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Best of the last battleships
Article from: Navy Times, May 15, 1989 by Fred Reed

The explosion on the USS Iowa has inevitably roused the press to wondering whether a ship commissioned in 1943 has a place in a modern Navy. I don't know; reasonable arguments can be made on both sides of the question. I will attest, however, that it is one lovely ship

I spent a day aboard the Iowa some years ago on the pretense that I wanted to write a column about it. really, I had been reading about the Iowas - four of the class were built - since I was a kid.

The Iowa class were the last of the battleships and the best, the end of a naval world.

Actually they didn't get much real work even in World War II, having been passed by technology, notably the aircraft carrier.

Battlewagons of the older classes spent their days bombarding shores in support of the Marines, and the Iowas did carrier escort duty. In practice, this meant they sprouted large numbers of 5-inch anti-aircraft guns and almost never fired their huge 16-inch main batteries.

The Iowas are today perhaps the only ships in the fleet that look like warships. modern ships are boxy so that they can hold electronics, their armament consists of hidden missiles. They aren't exactly pretty.

But the Iowa is beautiful. When I went onboard, it was tied up in Norfolk, Va.; low and sleek in the water, gray as bad weather and looking much as it must have in the remote seas of 1944.

The Iowa is very solid. For example, the face armor on the main turrets - two forward, one aft for a total nine 16-inch guns - is 17 inches thick if memory serves.

These buckets were meant, in John Paul Jones' phrase, to go in harm's way, and they were built to take it. Nice touches are involved. For example, rivet heads inside the turrets have steel caps over them to that a hit on a turret won't send the rivet flying lethally about. Damage control facilities are multiple and serious.

The ship's innards are awesome. Everything is steel, and everything is many inches thick. The modern Navy is pretty much built not to get hit. the Iowas assume they would be hit - and hit hard - and shrug it off. redundancy is taken for granted: two plotting rooms at opposite ends of the ship to control the big guns, which I believe could be fired from 11 different places on the ship; fuel tanks are placed to absorb torpedo hits.

Getting into the lower levels of her turret means crawling and clambering through confined and forbidding spaces of very thick steel, down and down and down. If you have done any caving, you would recognize the sensation of deep, tight passages far underground. Doors shut with heavy clunks. Finally you come to rooms where big shells are put into elevators for the trip to the guns.

You can't get out of a turret quickly. My escort on the Iowa told me that the turret crews in World War II used to carry derringers in their boots. If the ship ever started down, they figured they would check out with the pistols instead of drowning like rats. Fortunately, after Pearl Harbor no American battleship was sunk. exactly how you would go about sinking an Iowa that had adequate air cover isn't clear.

The idea prevails in some quarters that battleships were brutal but intellectually not very demanding, like heavy clubs. Thais is wrong. Battleships were the strategic weapon par excellence until perhaps the late 1930s when carriers became dominant. Colonies and empires depended on the gray behemoths. Infinite thought went into designing them.

For example, the side armor was planned with the expected enemy's main battery in mind. Beyond a certain minimum range, which was carefully calculated, the enemy's fire couldn't penetrate the ships' formidably thick side armor. Until the enemy was a much greater minimum distance away, his guns that used plunging fire - i.e. shooting high so the rounds came down on the thinner deck armor - couldn't get enough plunging angle to penetrate. Between these ranges was the "immune zone", in which the enemy couldn't get through the armor at all.

The idea was to arrange things so that, when the enemy was in your immune zone, he was in your killing zone. Good minds did the mathematics.

I don't yet know the extent of the damage to the Iowa. If only for artistic reasons, I hope the Navy patches her up. She's a jewel.

This story is to Universal Press Syndicate
Special thanks to Mike McEnteggart for sending us this article!




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