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?

"I really don't see the Navy donating it, based on the proposals on the table," says a well-placed source who maintains close contact with Navy officials. Others express a similar view. Fretting that the Iowa could be sunk to form a reef, Bonner, the historian, notes that the Navy is spending half a million dollars a year on it, mostly on electricity to keep its interior humidity controlled. "If no one comes up with the funds necessary to make it work as a museum, the Navy probably doesn't have a choice."

Floating at the end of a row of dormant ships, the Iowa is hidden in plain view at the National Defense Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay at Benicia.

Administered by the U.S. Maritime Administration, the facility is where surplus military vessels — currently more than 70 — have been mothballed since the end of World War II. Although some have been set aside for use during a national emergency, for most of the ships brought there, Suisun Bay represents the next-to-last stop before being sold for scrap, hauled to sea for use as target practice, or sunk as a fishing reef.

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.

The ghostly vessels clustered along the shore to the east of the Benicia Bridge provide a haunting — if fleeting — view for motorists whizzing along I-680. Buffered by marshland, the facility is inaccessible to the public, by design. A narrow road that nears the moored ships and a Maritime Administration office is off-limits. By federal edict, even sightseeing boats aren't allowed within 500 feet of the fleet.

The "Forgotten Fleet," as it's sometimes called, has long included the legendary and the obscure. The Glomar Explorer, a spy ship developed for the CIA by the late Howard Hughes in the 1970s, spent years at Suisun Bay before an oil exploration company bought it for use in the Gulf of Mexico. The USS Hoga, a rescue tug used after the attack at Pearl Harbor (and later an Oakland fireboat), was until recently in the fleet. It was donated to an Arkansas maritime museum.

But few vessels there can hold a historical candle to the Iowa. Accommodating a wartime crew of 3,000 men, the Iowa is nearly the length of three football fields. Its 16 mm guns, nine each clustered on three turrets, could lob 2,700-pound projectiles a distance of 23 miles. (An explosion in one of the turrets during a 1989 training exercise off Puerto Rico claimed the lives of 47 sailors and resulted in a black eye for the Navy. Investigators at first blamed the tragedy on an alleged homosexual love affair gone awry, a finding the Navy later retracted and apologized for.)

Supporters say it's inexcusable that the ship that famously carried President Roosevelt to and from Casablanca en route to the Tehran and Cairo conferences is not a museum like the other three Iowa-class battleships. Owing to that voyage, the Iowa was the only ship in the Navy ever equipped with a bathtub — an accommodation to Roosevelt. The tub, along with the special suite of quarters designed for the president and his Secret Service entourage, remains intact.

Yet, considering the ship's poor external condition, some supporters say it's probably just as well that few people get a good look at the ship where it's anchored.

"If the Iowa were at a place where people could really see it, and see the condition it's in, it would be regarded as a national disgrace and a source of great embarrassment to the Navy," says historian Bonner, who's written a book about the ship scheduled for publication later this year.

Although the interior has been kept sealed and dehumidified and is in generally good shape, the exterior is worsening by the day, he and others say. Its wooden deck, likely a total loss, could cost up to $5 million to replace, knowledgeable sources say. Indeed, sources say there has been little exterior maintenance since the spring of last year, when the Navy placed the Iowaon "donation hold" status, no longer keeping it ready for emergency use.

After that designation, the company hired to paint and replace damaged sections of the deck was told its job was done, even though, observers say, there's little likelihood that the Navy will donate the ship to anyone anytime soon. "Upkeep on a ship like the Iowa is a never-ending job," says Gary Whitney, whose company had been in charge of the work. "When its status changed, [the Navy] more or less told us to go home."

Like football coaches on a recruiting mission, each of the entities seeking control of the ship sends representatives to wherever the USS Iowa veterans' group holds its annual reunions.

"We really don't have a say in what the Navy does, but the groups wanting the ship evidently feel it's important to get our blessing," says Gneckow, who was the Iowa's first commander after President Ronald Reagan recommissioned the ship in 1984 as part of a naval expansion.

"A lot of our guys, especially the older ones from the World War II era, just want the chance to get aboard one more time," he says. "It's killing them to see the ship rust away like that."

Seaquist, who succeeded Gneckow as Iowa's skipper, agrees.

He last saw the Big Stick a couple of years ago, from an airliner on approach to the Oakland airport. "A mothball fleet is no place for the Iowa to be," he says. "Even from 15,000 feet, she looked pretty sad."

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