The USS Iowa (BB-61), commissioned in 1943, stands as a monumental example of American naval engineering and the lead ship of its class of battleships.

Serving in both World War II and the Korean War, its powerful armament, including nine 16-inch guns, made it a formidable force in naval warfare.

Today, preserved as a museum ship in Los Angeles, the USS Iowa continues to educate and inspire visitors about its storied history and the broader evolution of naval combat.

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Design Of The Iowa

The global tensions of the 1930s, particularly the militarization and territorial ambitions of nations like Japan and Germany, were instrumental in the evolution of naval warfare. The world’s navies engaged in a virtual arms race, with each major power striving to outdo the other in terms of firepower, speed, and technology.

The U.S. Navy, recognizing the potential for future conflicts, felt the need for a new generation of battleships that would not only counter existing threats but would also secure maritime dominance for the country.

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The result of this ambition was the conception of the Iowa class of battleships, of which the USS Iowa (BB-61) was the forerunner. Commissioned in 1943, the USS Iowa was an epitome of naval engineering and strategic foresight.

The vessel was conceived not just as a gun platform but as a fast battleship that could protect aircraft carriers and outrun potential adversaries. The emphasis on speed was a significant departure from traditional battleship designs and reflected the changing dynamics of naval warfare.

USS Iowa under construction at the New York Navy Yard.

Measuring 887 feet from bow to stern, the USS Iowa was not only imposing in size but also in its technological advancements. Propelled by steam turbines, the ship was capable of reaching speeds in excess of 30 knots, a feat that few battleships of its size could achieve.

This was crucial as it allowed the Iowa to maneuver rapidly in battle, changing its position and adapting to threats.

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But what truly defined the USS Iowa was its armament. The battleship was equipped with nine 16-inch guns, arranged in three turrets. These guns, the primary weapons of the Iowa, could hurl 2,700-pound armor-piercing shells over distances surpassing 20 miles.

This allowed the battleship to engage enemy vessels and coastal targets from beyond their retaliation range. Complementing these were numerous 5-inch guns and a multitude of anti-aircraft mounts, which protected the ship from airborne threats and smaller vessels.

Additionally, the armor design of the USS Iowa was meticulously crafted to offer maximum protection without compromising on speed. Using layered armor systems and strategic positioning, the battleship could withstand considerable punishment from enemy guns, ensuring the safety of the crew and the operational integrity of the ship.

Service History

In World War II, the USS Iowa quickly became a keystone in naval operations. Although christened into a world already at war, the ship’s early duties were not limited to direct combat. The Atlantic theater, for instance, witnessed the Iowa in a rather diplomatic role when it was chosen for the high-profile task of transporting President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the Tehran Conference in 1943.

USS Iowa before her launch in 1942.

This mission highlighted the vessel’s importance not just as a combat unit, but also as a symbol of American power and diplomacy.

However, the Pacific theater truly tested the Iowa’s mettle in battle. As American forces embarked on their island-hopping campaign, pushing back against Japanese territorial acquisitions, the USS Iowa was frequently at the vanguard.

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The ship played a decisive role in the battles of the Philippine Sea and Leyte Gulf. These naval confrontations, some of the largest in history, saw the Iowa unleash its firepower against the Imperial Japanese Navy, targeting both sea vessels and air threats.

Furthermore, the battleship’s 16-inch guns were instrumental in naval bombardments supporting amphibious landings, particularly during the campaigns in Okinawa and Honshu. Its armor and design also withstood the peril of kamikaze attacks, a testimony to its resilience.

Following World War II, the world order changed, but the USS Iowa’s significance did not diminish. The outbreak of the Korean War saw her return to active duty. Operating alongside United Nations forces, the Iowa assumed the role of a fearsome shore bombardment platform.

It targeted North Korean positions, causing significant damage to their defensive lines and infrastructure, while also grappling with enemy shore batteries. These actions reaffirmed the ship’s efficacy in supporting ground operations from the sea.

USS Iowa firing on North Korean positions in 1952.

Beyond the Korean conflict, the fluctuating geopolitical climate of the Cold War presented new challenges and necessitated the evolution of naval strategy. The USS Iowa was decommissioned and then reactivated multiple times, reflecting the dynamic needs of the era.

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Notably, during this period, the ship underwent substantial modernization. This included the addition of new weaponry such as anti-ship missiles and advanced electronic warfare suites, fortifying her capabilities against modern threats. Such upgrades ensured that the Iowa, a ship conceived in the early 1940s, remained relevant in a world of nuclear deterrence and superpower standoffs.

Legacy

In the post-active service phase of its life, the USS Iowa’s significance took on a new dimension: preservation and education.

Recognizing the battleship’s historical importance, efforts were initiated to ensure its story continued to inspire future generations. Moored at the Port of Los Angeles, the USS Iowa began its new chapter as a museum ship.

This museum serves as more than a static display of naval architecture. It’s a living testament to the sailors who tread its decks, the engineers who envisioned its design, and the countless individuals affected by its actions.

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The exhibits aboard the USS Iowa delve into its storied past, offering visitors tactile and visceral experiences. From the echoing chambers of its massive 16-inch gun turrets to the intricacies of its control rooms, the museum immerses patrons in the life of a battleship sailor. Interactive displays, historical artifacts, and guided tours breathe life into the ship’s history, providing invaluable lessons in naval warfare, technological evolution, and maritime diplomacy.

Furthermore, the preservation of the USS Iowa serves a crucial role in honoring the sacrifices of naval personnel. It stands as a tangible reminder of the perils faced by those at sea and the paramount importance of naval power in shaping the course of history.

The bath tub on the Iowa was fitted for President Roosevelt.
USS Iowa in a floating drydock, December 1944.
Firing a full broadside during an exercise in 1984.
Her turrets facing starboard during an exercise in 1987.