USS Iowa, Any Takers?

Will $250,000 hole in the water stay afloat or be scrapped for target practice?

The competition to land the USS Iowa — the World War II battleship that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors famously rejected as a tourist attraction in 2005 — is now a one-horse race.

A little-known San Francisco entity that had pushed to moor the Iowa at Pier 48 near AT&T Park has dropped its long-shot bid for lack of money, says Sergio Morariu, the Navy veteran who was heading the effort. And a bid by the city of Stockton, which once appeared to have the inside track to claim the ship for its San Joaquin River port, has fizzled after the Port of Stockton reneged on an offer to moor it.

That leaves the Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square, a nonprofit group that has sought to obtain the Iowa as a floating museum for more than a decade, as the only player still standing in the competition. At one time, the group wanted to dock the Iowa at San Francisco's port, but supervisors rejected the proposal, citing opposition to the Iraq war and the military's don't-ask-don't-tell policy toward gays. (That standoff, of course, resulted in Supe Gerardo Sandoval going on Hannity & Colmes and declaring, "I don't think we should have a military. Absolutely.") Now, Historic Ships wants to put the Iowa at the former Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo.

"We've given it our best shot, and we're just waiting now for a declaration from the Navy," says Marilyn Wong, who with her husband, Bill Stephens, heads the Historic Ships group.

Yet the future of the battleship that ferried President Franklin D. Roosevelt to historic peace talks in Cairo and Tehran and was present in Tokyo Harbor for the Japanese surrender to end World War II remains no more certain than it did 10 months ago when the Navy set a deadline for entertaining donation bids.

The Iowa, nicknamed the "Big Stick" for its 48,000-ton weight and massive guns, has been rusting away in a Suisun Bay mothball fleet near Benicia for five years, while the Navy spends $250,000 annually to keep it minimally maintained.

"Now that there is just one bidder, and that bidder is the Vallejo group [Historic Ships], I think the Navy is in a real quandary," says Jim Dodge, a former commander of the now-shuttered Alameda Naval Air Station who helped lead the Stockton effort.

He and others are skeptical of Vallejo's prospects for obtaining the ship, citing the likely environmental concerns that dredging a 3-mile channel from the Carquinez Strait to the former shipyard would entail. The channel, whose sediments contain arsenic, mercury, and other pollutants, hasn't been disturbed since the Navy pulled up stakes on Mare Island 11 years ago.

"I just think environmentalists will have a field day if and when they get to the point where it looks like something might happen over there," Dodge says.

Indeed, Morariu, who heads the nascent San Francisco Naval Museum, which had pushed the Pier 48 idea, says the group doesn't plan to go away and hopes to get another crack at procuring the Iowa should the Navy, as he predicts, reject the Vallejo proposal and reopen bidding. Other ship supporters have expressed concern that if unable to find a suitable owner, the Navy may elect to sink the Iowa or use it for target practice.

 
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