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Tour the Storied U.S.S. Iowa—While You Can

Up until recently, "The Big Stick" was mouldering in Suisun Bay, but for a short time, visitors can get a close-up look while she gets overhauled for her final trip to Southern California to become a maritime museum.

For a few weeks there, when we heard "Iowa" we only thought one thing. But here's to thinking about Iowa in a different way: Go visit the U.S.S. Iowa, now stationed in Richmond until the end of January.  

The U.S.S. Iowa (BB-61) is the first of four “Iowa Class Battleships” from World War II. It is the last such ship to find a permanent home befitting its momentous past. The other three are the U.S.S. New Jersey (now in Camden, N.J.), U.S.S. Missouri (at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and historic as the site where Japan's unconditional surrender was signed), and U.S.S. Wisconsin (in Norfolk, VA).

For history and military buffs in the Bay Area, this is a great opportunity to walk the decks of the last battleship, the biggest, fastest and most powerful (the 16-inch guns gave her its nickname)

The Iowa launched in August 27, 1942, was sent to the Marshall Islands to start off her long history. She served in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, in the Philippine Sea, considered by some to be the largest navel battle in history. The Iowa class of battleships are the longest battleships ever made (887 feet!), but the Japanese battleship Yamato was the heaviest (it also served in the Battle of Leyte Gulf).

We had spent the weekend with my folks, who are renting a cabin in Inverness, near Point Reyes, and we were looking for more interesting way to get home than just the usual, U.S.-101-to-the-Golden-Gate-Bridge-to-19th-Street-to-I-280 route.

We were looking for an adventure!  

My husband suggested taking the Richmond Bridge to go to see the U.S.S. Iowa.  He had followed a discussion about what to do with the last of the great battleships as she sat out in Suisun Bay, along with all the other mothballed World War II-era ships there. The talk was over whether it should stay here in the Bay Area, or head south to Los Angeles for posterity.  

From what he discovered, L.A. has won, but the Iowa has been moved to Richmond for clean-up and overhaul ... and that visits were allowed on weekends during the 3-month preparation process.  

So we all agreed that this would be an interesting thing to check out. Using two cars—one for my parents (and, of course, their dogs, which travel everywhere with them) and our happy Civic, we took off on Sunday morning to visit a relic of World War II.

We carefully dodged all the cyclists that tour Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, no easy task on narrow winding roads with low visibility. And, there was one hicccup when we got to Greenbrae while reading the iPhone directions on how to get to Interstate 580 became a little unclear. Eventually we made it and met back up with the folks. 

During our holiday-period visit (which is pretty early on in the ship's clean-up process), access to the ship was pretty limited. But, we were allowed on the forward deck, and around the two huge front gun turrets.  

The docents informed us this will change for the better as work progresses and more parts of the ship will be safe to see. There was a plywood race track laid down on the forward section. It took you around the forward guns so that you could have your picture taken with them, and around the back side of the turret, so that it was possible to look underneath. 

A highlight for my husband was getting to see the spot on one of the armored turrets where a Japanese shell had “bonked” off, leaving a small dent.  The crew has marked the spot with an arrow for easy viewing.

The best part of the tour for me was meeting enthusiastic volunteers, some of whom are living on board. At the time of our visit, they had no shore power, so nighttime was spent with only flashlights. That also meant no heat, just big down comforters. They fondly called the Iowa the "armored icebox" and looked like they were having a great time living onboard.

Since the Iowa is a bit of “hulking” and “humble” rolled into one, there is an exhibit in a warehouse next to the parking lot that tells more of the Iowa and its glory during WWII, and after it was refitted for the First Gulf War.  

I walked around with my dad, who was in the Marines in the early 1960's, as he pointed out what is a "shelter half" in exhibit. It's half of a tent that he would carry in his pack made up of think canvas. Another Marine would carry the other half of the tent and then they would both sleep in it come night. My dad and I,  who have been backpacking for years laughed at the how heavy it looked compared to the light tents that we carry today.  

I don't know how interested I was in my folks’ life when I was a kid but, the older I am, the more I appreciate learning about the details of my parents’ lives as they were growing up. So that even though the Iowa was the focus for the morning, sometimes the exploration, really, is learning about each other. Our parents included.

The Iowa might not be much to look at now but it is supposed to get a new coat of paint here in Richmond.  

We will go back to witness the changes.  It is hard to say what our son gets out of such trips but the way I look at them is that there are a million bits of information that make up "General Knowledge."  

It's a great way to get such knowledge is instead of pulling it from a book or TV show from the History Channel—go out and live it. A bonus is that our family gains experiences as a family.

General Information

There is a suggested $10 donation for the renovation of the U.S.S. Iowa as you drive into the parking lot.

Location: Terminal 3, 1411 Harbour Way, Richmond, CA.

Information about touring the U.S.S. Iowa

Wikipedia site for the Iowa.

The unofficial link for U.S.S. Iowa, includes crew list, history, pictures

The US.S. Iowa's Veterans' site

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