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
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
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
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!