USS Iowa passes under Golden Gate bound for final duty as museum

USS Iowa arrives off Los Angeles coast (Sonya Hamasaki/CNN)

(CNN) — Decades after transporting President Franklin Roosevelt across the Atlantic and fending off kamikazes in the Pacific during World War II, the USS Iowa passed Saturday under the Golden Gate Bridge en route to its final home and duty as a museum.

Fireboats shot water into the air to salute the Iowa around 3 p.m. Saturday as the battleship was towed through San Francisco Bay and into the Pacific Ocean. Scores of people watched from nearby — some on ferries, others from onshore and on the iconic bridge — under blue skies dotted with puffs of clouds.

The Iowa’s nine 16-inch guns fired nearly 12,000 rounds over more than 50 years of service for the U.S. Navy before the ship was decommissioned for a third and final time in 1990.

After more than a decade docked in the Port of Richmond near San Francisco, the ship is heading south to the Port of Los Angeles in the care of the Pacific Battleship Center, which plans to transform the ship into a museum by July, according to the nonprofit group’s website.

Bay Area residents may be saying goodbye to the USS Iowa, but they’ll soon have the chance to celebrate some history of their own — namely, the bridge that the battleship went under. Known for its high orange towers, the Golden Gate Bridge opened to traffic between San Francisco and Marin County exactly 75 years ago on Monday.

A daylong celebration of the bridge is planned for Sunday, two days after the dedication of a new visitors center and services.

But Saturday belonged to the Iowa, or “The Big Stick,” as it is known, whose passage is unrelated to the Golden Gate Bridge festivities.

Launched from the New York Naval Yard in 1942 and commissioned the next year, the Iowa’s first wartime duty was in the Atlantic neutralizing a German battleship, according to a detailed history on the Pacific Battleship Center’s website.

A special bathtub was put on the ship later in 1943 for use by Roosevelt during the president’s through the Mediterranean to Iran for the Tehran Conference, where he met with Allied counterparts Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek.

After returning Roosevelt to the U.S. Mainland, the Iowa headed to the Pacific, where its crew targeted Japanese forces in places such as Truk, Saipan, Tinian and Guam, and braved kamikaze attacks and a typhoon.

The Iowa was taken out of commission in 1949 but got new life two years later, setting the stage for its extensive involvement in U.S. naval operations during the Korean War.

Seven years later, after having spent time back in the Mediterranean Sea and in Cuban and European ports, the USS Iowa was again decommissioned.

The battleship was modernized and put back into service in 1984. In that and subsequent years, the Iowa spent time on the Pacific Coast, in Central and South America, in Scandinavia and other European ports, the Persian Gulf and other locales.

One of the Iowa’s most infamous moments occurred in April 1989, when 47 crew members were killed in an explosion in one of the gun turrets off Puerto Rico.

A U.S. Navy investigation detected “foreign material” and the presence of a “chemical ignition device,” and named one crew member as the “principal suspect” in purposefully causing the blast.

But a later Sandia National Laboratories report submitted to Congress found no conclusive evidence of such a material or ignition device, speculating that a “high-speed overram” of the turret may have been to blame.

The ship was struck from the Naval Register in 1995, five years after being decommissioned. Federal authorities put the USS Iowa up for donation in 2006. In September 2011, the secretary of the Navy gave the Pacific Battleship Center the rights to the ship.

Veterans of the USS Iowa will get the first peek at the ship in San Pedro July 2-6. A grand opening event for the public is scheduled for the next day, July 7.

The Pacific Battleship Center said the ship will soon serve as “an interactive naval museum experience that honors and illustrates the positive contributions of this battleship and its crew at critical moments in American history.”

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