Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 14, 2018

The Big Stick: USS Iowa, Port of Los Angeles

A mile or so downhill from where I’m sitting is the Port of Los Angeles. It’s a massive complex of fascinating machinery. There are ships and boats of every description: cargo freighters, cruise liners, work boats, fishing trawlers and tug boats.

LA Port tugboats Brad Nixon 9226 (640x467)

The port also has some highly specialized craft, like the LAFD’s state-of-the-art Fireboat 2.

LAFD Fire Boat 2 Brad Nixon 1273 (571x640)

Towering gantry cranes load and unload container ships.

Port of LA Brad Nixon 7198 (640x413)

The port’s own railroad shunts containers around thousands of acres to and from fleets of trucks that come and go 24 hours a day. Soaring suspension bridges, drawbridges and a maze of streets, roads, water channels and highways connect everything.

One of the largest and most complex objects visible in the harbor is this:

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 9240 (640x480)

That’s the USS Iowa, a battleship built in 1940, which saw wartime service in WWII and Korea between 1942 and 1958, and sailed again in 1984 – 1990.

Iowa is 885 feet long, 108 feet wide and draws 37 feet of water. Its crew complement in WWII was 2,788 officers and sailors.

It was the first of four “Iowa Class” battleships constructed at approximately the same time: New Jersey, Wisconsin and Missouri, the last battleships the U.S. built. All, like Iowa, are now floating museums. The Iowa is the most recent to attain museum status, having been towed from retirement to its location in the Port of Los Angeles, California in 2012.

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 9255 (502x640)

I’m not a naval expert. I’ve assembled a few facts to flesh out a landlubber’s knowledge of what you’ll see if you visit USS Iowa.

At the fore of the superstructure is the enclosed bridge:

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 9256 (640x480)

Originally, the bridge was not enclosed, a change that was made in 1945 while Iowa was in San Francisco for repairs before returning to the Pacific theater.

When Iowa arrived in San Pedro, I was fascinated to see that ships, like human service members, wear campaign service ribbons, to indicate engagements in which they’ve participated. The Iowa’s are painted on the superstructure, visible left of the bridge.

Iowa is, first and foremost, a weapon, or rather a platform carrying numerous weapons systems. It bristles with armament. The most eye-catching ones are the big guns.

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 9239 (640x480)

Each of the ship’s three gun turrets, two forward, one aft, had 3 16-inch (406mm)/50 caliber guns. They could fire twice per minute, each gun propelling a 2,700-lb shell 20 nautical miles, about 20.8 standard miles. Here are vintage projectiles packed in cases alongside Iowa.

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 9242 (640x417)

They’re 72 inches long, 16 inches in diameter.

Those guns were used primarily to bombard targets on land: airfields, factories and fortifications, or invasion or attack sites. Few weapons of war can deliver the steady, stable stream of firepower of which a battleship is capable. Here is a famous 1984 photo of Iowa firing all 9 guns simultaneously in a demonstration exercise.


Although a common misperception is that the perpendicular “wake” left of the ship is the tons of force from the discharge shoving the Iowa backward, that’s a misconception. Those waves are shock waves from the gun blasts. The guns and turrets are built to absorb the recoil of firing. Thanks to Mark Nixon for pointing out this detail.

The Iowa ships were loaded with other weaponry, including 20 5-inch/35 caliber guns, in pairs.

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 9244 (640x480)

There were also antiaircraft weapons, because Iowa had to defend both itself and the aircraft carriers it usually escorted from aerial attack.

When the ship was refitted to return to service in 1984, it was equipped with a number of new weapons systems, including several types of missiles. You can see 8 gray missile tubes above the 5-inch gun turret in the photo below.

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 9247 (640x480)

If you tour the ship, you’ll have an opportunity to examine much more than this wharfside introduction can show you. The power systems, living quarters, communications, fire control and, of course, the basic realities of navigating a 50,000-ton boat capable of 38 mph (33 knots) in open ocean are impressive engineering feats.

Battleship Iowa Brad Nixon 9257 (640x478)

The President Goes for a Cruise

One of the most human elements of the ship originated from its early voyage in 1943, carrying president Franklin Roosevelt and other officials across the Atlantic to a wartime conference with Winston Churchill and Josef Stalin. Crippled by polio in 1921, Roosevelt was unable to use a stand-up shower, the only form of bathing normally available on a ship subject to the rolling of the ocean. Iowa, though, still has the bathtub installed for the president, perhaps unique among warships.


The Big Stick, as it was nicknamed, is now officially the USS Iowa Museum, located at Berth 87 on the main channel in San Pedro, California, just off Harbor Blvd. For directions and descriptions, hours and prices of tours, please visit the museum website at this link.

A Final Note

The Iowa is not a mere mechanical system. It is a weapon of fierce power. In its day, it was used to deliver a fearsome amount of destruction and death. This post is not about flag-waving or the glorification of war. I occasionally write about my interest in works of engineering, from ancient buildings to railroad engines, and I intend this article in the same spirit.

I invite any better-informed experts to add comments expanding my information or correcting omissions or errors I’ve made. For a balanced, expert look at the Pacific theater of WWII, I recommend The Pacific Paratrooper’s blog.

© Brad Nixon 2018. Iowa firepower demonstration photo originally retrieved from, which no longer exists, public domain. Research courtesy of Wikipedia. Any errors in terminology are my own.


  1. The ‘Iowa’ is a grand lady with a gallant history. When she came to the Pacific, she became part of Task Force 58, and anyone who reads my site, knows TF-58 was a busy bunch!! To my knowledge, Iowa had 18 engagements where those massive guns needed to be fired, including during Kamikaze attack. I had to go back and find that one for you…

    “IOWA’s Executive Officer called out the performance of one Marine gun crew member against the attacking “Judy” dive bomber in the November 1, 1944 Action Report::

    The performance on 14 October of the port machine gun batteries and particularly of Sergeant John C. Villante, USMC, operator of no. 4’s 40 millimeter director, is worthy of special mention. On this occasion, only the cool and accurate performance of his duty on the part of Villante enabled the machine guns to blast apart a Judy heading for a crash dive on IOWA’s bridge area. With the plane apparently heading at the director, Sergeant Villante picked up and maintained an accurate fire. The plane was knocked down close aboard.

    The most intense air attack against IOWA took place on November 25, 1944, while steaming 70 miles east of Polillo Island supporting airstrikes against the Luzon area, Philippines. IOWA’s War Diary states that at 1245 the lookouts spotted several enemy planes low on the water and closing in for an attack. For the next 10 minutes the action was extremely rapid. IOWA fired at seven planes, with three being shot down and three more hit. The three planes shot down by IOWA were two “Jill” attack torpedo bombers and one “Judy” dive bomber. “

    Liked by 1 person

    • THIS is why I encouraged my readers to get acquainted with your blog. Thanks very much for adding stories to mere facts.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You had the basic story, you can’t give it ALL to the to the readers. I know I always hope to instill some curiosity in people and have them do research on their own.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I noticed the colorful insignia on the side of the ship, and wondered if they were akin to campaign ribbons. Then, you answered the question. I didn’t know that was a custom, but it seems appropriate.

    I’ve been aboard the USS Lexington, the aircraft carrier berthed in Corpus Christi, but haven’t visited the Battleship Texas. On the other hand, I have seen the Japanese “personal submarine” that’s part of the exhibit at the Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas — now, the National Museum of the Pacific War. With the expansion and renovation complete, I’m looking forward to another visit.

    I do love ports, and enjoyed those photos, too. Those Crowley tugs are impressive. I thought this article about the company was exceptionally interesting.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ah … more reading. Thank you. Man, I love those big tugboats.


    • Okay, now I have to get over to the Port of Long Beach side to see “Goliath!” Over there is where the big oil tankers pull in. The port is taking steps to allow even more gargantuan tankers to enter than it can currently handle (requires an enormous new suspension bridge, now under construction). So much to see. Thanks.

      Liked by 1 person

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