Friday, September 09, 2011

Not to be mercenary or anything ...

The final USS Iowa (BB-61)

Now that the USS Iowa (BB-61) has a permanent home, I’m starting to worry about the family silver (family in the sense that all Iowans are one big happy family, you know, and that silver service is ours, dagnabbit, all 2,100 ounces of it --- sterling).

Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus announced Tuesday that the Navy has donated our namesake World War II battleship to the Pacific Battleship Center, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that plans to turn it into a museum and memorial at the Port of Los Angeles.

The Battleship Center has raised about $9 million to move and restore the ship, including $3 million from Iowans.

The Iowa, about the length of three football fields, is the last surviving battleship that has not been turned into a museum. The others have been scrapped. She has been mothballed for about 20 years, 10 as part of the so-called Ghost Fleet in Suisun Bay near San Francisco.

Now, the Iowa will go through exterior renovation in San Francisco, then be towed to San Pedro where its interior will be converted to a museum.


OK --- back to the silver.

The USS Iowa (BB-61) is actually the fourth USS Iowa. The first and third didn’t develop as planned. No. 1 was a Civil War-era monitor-class warship renamed the USS Iowa in 1864 but never commissioned and promptly sold.

The third USS Iowa (BB-53) was under construction when the order for it was cancelled in the 1920s.

The two USS Iowas that count were the second, USS Iowa (BB-4), commissioned during June 1897 and the first ship to fire shots during the July 3, 1898, Battle of Santiago, off Cuba, that decimated Spain’s fleet; and the fourth and final, USS Iowa (BB-61), launched on Aug. 27, 1942, and commissioned on Feb. 22, 1943.

The second USS Iowa (BB-4)

The USS Iowa silver centerpiece

The family silver dates from the second USS Iowa (BB-4). It was a custom during the late 19th century when a ship was named for a state for that state to commission a silver service to be used onboard during highly formal occasions --- tea with the admiral perhaps?

So in 1896, the Iowa Legislature commissioned J.E. Caldwell & Co. of Philadelphia to design and execute a 40-piece silver service --- platters, serving dishes, a centerpiece, tea pot, coffee pot, the whole nine yards. A total of 2,100 ounces of sterling silver was used. In addition to the usual nautical and national symbols, the service was decorated with the Great Seal of Iowa, the wild rose (our state flower), corn, etchings of the state capitol., etc., etc.

I had throught I might find a photo of the service online. The best I could come up with was the pathetically small view of the centerpiece, above.

The silver served aboard that USS Iowa until it was decommissioned after about 20 years of service, during March of 1919, eventually designated a target ship and sunk during 1923.

It was actually quite a ship --- the U.S. Navy’s first modern sea-going battleship, with space for adequate coal supply, elevated guns and other features that made it suitable for purposes other than shore patrol.

The final USS Iowa, BB-61, was the first and lead ship of four identical Iowa-class battleships. The others were the New Jersey (BB-62), Missouri (BB-63) and Wisconsin (BB-64). It was commissioned during February of 1943 and served honorably during World War II and the Korean War before being decommissioned on Feb. 24, 1958.

Soon thereafter, the Iowa silver service was returned to its home state by the U.S. Navy and placed in care of the State Historical Society which displayed it proudly for many years in the old Historical Building.

During the Reagan administration, the USS Iowa was removed from mothballs, refitted and on April 28, 1984, recommissioned. The silver service was returned to the ship and remained aboard until 1990, when she was decommissioned again --- this time permanently.

In 1992, the silver was returned to Iowa by the Navy and reposed in the bowels of our ghastly new Historical Building until it was finally moved back into the public eye and put on permanent display during 2008.

So now that the USS Iowa has been given a new lease on life (and I’m pleased about that), what do you suppose is going to happen to our silver? Is a trip to Los Angeles in its future? God forbid.

I suppose we really should have thought about bringing the Iowa herself home to float and reuniting ship and silver here. But it’s not clear to me that an Iowa-class battle ship would have floated up the Mississippi --- and then there’s the issue of what would we have done with it had we gotten it here.

Lake Rathbun would have been a possibility I suppose --- there’s plenty of room. But I’m not sure either U.S. 34 or Highway No. 2 could have handled the drive over from Burlington or Keokuk.


Sadly, the USS Iowa did not go out on a high note during 1989-90. On April 19, 1989, during a gunnery exercise, an explosion ripped through a gun turret killing 47 crewmen.

Looking for someone to blame and in a glittering display of homophobic scapegoating, the Navy blamed the whole thing on an alleged suicide plot by allegedly gay crew member Clayton Hartwig, one of the sailors killed.

Although the Navy was satisfied with that, Congress wasn’t and it forced a new investigation, this time by independent contractors.

It was determined during the course of that investigation (a) that the Iowa had been ineptly refitted prior to recommissioning and (b) indifferently maintained thereafter. In addition, tests showed that powder from the same lot that blew up the Iowa’s turret, originally milled in the 1930s and improperly stored during a 1988 dry-docking, was subject to spontaneous combustion because it had been midhandled and that the gun that exploded had been improperly loaded.

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