Battleship Down

The USS Iowa was once considered a lock as a San Francisco tourist attraction. So why is the historic warship rusting in Suisun Bay?

The USS Iowa, the last great battleship from World War II to be mothballed by the Navy, holds a special place in military lore.

It helped the U.S. military win in the Pacific after the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor in December 1941. It was the ship on which President Franklin D. Roosevelt sailed to Africa in 1943 en route to back-to-back summits with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin in Tehran, and Churchill and Chiang Kai-shek in Cairo. And it was anchored in Tokyo Harbor the day the Japanese surrendered, ending the war.

But five years after being towed to the West Coast under the presumption that it would someday become a floating museum, the battleship that was once the pride of the American fleet sits rusting in Suisun Bay, 30 miles east of San Francisco. Its paint is peeling, its canvas and ropes are ragged, and its once-glimmering teakwood deck is all but rotted.

The Iowa’s once-gleaming teakwood deck is largely rotted.
Kit Bonner
The Iowa’s once-gleaming teakwood deck is largely rotted.
The USS Iowa, nearly three football fields long, is among World War II’s most decorated ships.
Kit Bonner
The USS Iowa, nearly three football fields long, is among World War II’s most decorated ships.

"It's an absolute travesty what's been allowed to happen to that ship," says Larry Seaquist, a Washington state legislator and one of the Iowa's last commanding officers before the ship was removed from active service in 1990. "To see a significant historic vessel like that languish in such a condition is a national disgrace."

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In 2000, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein and others of the state's congressional delegation acted to ensure that the Iowa be brought to California from New England via the Panama Canal, the idea was that the ship — the only one of World War II's four great battleships not already a museum — would become a San Francisco tourist attraction.

But that was before S.F.'s Board of Supervisors, citing opposition to the Iraq War and the military's "Don't ask, don't tell" policy toward gays, yanked the welcome mat from the iconic vessel in 2005, opposing a plan to bring it here.

The supervisors' vote to reject the Iowa appeared to close the book on a decade's worth of effort to find safe harbor in the Bay Area for one of America's most heralded warships.

Instead, it was only the turn of a page.

Indeed, the Iowais more than a lightning rod for anti-war sentiment in the city once considered the favorite to be its final destination. Its supporters say it has also fallen victim to military neglect, political wrangling, and ineffectual (if well-meaning) private-sector efforts to provide it the place of honor it deserves.

Even before the San Francisco snub, the ship was the focus of intrigue involving then-Congressman Richard Pombo (R-Tracy), who single-handedly tried to award it to the city of Stockton by means of one sentence inserted into a defense spending bill, an effort that Feinstein short-circuited.

Since then, a simmering competition has heated up between rival nonprofit groups vying to get their hands on the Iowafor use as a waterborne memorial and museum.

"The question is whether any of them have the resources it will take to restore the ship and make a go of it," says Jerry Gneckow, who heads a 3,000-member USS Iowa veterans' group with a keen interest in seeing the ship brought out of mothballs. He isn't optimistic.

The most prominent group, headed by former banker Merylin Wong and her husband, Bill Stephens (whose proposal the supervisors rejected), has given up on San Francisco and is pushing to anchor the battleship at the former Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo. The city of Stockton remains in the hunt on behalf of its San Joaquin River port, despite losing an influential backer in Pombo, who was defeated in November. And a little-known entity headed by Navy veteran Sergio Morariu, once allied with Wong and Stephens, is promoting a long-shot plan to moor the ship at Pier 48 next to AT&T Park.

A Navy spokeswoman declined to discuss the proposals, saying only that the service is expected to decide which, if any, of them it favors sometime this year.

But as the namesake of the so-called Iowa-class of battleships — known by the wartime nickname "the Big Stick" for its massive 48,000-ton size and giant guns — languishes in ill repair and its would-be saviors struggle to raise money, some of its staunchest supporters have turned pessimistic. "I hate to say it, but I think the odds are better than even that it will wind up as a fishing reef," says naval historian Kit Bonner. "And if it happens, it'll be a humiliation for everyone."


A chamber ensemble has finished playing, guests have taken their cocktails to their seats, and all ears are turned to Merylin Wong as she settles behind a microphone at the Vallejo Naval & Historical Museum. The evening's event, a reception to match the battleship's supporters with community leaders, has attracted about 60 people, including the mayors of Vallejo and neighboring San Pablo, along with half a dozen former Iowa crew members.

Wong begins by reading a proclamation of support from outgoing Iowa Gov. and presidential hopeful Tom Vilsack, who from afar has proclaimed this "USS Iowa Day."

The affair, taking place two nights before New Year's Eve 2006, has the air of a pep rally, and Wong is the lead cheerleader. Although she has little to report with respect to the Navy's deliberations on the future of the ship, she is chipper and upbeat, putting a triumphant spin on even morsels of non-news. "There's nothing in the Navy's preliminary response to our application that tells us the ship can't come here," she declares.

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