History of the USS Iowa Battleship

The USS Iowa (BB-61), nicknamed “The Big Stick,” was ordered for the U.S. Navy on July 1, 1939. Her keel was laid down at the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York on June 27, 1940. She was launched on August 27, 1942 and commissioned on February 22, 1943 under the command of Captain John L. McCrea, and immediately set out for Argentia, Newfoundland in August 1943 to deal with the German battleship Tirpitz.

Later in 1943, USS Iowa transported President Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull to Casablanca on the first leg of their journey to the Tehran Conference and was part of an unexpected drama. During the voyage, the accompanying destroyer USS William D. Porter accidentally dropped a depth charge, causing the battleship and other escort ships to take evasive maneuvers when they believe they were under attack by a German U-boat. Then on November 14, President Roosevelt requested a demonstration of the battleship’s defenses. Weather balloons were released and shot down by the battleship’s anti-aircraft guns. The USS William D. Porter began to shoot at the balloons that drifted in their direction until suddenly the William D. Porter discharged a torpedo toward the USS Iowa. After a few fumbled attempts to signal the battleship about the oncoming torpedo, the destroyer finally broke radio silence to warn the USS Iowa about the torpedo, and the battleship was able to evade it. No one was injured, but some believed the mishap may have been an assassination attempt against the President.

In January 1944, the USS Iowa served as the flagship of Battleship Division 7. She headed to the Marshall Islands to support the strikes against Kwajalein and Eniwetok before moving on to Truk. As a part of the Fast Carrier Task Force, the battleship helped conduct the first strikes against Saipan, Tinian, Rota and Guam—sinking the Japanese cruiser Katori along the way.

The USS Iowa bombarded Mili Atoll in the Marshall Islands on March 18, 1944. She was struck by two Japanese projectiles but suffered only minor damage. She moved on to support air strikes against Woleai, the Palau Islands, Hollandia, Aitape, Wakde, Tanahmerah Bay and Humboldt Bay.

The battleship participated in the second strike on Truk the day before bombarding Ponape in the Carolines on May 1, 1944. She supported the carriers during the air strikes on Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Rota and Pagan Island on June 12-14, destroying a Japanese ammunition dump in the process. The USS Iowa took part in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, taking down three enemy aircraft during battle and shooting down a torpedo plane as it fled.

During the month of July, USS Iowa supported air strikes on the Palaus and troop landings on Guam. She supported the landings on Peleliu in September and air strikes against the Ryukyu Islands, Formosa and Luzon in October. The battleship continued her support when General Douglas MacArthur landed on Leyte on October 20.

The USS Iowa and the rest of the ships of Task Force 38 were caught in Typhoon Cobra while refueling on December 18, 1944. Three destroyers were lost—USS Hull, USS Monaghan and USS Spence—and nine other ships maintained serious damage. Nearly 800 officers and men were killed, while another 80 sustained injuries. Over 140 planes were swept overboard or damaged beyond repair, some causing fires aboard the decks of their carriers. No one on the USS Iowa was injured, but she did lose a float plane and sustain some damage to one of her shafts. The battleship had to sail to San Francisco, California for repairs.

After having her bridge area enclosed and being upgraded with new search radars and fire-control systems, the USS Iowa rejoined the fighting for the bombardment of Japan at Kyushu, Honshu, Mokkaido, Muroran, Hitachi and Kahoolawe.

The USS Iowa was present in Sagami Bay for the surrender of the Yokosuka naval district on August 27, 1944. She sailed two days later for Tokyo Bay and remained for the surrender ceremony that took place aboard the USS Missouri. She remained in the bay as part of the occupying force until joining Operation Magic Carpet, returning veterans and liberated American POWs to the United States.

After World War II, USS Iowa was involved in a number of training operations and exercises. After undergoing modernization and overhaul, she participated in the live fire exercise against the old battleship USS Nevada. The USS Iowa was decommissioned on March 24, 1949.

The outbreak of the Korean War called for the recommissioning of the USS Iowa on August 25, 1951. She became the flagship for Vice Admiral Robert P. Briscoe, Commander of the Seventh Fleet. She fired against targets at Wonsan-Songjin, Suwon Dan, Kojo, Kosong, Tanchon, Chindong and Chongjin through the spring of 1952.

USS Iowa continued on to fire upon Mayang-do, Tanchon, Chongjin, Chodo-Sokcho, Hungnam and Wonsan in June. One of her helicopters rescued a downed pilot from the USS Princeton on June 9. On August 20, she boarded nine wounded men from the USS Thompson when the destroyer was hit at Songjin. During October, the USS Iowa took part in Operation Decoy, which was meant to draw out enemy troops and bring them within firing distance.

After the Korean War, the USS Iowa was involved in training exercises in Northern Europe in July 1953 before participating in Operation Mariner, a major NATO exercise. The following year, she became the flagship of Rear Admiral R. E. Libby, Commander of the Battleship Cruiser Force of the United States Atlantic Fleet.

USS Iowa spent the next few years working on more training before heading to Scotland for NATO’s Operation Strikeback, which simulated an all-out Soviet attack. She was decommissioned again on February 24, 1958.

The USS Iowa was reactivated again in 1982. She was refitted and modernized at Avondale Shipyard and Ingalls Shipbuilding in Louisiana. She was formally recommissioned on April 28, 1984. The battleship aided humanitarian efforts in Costa Rica and Honduras in 1984.

USS Iowa took part in NATO’s Exercise Ocean Safari in August 1985. In March of the following year, she failed her InSurv inspection, and though it was recommended that she should be taken out of service, it was instead decided that her deficiencies would be corrected.

Later, the USS Iowa sailed around Central America conducting drills and exercises. President Ronald Reagan boarded the battleship for the International Naval Review on July 4, 1986. In September of the same year, she took part in Exercise Northern Wedding before visiting ports in England and Germany.

In December 1986, USS Iowa helped test the RQ-2 Pioneer Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). In 1987, she returned to Central America before joining the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean Sea. She headed to the Persian Gulf in November 1987 for Operation Earnest Will during the Iran-Iraq War, helping to escort Kuwaiti gas and oil tankers through the Strait of Hormuz.

The USS Iowa returned to the United States in time for Fleet Week in April 1988. She was overhauled before resuming training exercises. On April 19, 1989, the USS Iowa’s No. 2 gun turret exploded, killing 47 crew members. This incident caused the surface Navy’s highest casualties in peace time operations.

The USS Iowa was decommissioned in 1990 and placed on reserve status. From 1998 until 2001, she was berthed at the Newport, Rhode Island Naval Education and Training Center. In the spring of 2001, she was moved under tow to Suisan Bay, San Francisco, California and remains part of the Navy’s Reserve Fleet. USS Iowa’s service in World War II earned nine battle stars. She earned another two battle stars for her service during the Korean War.

The use of asbestos was common in shipbuilding components for much of the 20th Century because of its resistance to heat, fire, water and corrosion. However, because of their asbestos exposure onboard ship and in the shipyards, many navy veterans are at risk for developing asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma.

Sources include:
John Hedley-Whyte and Debra R. Milamed, “Asbestos and Ship-Building: Fatal Consequences,” Ulster Med. J. 77(3):191-200 (Sep 2008)
Naval Historical Center, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships: USS Iowa
Kit Bonner, “The Ill-Fated USS William D. Porter,” The Retired Officer Magazine (Mar 1994)