The Last Cruise Of The USS Iowa

The USS Iowa on its last trip
USS Iowa


I was aboard the SS Jeremiah O’Brien yesterday when the USS Iowa was towed from its berth up San Francisco bay and out under the Golden Gate bridge on its way to Los Angeles. The entire crew, except for those guarding the engine room (four of the eight boilers were operational), of the O’Brien was out watching. And commenting.

The USS Iowa was launched in 1943 at the height of the Pacific war, though she started life in the Atlantic as a giant ferry for President Roosevelt. She was in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, also called the Marianas Turkey Shoot, in June of 1944. And she was there for the last major push on Okinawa in 1945. “The Big Stick”, as she was affectionately known, also carried Halsey’s flag in Tokyo Bay when Japan surrendered. She saw service in Korea. And she became infamous in 1989 when one of her gun turrets exploded under mysterious circumstances and killed nearly 50 sailors.

The Iowa is nearly three football fields long and weighs 58,000 tons. One of the O’Briens claimed that just one of the roller bearings and mount for one the Iowa’s massive gun arrays weighed as much as the O’Brien, itself no slouch. It took several tugs to slowly maneuver the Iowa around the tight corners behind Alcatraz, an area which possess the deepest channel. (The picture above is from my not-so-hot camera phone, at full zoom.)

A private company bought the Iowa and will (thankfully) turn her into a museum. But in LA and not San Francisco. None of the O’Brien’s were pleased that Frisco was losing the Iowa. Politics is perception and all perceived that it was the fault of ex-mayor Gavin Newsom, who was thought to be petulantly anti-military. “All he had to do was to write a letter. But he wouldn’t,” one of the crew told me.

The thinking was that the Iowa will have to see a million visitors a year to turn a profit, which all hope she will. Nobody wants to see the old ship scrapped.

The O’Brien is an ex Liberty Ship, and still a working ship. She will cruise, as she does only a few times each year, today in honor of the Golden Gate bridges’ anniversary and, in greater honor, for Memorial Day. The O’Brien is different than many ship-museums because it is a working, sailing ship. Plus you get to go almost everywhere. Unescorted.

Engine room of the SS Jeremiah O’Brien
SS Jeremiah O'Brien

Most men head for the engine room, which is down several flights of perilously narrow, highly pitched ladders. I saw one husband plead with his wife, who refused to descend, say, “Just 15 more minutes.” He shot down into the gloom before his wife could say no. This must be a common occurrence because there is a set of folding chairs atop the entrance to the engines where another woman was already sitting.

I had a nice chat with the chief engineer who had been with the ship for eighteen years. He said it got to be about 120 degrees in the engine compartment when all eight boilers were going. But it was a pleasant 75 or so yesterday with just four. Topside it was cold and windy. As usual.

He told me that one of the more clever engineers had rigged one of the machine guns with a motor, spark plug, and propane canister that when switched on would make a pleasant pop-pop-pop sound. Another had rigged a fused bomb that fit into the five-inch gun. Had to be fused because the firing pins were removed from the guns. I didn’t get to hear the gun, but the machine gun simulator sounded realistic.

Some of the ship is off limits, including the still working radio room. Nobody was in it yesterday, but they did have a tape on continuous loop with a Morse code message spelling out the name of the ship and its berth. Throughout the rest of the ship were speakers playing Big Band tunes. Was I happy about that.

As we lined the rails watching the Iowa, Spike Jones came on singing Der Fuehrer’s Face (“Not to love der Fuehrer is a great disgrace”, “Super Dooper super men.”). I once got into trouble from trying to sing this song in a German restaurant. Many wives have no sense of humor. A crewman told me that this song was originally written by one of Walt Disney’s musicians, by a man who was Jewish. I had to look it up, but Disney even had Donald Duck croak out the tune. (Also see this.)

Stop by the O’Brien if you are even in San Francisco. You can even arrange a sleepover on board.


  1. DAV

    I’ve been on the SS John W. Brown (the other remaining operational Liberty ship). Impressive. Not as impressive as the Iowa and its history. (I’ve been told that warships are not she‘s but I can’t verify this so I used the Swedish neutral pronoun).

    Why was the radio room off-limits? To keep down nuisance traffic or were they afraid someone would hijack it to alert the enemy? Too bad you couldn’t get a tour of it.

  2. UDZ

    I agree that having the Iowa to compliment the Hornet, Pampanito, and O’Brien would have been preferable but the politics of SFO have prevented that and much more.

    Hopefully the Iowa can be a sucess in San Pedro.

    Thanks for the post.

    My wife and I are looking forward to sailing on the Lane Victory Wednesday morning to escort the Iowa to San Pedro.

    In case you are not aware of it, the Lane Victory operates much as the O’Brien does as a living museum.

  3. Noblesse Oblige

    Although the Iowa was first of class, the New Jersey almost certainly saw more action. I recall her launching 16-inch shells into Lebanon in the 1980s. She is the most decorated battleship in US Navy history. See If you are on the east coast you can visit her in her berth, but you will need to brave Camden streets to get there.

  4. ppaul

    You can take the ferry to the Jersey from the Philly side, touring the Olympia, Perry’s flagship at Manilla bay, is a great tour too (at the Philly sea museum, a great place). Wisconsin at Norfolk and Missouri at Pearl round out the BB’s

  5. Eric Anderson

    Good grief! How did you get an invite to be on the O’Brien for the event? We keep getting little tidbits here and there, but not the full story — obviously your ties to the Bay Area are stronger than you let on . . .

  6. Doug M

    IT’S SAN Francisco. Old San Francisco. It looks its best — very old — in the rain, when gray ghosts flit across the wet sidewalks, leaving no shadow. Not Frisco but San Francisco. Caress each Spanish syllable, salute our Italian saint. Don’t say Frisco and don’t say San-Fran-Cis-Co. That’s the way Easterners, like Larry King, pronounce it. It’s more like SanfrnSISco, all one word minus a syllable.

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