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.
Aerial view of the ship firing its guns during a training exercise.
Aerial view of the ship firing its guns during a training exercise.
The Iowa was towed into Suisan Bay in 2001.
Kit Bonner
The Iowa was towed into Suisan Bay in 2001.
The Iowa’s 16 mm guns were capable of lobbing 2,700-pound projectiles 23 miles.
The Iowa’s 16 mm guns were capable of lobbing 2,700-pound projectiles 23 miles.
The Iowa at the end of a row of surplus ships at the National Defense Reserve Fleet in Benicia.
The Iowa at the end of a row of surplus ships at the National Defense Reserve Fleet in Benicia.

"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.

Stephens, her husband and a financial analyst at the Federal Reserve Bank in San Francisco, is no less enthusiastic. After screening a 13-minute film touting the couple's vision for the ship, he confidently allows as how the Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square, the nonprofit entity he and his wife control, could take possession of the Iowa by January 2009, "and even earlier if certain things work out."

Stephens predicts that the ship will draw 400,000 tourists a year to Mare Island, and could attract 700,000 once Vallejo's long-range plans with Lennar Corp. to redevelop the abandoned shipyard as a commercial and residential hub take root. "That ship is worth its weight in gold," he says.

It's a view that isn't universally shared.

Of the other three Iowa-class battleships the Navy has donated to private entities, only the USS Missouri, docked near the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, is doing well. The USS New Jersey, which has been berthed at Camden, N.J., across the river from Philadelphia, since 2001, has struggled to draw visitors. And the USS Wisconsin, anchored at Norfolk, Va., is barely holding its own as an attraction.

"Experience suggests that military ships, as wonderful as they are, don't draw huge numbers of people unless they're located at the heart of a tourist destination — like San Francisco," says Scott McGaugh, marketing director at the highly successful San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum, home to the USS Midway.

Bob Fish, a trustee at the USS Hornet Museum at the former Alameda Naval Air Station, agrees. "Do I think enough people will drive out of their way to see the Iowa if it were in, say, Vallejo, or Stockton, to make it viable? I don't think so, and I don't know any knowledgeable person who does," he says. "The only logical place to put the Iowa is San Francisco, and, unfortunately, the city didn't appear to have a lot of enthusiasm for it."

He offers the Hornet as Exhibit A.

Opened amid much fanfare several years ago, the retired aircraft carrier (onto which Neil Armstrong and the other Apollo 11 astronauts were plucked from the South Pacific upon returning from the moon) has struggled as a museum. Attracting only about 145,000 visitors per year, the Hornet is nearly $2 million in debt, although officials say its finances improved a year ago after the city of Alameda agreed to renegotiate the ship's lease.

Still, Wong and Stephens express confidence that they've found the perfect home for the Iowa in Vallejo, insisting that their own feasibility studies show that the ship will do well there. They talk confidently about raising the $15 million to $18 million that they say it will take to tow the Iowa the 11 miles from Suisun Bay, dredge the channel where they want it to be berthed, and make the repairs needed to jump-start it as an attraction, all prerequisites to receiving Navy approval. (Vallejo has offered tactical support, but no financial help.)

But as with the other entities competing for the ship, the couple's nonprofit group doesn't pretend to have the money it needs, leaving some veteran observers of the Navy's Sea Systems Command, which oversees the ship donation program, skeptical that the Iowa will ever escape mothball status.

"They would probably need $12 million in the bank or pledged before the Navy would even look at them," says Gary Whitney, whose company, Petaluma-based Marine Survey and Management, has helped maintain several mothballed naval ships, including the Iowa, over the years. "These groups all have wonderful ideas. The problem is that they don't have any money."

Wong, who quit her job in banking several years ago to devote her time to the effort, and Stephens, a former merchant mariner with a longtime love for ships, have been trying to procure the Iowa for 10 years. Before that, they headed one of two groups that tried to bring the USS Missouri to San Francisco before the Navy chose Hawaii.

They were key players in the controversial 2005 saga in which the supervisors voted 8-3 against a resolution supporting moving the Iowa here as a museum. That vote attracted national attention, and garnered publicity — much of it unflattering — for San Francisco as a hostile environment for the military. The perception was reinforced after Supervisor Gerardo Sandoval appeared on a Fox News program and declared, repeatedly, to the amazed host, Sean Hannity, that the United States didn't need a military.

"San Francisco just wasn't meant to be," Wong says, reflecting on the experience. "In hindsight, we realize that we were spinning our wheels in a place that didn't want us."

But others say there was more to the city's rejection of the Iowa than meets the eye.

After the supervisors' vote, an advocacy group for gays in the military approached Wong and Stephens with the idea of including a diversity museum in connection with the Iowa exhibit to tell the story of minorities, women, gays, and lesbians in the military. Jim Maloney, executive director of the Military Equality Alliance, says his group was on the verge of winning support from a majority of supervisors for a second resolution supportive of the Iowa.

Instead, he says, "Merylin and Bill sort of inexplicably decided that they'd had enough and walked away [from San Francisco]."

Wong made the exit in a theatrical fashion at a meeting of the San Francisco Port Commission last March. In a stunning turn, she announced that she was terminating her efforts to win the commission's approval for her plans, after more than a dozen members of her own organization succeeded in persuading the commissioners to give the group a 90-day extension for considering the plans.

"We were all flabbergasted," says Ray Guiducci, a former Wong ally who was among those who spoke on behalf of the extension, and who is now part of Morariu's effort pushing Pier 48. He says that the couple's withdrawal "came totally out of left field," inasmuch as Wong and Stephens, along with several others of their group, had spent four hours at a restaurant the night before "carefully going over our presentation and strategizing how we were going to keep [the proposal] alive."

Even commissioners were stunned.

"I just thought it was bizarre," recalls commission president Ann Lazarus, who says the group's main problem was that it "never presented an adequate financial plan to demonstrate that it had a proposal with substance."

Morariu, who had worked with Wong and Stephens for more than a year, says he felt "kicked in the stomach" when the couple pulled the plug on the San Francisco effort. And he felt "even worse" after later discovering that, while ostensibly attempting to turn things around in San Francisco, the couple had been talking privately with Vallejo officials about Mare Island.

Morariu's entity, known as the San Francisco Naval Heritage Museum, also has little money. But unlike its competitors, it has no Web site, has sought no publicity, and expresses no expectation that, even if it had San Francisco's blessing, the Navy would respond favorably to its idea to park the Iowa at Pier 48.

"Our aim is simply to get a foot in the door in the event that the Navy says no to everyone this round. We'd like to be part of the game in the future," says the Fremont firefighter and Navy veteran, who served on the USS New Jerseyin the 1980s.

His split with Wong and Stephens was less than amicable.

Wong accused Morariu of making off with proprietary information and briefly threatened to sue. Morariu scrambled to meet the Navy's application deadline. In the process, his group ruffled feathers at the USS Hornet Museum by drafting a proposal, which it subsequently had to replace, implying that the Hornet Museum was ready to throw in with the Iowa if the Navy were to endorse Pier 48.

"There were no hard feelings," says Bob Fish, the Hornet trustee. "We'd actually love to be part of a maritime museum with the Iowa in San Francisco, but, as you could understand, it was never our intention to be part of someone else's bid."

While Morariu's group has had trouble getting off the ground, the city of Stockton's effort appears to have taken a spectacular nosedive.

With Pombo's backing, the Stockton bid was timed to take advantage of the resistance Wong and Stephens were having in San Francisco. Looking for a chance to jump-start development of a former naval facility at Rough and Ready Island in the San Joaquin River, near its downtown, Stockton port officials made a generous offer. The port would make available a pier, an adjacent 15,000-square-foot building for use as a visitor center, and enough parking to accommodate thousands of cars.

The sponsoring group, the Battleship Iowa Museum & Memorial Foundation — headed by Jim Dodge, the last commanding officer at the closed naval air station in Alameda — heralded the "gift" as worth $33 million. Sponsors confidently predicted that if the city were willing to kick in another $10.9 million to tow the ship from Suisun Bay and prepare it as a museum, the Iowa could be theirs.

But Pombo's attempt at legislative fiat to circumvent the Navy's role in deciding the ship's fate rankled the Navy and influential members of California's congressional delegation. Sens. Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, as well as incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, had been instrumental in appropriating more than $3 million to have the Iowa towed to California in 2001, at a time when it was widely expected that the ship would end up in San Francisco.

Having the Iowa brought to the West Coast from Rhode Island was part of an elaborate battleship swap that Feinstein and others helped engineer, after former Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-South Carolina) exerted political muscle to get the Iowa's mothballed sister ship, the New Jersey, relocated from Bremerton, Wash., to the East Coast.

In late 2005, Feinstein interceded to ensure that the Pombo move went nowhere.

Last September, the Stockton effort suffered a critical blow. That's when a consulting firm commissioned by the City Council concluded that the price tag for turning the ship into a museum would be $38 million — not the $10.9 million that the ship's backers had earlier estimated. Elected officials have since backed away from subsidizing the project.

All of which has fueled speculation that, despite the Navy's presumed preference for seeing the battleship become a museum, military brass may face some unpleasant alternatives.

"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 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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