and Korea and were active during the 1980s. The Iowa, the first built of four Iowa-class ships, was constructed at the former Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York and carries the number 61 on its bow. The New Jersey, built at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, is designated No. 62.

    In January 1944 the two ships traversed the canal together as part of Battleship Division 7.

    The New Jersey is one of the most highly decorated ships in Navy history, winning more battle stars than the Iowa. The Iowa was in Tokyo Bay at the end of World War II in 1945 when the Japanese surrender was accepted aboard another of the Iowa-class ships, the USS Missouri. The New Jersey had already been ordered to head home.

    In 1989, a massive gun turret explosion on the Iowa killed 47 sailors. That damage in Gun Turret 2 has never been repaired, because the ship was decommissioned shortly after the blast as part of military downsizing. Until 1998, it was moored at the former Philadelphia yard.

    "She has a shape like a woman. She's a piece of beautiful artwork," said retired police officer John Lapotasky, 64, of Manville in Somerset County, where his computer room is filled with photographs of the ship on which he served in 1955.

    Lapotasky said he favors a plan to eventually transform the Iowa into a museum near Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco because it's a beautiful spot in one of the world' s most visited cities.

    As for its other sister ships, the Missouri already is a museum in Hawaii, and the USS Wisconsin is to open to visitors for limited tours in June in Norfolk, Va.

    Crowley Marine Services of Seattle will tow the Iowa to California, just as it towed the New Jersey. But the Navy is paying to move the Iowa, while the state of New Jersey had to spend about $2 million to bring the New Jersey to its namesake state.

    The difference is that the Iowa is still in the Navy's inactive reserve fleet, while the New Jersey was removed from the fleet and donated as a museum to the Home Port Alliance, the nonprofit organization directing the renovation project.

    Congress made a special $3 million appropriation so the Navy could tow the Iowa to California, said Navy spokeswoman Rita Wilks. A California nonprofit group, Historic Ships at Memorial Square, hopes to turn it into a museum some day in San Francisco Bay.

    "However, that is impossible right now because Congress also has mandated the Navy keep two battleships in reserve as mobilization assets, and one of them is the Iowa," Wilks said.

    The second is the Wisconsin.

    As Navy assets in the inactive reserve fleet, the Iowa or Wisconsin could be mobilized for future duty. The Navy, however, has no plans to do so.

    The commandant of the Marine Corps and groups such as the U.S. Naval Fire Support Association believe there should be an active battleship because the firepower of its nine 16-inch guns - the largest naval guns in the world - are not duplicated by missiles or other weaponry, and are especially useful for protection of Marine invasion forces.

    The trip of the 887-foot Iowa through the Panama Canal's locks, with only inches to spare on either side, is expected to take three days because the ship is without power. Its arrival in Suisun Bay is scheduled for April 19 - coincidentally the anniversary of the turret explosion.

    John Schultz of Virginia Beach, Va., a former Iowa radioman and president of the 4,000-member Veterans Association of the USS Iowa, helped set up a Web site to follow the ship's progress.

    "The Navy is graciously moving the ship to San Francisco," said Schultz, 36. "The East Coast has a battleship glut and there is no place for her there. San Francisco wants her and the Navy will put here there. What a bonus!"

    When it arrives in California, the Iowa will not be open to visitors.

    "We will only be able to drive by her and look," Schultz said, "but we will wait and hope the Navy donates her before all her World War II crew members are gone."

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