Storied battleship making final port call in Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES Fri May 18, 2012 12:51pm EDT

1 of 3. Volunteers work under the 16-inch guns at the stern of the U.S. battleship 'USS Iowa' in Richmond, California May 17, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Robert Galbraith

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LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The USS Iowa, which ferried the late President Franklin D. Roosevelt across the perilous Atlantic waters to a historic meeting with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin in the dark days of World War Two, will have to be towed to its final port call.

The battleship saw combat in the Pacific, survived a devastating explosion in a gun turret, and even a snub from the city of San Francisco. At the end of its final voyage, the storied warship will have a permanent mooring in Los Angeles.

The Los Angeles Harbor Commission voted unanimously on Thursday to create a permanent home for the ship at the city's port, where it will open as a floating museum.

The vessel, which saw service with the U.S. Navy over six tumultuous decades, will become the only battleship museum on the U.S. West Coast when it opens on July 7.

"There's no more ships like this in existence in the active navies anywhere in the world," said Robert Kent, president of the Pacific Battleship Center.

"They've either been sunk, scrapped or turned into museums, and the Iowa is the last battleship to find a home," he added.

The 887-foot Iowa-class warship was commissioned in 1943.

That same year it took Roosevelt across the Atlantic on his way to a meeting in the Iranian capital Tehran with British Prime Minister Churchill and Soviet strongman Stalin, the first conference of the "Big Three" Allied leaders of the war.

The hulking warship, which towers 175 feet above the water line, was equipped with a special bathtub for Roosevelt - who was partially paralyzed following a bout with polio - which remains on board to this day.

Later in the war, it pounded beachheads in the Pacific with its 16-inch guns ahead of Allied landings, and took part in the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay in 1945. During the Korean War in the 1950s, it conducted gun strikes and bombardments.

In 1989, off the coast of Puerto Rico, an explosion within a gun turret on board the ship killed 47 sailors.

The Iowa was decommissioned in 1990 and was later kept in a naval center in Rhode Island before it was towed through the Panama Canal to Northern California.

DON'T ASK, DON'T TELL

Historic groups in Northern California had sought to find a permanent home there for the ship, but they faced a number of setbacks. Among them was a vote in 2005 by the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to reject a resolution to move the Iowa to the city as a floating museum.

The San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time that some city supervisors had voted against the resolution out of opposition to the U.S. military's then-policy of "don't ask, don't tell," which barred gays and lesbians from openly serving in the armed forces.

Several members of the board who took part in the 2005 vote could not be reached for comment.

The Iowa, which once powered through the waves at a top speed of 33 knots or 40 miles per hour, will have to be towed to Los Angeles from Richmond, in North California, where it has been undergoing a $7 million restoration.

The funds included $3 million from the state of Iowa, where residents have taken a keen interest in the ship, Kent said.

It is set to leave Richmond on Sunday, pass under the Golden Gate Bridge and arrive off the coast of Los Angeles on May 24.

Los Angeles was long a naval center, before many ships were moved to Hawaii during the lead-up to World War Two.

"A lot of people don't realize, but Los Angeles, the port of Los Angeles, was called battleship country in the early part of the 20th century," said Kent.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said in a statement on Thursday his city is "thrilled to welcome a national treasure that has served our nation so faithfully for so long."

While the Iowa will be the only battleship museum on the West Coast, San Diego, also in southern California, has the USS Midway Museum to showcase that historic aircraft carrier.

The Midway attracts about a million visitors a year, and the Pacific Battleship Center, the group responsible for bringing the USS Iowa to Los Angeles, hopes to one day approach those numbers. Initially, they expect up to 500,000 visitors a year.

(This story corrects class of warship to Iowa class in paragraph 7)

(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Todd Eastham)

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