Visiting the USS Iowa Battleship Museum

In late August 2022, I took a short trip down to Los Angeles to do some sightseeing. One of the places on my itinerary was the battleship USS Iowa. Since I took a good number of photos (on my phone), I figure it would be nice to share them with you. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I didn’t get any video. The purpose of this post isn’t to give a detailed history or technical breakdown of the ship (there are plenty of books that do that already), but rather, to simply offer my thoughts on my visit to this museum ship.

This wasn’t the first naval museum I’ve been to, nor was it the first battleship I’ve visited (that would be the pre-dreadnought battleship Mikasa in Yokosuka, Japan in 2015. However, that ship is landlocked in concrete and not afloat. Not to mention that the interior is converted to a museum). It’s also not the first museum I’ve been to which features a battleship since I visited the Yamato Museum in Kure, Japan in the Spring of 2015 (I don’t count that as a battleship because the main exhibit is really just a big model.) That being said, this was the first Iowa-class battleship I’ve visited despite the fact that I lived in Honolulu, Hawaii for a year (in addition to my many vacations there), and I never got around to seeing Pearl Harbor, the USS Arizona memorial, or the USS Missouri! So this was something very new to me. It was a very unique experience to step aboard a capital ship that’s still afloat.

The Iowa-class battleships are very unique because they saw service in several different conflicts during several different eras. In Iowa’s case, she saw service in WWII, Korea, and Operation Earnest Will, in addition to various cruises and exercises. As with other ships of the class, she went through a number of refits that modified and upgraded some of her sensors and weapons throughout her years of service. She was decommissioned for a final time on 26 October 1990 and eventually moved to the Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay, California where she stayed until November 2011. (She was struck from the Naval Vessel Register in March 2006.) Eventually, after a bidding process, the ship was donated to the Pacific Battleship Center to be turned into a museum and moored in Berth 87 in the Port of Los Angeles. She was officially opened to the public on 7 July 2012.

Every museum has a certain “interpretation” for its exhibits. In the case of museum ships, their existing configuration is often how they’re interpreted. Accordingly, the USS Iowa is interpreted in her 1980s configuration. That is: she still displays her upgraded weapons and sensors, such as the armored box launchers for the Tomahawk cruise missiles, Harpoon anti-ship missile launchers, and her 20mm Phalanx CIWS mounts.

With that said, I’ll share some of the photos I took and comment on them.

Note: Each photo is assigned a number with the corresponding comments below. I’m not trying to be super detailed with the comments, so some of the information may be inaccurate or vague. Feel free to respectfully correct me in the comments and I will make the appropriate corrections to the post. Also, remember that there are four ships in this class and they all have subtle differences; what holds true for the USS Iowa may be slightly different for the other ships in the class.

The Guns

  1. View of the #3 turret and the aft fire control tower.
  2. Yours truly in front of the #1 turret. This gives you a good idea of the size of the 16″ guns (compared to a person) and a nice view of the wooden tampion (barrel plug).
  3. A display of part of a gun barrel and its rifling. (The image behind it is a poster, but it’s just a short length of barrel.)
  4. A view of the #2 turret from behind. Taken from the 03 level (just outside the flag bridge) looking forward.
  5. Another view of the side of the #2 turret and the forward superstructure.

Commentary

Unfortunately, the self-guided tour route doesn’t take you inside any of the turrets or the barbettes. Also, remember that Iowa‘s turret #2 suffered an explosion in her center gun during a gunfire exercise in 1989 that killed all 47 men inside the turret. The resulting investigation by the U.S. Navy initially pointed to a theory of a suicidal sailor and sabotage, but further investigations from the Government Accountability Office and Sandia National Labs ultimately concluded that the powder bags they were using were old and had degraded. An overram of the bags caused the powder to compress and ignite. Turret #2 was subsequently sealed up.

It’s hard to appreciate the size of these guns and the turrets from the photos alone. Me standing next to the muzzle of one of these guns (image #2) gives you some idea of how big they are because I can fit my head inside the barrel with room to spare!

Then, of course, there’s the video of USS New Jersey‘s curator, Ryan Szimanski, literally crawling through a 16″ gun barrel. He has to contort himself a bit, though. It’s a tight fit.

Additionally, it’s worth remembering that these guns still use their original analog electro-mechanical fire control computers.

According to this video from the USS New Jersey, the Navy did experiment with replacing the old analog fire control computers with digital ones, and while they certainly could have, they were found to be no better than the analog ones (if it works…it works). Had the Navy developed longer-ranged 16″ projectiles that could hit targets at greater than 20 miles away, then more modern digital fire control computers would’ve been needed. I suspect that the old analog computers are also really rugged and sturdy. For comparison, I’ve seen the digital fire control computer on a 378′ Hamilton-class Coast Guard cutter. This box of microchips is older than me, but you can pound on the thing and it’ll run. In the end, it only needs to do one thing, which is to compute a fire control solution, so there’s little reason to replace it as long as it does its job.

I believe the addition of more modern fire control radars only improved the accuracy of the guns on these battleships. I’ve read that in 1945, fast battleships like the USS North Carolina could perform high-speed, back-to-back 450-degree turns, followed by back-to-back 100-degree turns, and still maintain a solid fire control solution.1 So when people say that the U.S. Navy had the best fire control of any navy in WWII, that’s probably true and not a blindly patriotic exaggeration.

1. W.J. Jurens, “The Evolution of Battleship Gunnery in the U.S. Navy, 1920-1945,” Warship International, no. 3 (1991): 255.

Shell Displays

  1. A Mark 8 Armor Piercing (AP) shell. (The gear used to strike it below into the magazine can also be seen attached to it.)
  2. Display of a blue Target Round with dummy powder bags lined up behind it. (Anything colored blue usually indicates a training version.) I believe Target Rounds can actually be fired from the guns, but they contain no explosives and are inert.
  3. (Same as above from a different angle.)
  4. Close-up of the Target Round. BL&P stands for “Blind Loaded and Plugged.” (I haven’t found anything to indicate what a Mk 141 Mod 0 shell is supposed to be. However, Mk 141 is the designation of the Harpoon missile launcher. The shell’s weight of 1,903 pounds would seem to indicate that it’s simulating a High Capacity (high explosive) shell.)

Commentary

Just as well, the pictures don’t do the size of the shells justice. For some perspective, that Mark 8 Armor Piercing shell (image #6) weighs 2,700 pounds and is 72 inches (182.9 cm) tall. I’m 5 feet 6 inches (167 cm) tall. That shell is taller than me! For further comparison, the curb weight of a 2020 Honda Civic is about 2,762 pounds. 16″ AP shells weigh 2,700 pounds and High Capacity shells only weigh 1,900 pounds, but they make a far bigger boom!

Effectively, this battleship is firing man-sized Honda Civics at you! Have a nice day.

Other Weapons

  1. Some of the secondary 5″/38 guns. (Specifically, these are the armored Mark 28 mod 2 twin enclosed base ring mounts.)
  2. View of the Mount 56 (one of the 5″ gun mounts) upper handling room. This mechanism is the lower end of the powder and projectile hoist. (The cylinders stacked up on the far side of the room are powder canisters, I believe.) Beneath this room is the lower handling room and magazines; above it is the gunhouse. Up to 27 men would be in the gunhouse above and in this upper handling room.
  3. One of the open Mark 143 Armored Box Launchers for the BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
  4. Some of the Mark 36 Super Rapid Bloom Off-board Chaff (SRBOC) launchers. They’re not loaded, but these would fire chaff and flare decoys in the event of an anti-ship missile attack.
  5. One of the four Mark 15 20mm Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS) mounts.
  6. The gun barrels of the CIWS mount.

Commentary

The 5″ secondary batteries were certainly nothing to scoff at. These guns (in various mountings) were prolific and used up to the 1980s. Combined with the VT (Variable Time proximity) fuze, they were deadly against aircraft in WWII and constituted some of the best dual-purpose AA guns of any navy during the war. As built, there were 10 of these mounts (20 guns total) on the Iowa-class battleships, but 4 mounts were removed during their 1980s refit to accommodate the missile armament. Regarding image #11, it’s very interesting to see inside the handling room and look at the actual machinery. What’s crazy is that this space would’ve had a good number of men handling powder and ammo as they came up from the magazines and operating that hoist as fast as they could in the event of an air attack. Several variants of the Tomahawk cruise missile could be carried in the armored box launcher (image #12). When fired, the launcher would raise up at an angle and the missile would fire from that position. The Mark 36 launchers (image #13) would be used in the event of an anti-ship missile attack. Essentially, they’re like chaff and flare that fighter planes use but bigger and for use on ships. Note that each pair of tubes is angled differently to give the decoys a spread when fired. The Phalanx CIWS (images #14 & 15) are point defense turrets and can shoot down missiles and aircraft coming at the ship (more updated versions can also fire on surface targets).

“Where have all the machine guns gone?”

Note that the old WWII/Korean War-era 20mm Oerlikons and 40mm Bofors mounts have been removed from the ship. This is because aircraft (and later anti-ship missiles) were too fast for those guns to track and they lacked the punch to destroy the target (like a kamikaze) before it impacted the ship. It’s been said that if the 5″ guns were firing, then something had gotten past the Combat Air Patrol fighters. If the 40mm Bofors started firing, then something was getting really close to the Task Force. If the 20mm Oerlikons started firing, then you better hold on because something was coming directly at your ship! In late WWII, several destroyer captains noted that the firing of 20mm Oerlikons had a negative psychological effect on the crew. The saying was, “When the 20mm opens fire, it’s time to hit the deck.”2

I did see a few Browning 0.50 cal machine guns on pedestal mounts, but those would’ve probably been used to engage surface boats that got too close to the ship. The 20mm Phalanx, because it can track and engage targets automatically and fires insanely fast (it is a Gatling gun, after all), has replaced the old 20mm and 40mm guns. Still, it’s a last-ditch point defense weapon (it has a very short effective range of only a few nautical miles) and it can be overwhelmed if enough missiles are fired at the ship simultaneously. Thus, if you hear the Phalanx (or the SRBOC) start firing, then you know things have gotten really hairy, and something might be coming right at you!

On a side note, I always find it amusing when people argue about pistol and rifle caliber cartridges (9mm, .45ACP, 5.56mm, 7.62mm, etc.) like they’re some kind of almighty arbiter of combat. It’s true that those are common calibers for infantry weapons and can be handled by a single person. To the infantry, a 0.50 cal machine gun is a fearsome weapon (because it is), and you wouldn’t want to be shot by a bullet of any caliber, but they all seem like tinker toys when you’re standing on a giant floating gun platform with guns up to 16″ in diameter.

“Oh, look at Pvt. Johnny with his super-tactical .30-06 M1 rifle. He can hit a target 500 yards away! That’s so cute! Excuse me while we fire a broadside because we have some shore emplacements to knock out 40,000 yards away. And no, Johnny. That 0.50 cal machine gun isn’t going to do much against that attacking kamikaze. We got rid of them as an AA weapon for a reason…they’re useless.”

A bow view of the battleship USS IOWA (BB-61) firing its Mark 7 16-inch/50-caliber guns off the starboard side during a fire power demonstration.

2. Norman Friedman, US Naval Weapons (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983), 77.

Ground Tackle and Other Stuff

  1. View of the bow and the discone cage antenna (an HF transmitter).
  2. A wildcat (AKA gypsy) and the anchor chains. There are two 30,000 lbs. anchors on the bow. Each anchor chain is about 1,100 ft. Each chain link is about 123 lbs. (Do the math!) (Note one of the ship’s bells is hanging beneath the antenna.).
  3. Close-up of one of the wildcats.
  4. Iowa’s service ribbons just above the 03 level.
  5. An explanation of Iowa’s service ribbons

Commentary

These are just some miscellaneous things on the exterior of the ship. I will say that the discone cage antenna (image#16) does look peculiar given its location, but I think that’s the only logical place to put it so it would be free from interference. Apart from that, it’s also interesting that the bell is hung beneath the antenna, and the sheer size of the links of the anchor chain is something to behold (image #17).

Ship’s Interior

  1. The helm inside the armored conning tower.
  2. A view down several decks through some open hatches.
  3. One of the heads (bathrooms).
  4. Enlisted berthing.
  5. Close-up of several racks. (Note that these are post-WWII style racks.)

Commentary

Obviously, visibility out of the armored conning tower is rather limited to small viewing slits (image#21). The helmsman would definitely be relying on the commands given to him and on the spotter on the periscope to the left. I sure hope that space was sufficiently air-conditioned because I can imagine it getting really hot inside that thick armored tube as the ship sailed around the tropical South Pacific. In image #22, it’s impressive to see just how many decks are below you. Yet another indication of the size of this ship. The heads and showers (image #23) look very ’80s. It’s obvious that racks haven’t changed much (or at all) since the ’80s (images 24 & 25). There was a placard that showed what the WWII-style pipe racks would look like, and thank God sleeping technology has improved in the Navy.

It’s worth remembering that this ship is a product of 1930s/40s technology and a time when conscription was still practiced. This also isn’t a cruise ship, so accommodations for 2,000+ men were very spartan (i.e. You’ve been drafted and we’re fighting a war. We don’t have the time, the budget, or the desire to shower you with a lot of luxuries, so you better deal with it!). I suppose that come the 1980s and an all-volunteer military, some nicer things were installed to make it feel less like a slave ship on the Middle Passage.

Ship’s Galley

  1. One of the serving lines.
  2. Mess area. (Note the more modern seating arrangements which are definitely post-WWII.)
  3. Serving trays.
  4. Creepy mannequins serving fake food.
  5. Another galley shot.
  6. Ovens in the bakery.
  7. An old-school vending machine. (Has anybody got 50 cents?)

Commentary

I was struck by the sheer size and “roominess” of the galley. Then again, at the height of their service in WWII and Korea, these ships had some 2,700 crew on board, so they needed the space to prepare the food. There are, in fact, two serving lines and this galley would’ve been operating nearly 24/7 since they needed to prepare four meals per day. It’s pretty obvious that the tables, chairs, and equipment in the galley are of 1980s vintage; however, the sign in the bakery (image #31) mentions that the Champion dough mixer and Dutchess dough divider are original and were used through all of her commissionings. (I mean, how sophisticated do machines need to be just to beat dough and cut it? If it works; it works. It’s also industrial-grade and makes tons of the stuff.)

As time went on, commissarymen became culinary specialists (just cooks by a different name) and over the decades, recipes were updated to include a greater variety of ingredients. Personally, I often wonder what Navy food tasted like in the 40s and 50s when compared to today. Was it more or less salty/sugary or flavorful? I mean, eggs are eggs and bread is bread, but are some recipes better today than they were before? Did some of the food taste blander back in the day, but that’s what you ate because that’s what the Navy gave you? (WWII sailors grew up in the Great Depression when times were tough, so having three squares a day of government cheese, even if it wasn’t the best, was probably something to be grateful for.)

Miscellaneous Interior Displays

  1. Flag of a 5-star admiral.
  2. Officer’s china.
  3. Map of the operations of the USS Iowa. White lines indicate WWII, yellow is for the Korean War, and red is for the Cold War.
  4. The left side of the same map above. The fire symbols indicate combat operations (the majority of them were in the Pacific during WWII).
  5. The 900 lbs. ship’s bell.

Commentary

The 5-star fleet admiral’s flag (image #33) is displayed in the wardroom. The sign doesn’t say which admiral it belonged to, but it’s implied to be Adm. Nimitz who gave the address during the Iowa‘s second commissioning on 25 August 1951. Image #34 is a display of an officer’s place setting in the wardroom. There’s a Christmas dinner menu at the top for 25 December 1953, and a cast aluminum USS Iowa flat hat ashtray in the upper right. The two photos of the map (images #35 & 36) show the various deployments of the ship throughout her WWII, Korea, and Cold War era commissionings. Being also called “The Battleship of the Presidents,” she took FDR (and other high-ranking officials) to Mers El Kebir, Algeria on their way to the Tehran Conference in November 1943. Destroyer USS William D. Porter nearly torpedoed her during a drill that went wrong. She would later carry FDR back to the United States.

Regarding the ship’s bell (image #37), the placard mentions that this is the ship’s original 1943 bell. It previously was on display at the State Capital in Des Moines, Iowa for more than 25 years. The bell was returned to the ship in 2018 to mark the 75th anniversary of the first commissioning on February 22, 1943. The museum has a loan agreement with the Naval History and Heritage Command to display the bell for 3 (or more) years. The bell itself is made of cast iron, and is 34 inches tall and 34 inches at its widest diameter. It was originally hung just underneath the 08 level battle bridge. The bell may have been painted haze gray during the ship’s WWII and Korean War service. The ship’s officers had the bell chrome-plated in 1982. During the recommissioning ceremony in 1984, it was hung beneath the discone cage antenna structure and later moved to the wardroom to protect it from salt air and corrosion.

Model Displays

  1. USS Arizona
  2. USS Missouri in 1945 configuration (1:96 scale)
  3. Same as above
  4. A Japanese Yamato-class battleship (top) compared to an Iowa-class battleship (bottom).

Commentary

As with many museums, there are a number of models on display. I particularly like the 1:96 scale model of the USS Missouri in her 1945 configuration (images #39 & 40). As for image #41, it’s interesting to see some scale models showcasing the physical differences between these two historic ships. There are tons that have already been written comparing the Yamato and Iowa-class battleships. For comparison, the Yamato-class battleships were the heaviest battleships, displacing ~64,000 tons at normal load, and they had a wider beam. The Iowa-class battleships displaced ~48,000 tons (standard load), were longer in length (887 feet vs. 862 feet), and had a narrower beam (because they had to fit through the Panama Canal). The Iowa-class ships were also faster (~33 knots vs. 27 knots). Of course, there’s the difference in gun size which everyone mentions, but I’ve already written articles on those topics. (Iowa’s 16″ guns, Yamato’s 18.1″ guns, and a comparison between the two.) Not to mention the dozens of books that have been written on both of these ship classes.

Final Thoughts

It wouldn’t be a proper museum trip without spending my hard-earned money on extortionately priced souvenirs. In this case, I spent $76 on a piece of wood. Yup, that’s right. As the sticker on the back explains, it’s a piece of Burmese teak that was once a part of the deck of the ship. I’m not sure how old this piece of teak is or how many times the ship has had her teak deck replaced, but it’s from the ship. Its dimensions are about 5″x3.75″x0.8″. Obviously, it’s been lacquered. Note that in some of the above photos (like the ones of the main guns) the deck is actually covered by wooden boards because I believe they were in the process of replacing the teak deck (similar to what the USS New Jersey museum is doing). Underneath the teak is steel plating, but the teak acts as insulation both in cold and hot climates (feeling the heat from the hot sun radiate off a steel deck isn’t terribly pleasant). Smaller, unfinished pieces of teak could be bought for $10, but I thought they looked more like big bark chips, and the larger, finished pieces looked nicer. Of course, they were significantly more expensive, but this piece of wood is just going to sit on the mantle. I just thought it was cool to have a tangible piece of the ship rather than a hat or T-shirt. (Teak is a popular wood used in boat building and for decks and outdoor furniture because it’s durable and rot-resistant. Imperial Japanese naval ships often used Japanese cypress for their decks because it has similar qualities.)

Overall, this museum ship was quite a treat for me to visit. However, I was somewhat disappointed that the self-guided tour only takes you through a few places on the ship (wardroom, officer country, enlisted berthing, galley, flag bridge, bridge, weather deck, missile deck, flight deck). You don’t go into a 16″ turret, into the bowels of the ship, or very high up in the superstructure. The guided tours cost more, go into more detail, and take you into other areas of the ship that the self-guided tour doesn’t. But remember that I only had a few hours to spare before I was off to my next destination, so I tried to make good use of the roughly 2 hours it took to do the self-guided tour. It would certainly be fun to go back to the ship and take a guided tour in the future. Another fun long-term goal would be to visit the three other Iowa-class battleships. The USS Missouri in Hawaii, USS New Jersey in New Jersey, and USS Wisconsin in Virginia. It would also be fun to see some of the other preserved fast battleships (USS Massachusetts, USS Alabama, USS North Carolina). But that’s to be seen.

Hope you enjoyed the photos. I’ll be doing other posts on museum visits, as well.

Bibliography

Friedman, Norman. US Naval Weapons. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1983.

Jurens, W.J. “The Evolution of Battleship Gunnery in the U.S. Navy, 1920-1945,” Warship International, no. 3 (1991): 240-271

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