If you're looking for a chance to walk through history, you could hardly do better than one of Southern California's most unique attractions – the battleship USS Iowa, a vessel with a World War II pedigree as well as a rich history fighting America's enemies for many decades.
Visiting a warship like the USS Iowa is a perfect family adventure and appeals to Dad's fascination with all things military yet has enough wow factor to please the kids. Even Mom can appreciate the ship's contribution to history and will grow more and more fascinated as she gets an up-close look at how our fighting men live when they are on the high seas.
The USS Iowa was built in 1940 and had a long tenure serving our country – 50 years in all. It was once called the “World's Greatest Naval Ship” mainly because of her big guns, speed, armor and the modern components.
The USS Iowa is located in San Pedro, practically next door to the Los Angeles cruise ship terminals. It's a floating museum that has been carefully planned to give visitors a good look at many of the ship's features including the interior living and working spaces and the weapons systems.
Tours on the USS Iowa take you into many parts of the ship, but the routes through the ship may change as the museum comes up with ways to take visitors into more parts of the ship. Our tour gave us a great overview of much of the ship's interior and exterior.
Along the tour route, you'll have museum representatives giving you information on what exactly you're seeing and they'll answer any questions you have. There are also descriptions and explanations posted in the various areas of the ship as well as a number of displays for you to review at the end of the tour. And the tour exits through a gift store with lots of interesting merchandise related to the USS Iowa.
Be forewarned this is not a tour for someone who has mobility problems. There are many stairs -- most of them straight up and down -- that connect the various decks of the ship. We noticed one senior citizen having to literally be pushed up the first set of stairs and then offered a seat where one of the tour representatives advised against continuing any further. But if you can climb a 10-foot ladder you'll be okay – there are plenty of things to hang on to and, while there are many different sets of stairs, none of them has a lot of steps.
The tour also is linear in the sense that once you start on the tour you're either going to go all the way through it or all the way back to get off the ship. You can't pick and choose sections you want to see although you can spend a little longer time in some areas if you prefer. When we were there it was a busy Sunday so it was like following a line of people through a building with many rooms, nooks and crannies – and stairs.
One of the most interesting spots we noticed on this first tour was the ship's bridge and command center where it's fascinating to see that even back in World War II, the ship's designers had designed a safe room with thick steel armor where the captain and other officers could retreat and still operate the ship while being protected from enemy fire. The line slowed down quite a bit in this area where visitors took their time to observe the controls and enjoy the forward view from the tower.
Another highlight was where the tour route takes visitors to the forward section of the bow, past two of the ship's three incredibly big gun turrets, each housing three long 16-inch guns. If you're taking pictures, the money shot is right from the bow looking back at these guns. It's also interesting to note that one of these turrets was involved in a 1989 explosion that killed 47 sailors – an event that was big news all over the world.
The tour takes you through officers' quarters and you'll step right into the captain's cabin which isn't quite like a suite on a major cruise ship, but still pretty spacious and inviting compared to the cramped quarters elsewhere on the ship. There is an officers' recreation area that features a big-screen TV, lounge chairs and other nearby areas to relax or socialize with other officers.
You'll also see the mess area where the ship's sailors took their meals – an area not unlike a school lunch room, only a lot more compact because of limited space on the ship. One could imagine how unpleasant it might be for cooks who were confined to a claustrophobic kitchen with low ceilings, rolling and pitching in the waves with various smells wafting in the air. Still, having just come back from touring the replica of the Mayflower, we could see that ships have come a long way since the 17th century.
The USS Iowa is historic in many ways. For example, the ship has hosted more U.S. presidents than any other battleship. The ship had a bathtub put in specifically for Franklin D. Roosevelt to use during his lengthy voyage over to meet with Stalin, Churchill and Chiang Kai Shek at the Tehran Conference. Presidents Ronald Reagan and H.W. Bush also have been hosted on the ship.
During World War II, the USS Iowa was active in both the Atlantic and Pacific although the majority of its missions were fighting the Japanese, bombarding various Japanese-held islands during a number of campaigns that lasted throughout the war. The ship was hit by enemy fire and there is a place on the tour where you'll see a dent put in one of the gun turrets by enemy artillery.
The USS Iowa was also active in the Korean War and on patrol during the Cold War and post-Cold War period.
The USS Iowa made world headlines on April 19, 1989 when the Number Two 16-inch gun turret exploded, killing 47 crewmen and causing significant damage to the turret. There was some question about the cause with two investigations later concluding two different causes. At first the US Navy concluded that a crew member who died in the explosion had deliberately caused it.
Congress then did an investigation and determined that too much powder in the gun barrel likely caused the event, causing the Navy to re-open its investigation. However, the Navy ultimately decided that the cause could not be determined.
AT A GLANCE
WHERE: The USS Iowa Museum is located in San Pedro, just south of Los Angeles and adjacent to Long Beach. The ship is berthed close to the cruise ship terminal and is next to the Los Angeles Maritime Museum, which also features interesting artifacts and history if you have some extra time.
WHAT: The USS Iowa is a fascinating look at one of the country's most historic naval vessels and brings a true appreciation of what life was like for our sailors during World War II and the decades following. The ship has been turned into a museum that includes a carefully mapped out tour route taking you through many points of interest on the ship. In general you'll want to allow about an hour to 90 minutes to take the tour.
WHEN: This tour can be done any time of the year, although parts of it take you out on the decks and it probably would not be advisable to take on a rainy day. Fortunately for visitors to the USS Iowa, this part of California doesn't get much rain.
WHY: This tour is all about the history, the ingenuity of those who build our Navy ships, and the sense that so many of our Naval heroes have sacrificed so much to be at sea, whether during peacetime or time of war. When you get up-close and see what goes into operating this vessel, everyone in your family will appreciate the experience.
HOW: For more information on the USS Iowa, please visit www.pacificbattleship.com or phone 1-877-446-9261. If you want to stay in the area overnight, resort-style accommodations are nearby at the Doubletree by Hilton San Pedro, 1-310-514-3344.
Photos, from top: 16-inch guns on USS Iowa; a photographer gets the perfect shot; plenty of stairs to climb on the USS Iowa; view from the captain's chair
Photos by Cary and Sandi Ordway