SAN FRANCISCO – The USS Iowa supported U.S. forces fighting the Japanese during World War II and helped tankers safely navigate the Persian Gulf in the Iran-Iraq War.
Though the ship has long since been out of service, its final battle is still being waged. Two California nonprofits — one in the San Francisco Bay area, the other in Los Angeles — are vying to host the decommissioned ship as a tourist attraction. The Navy is expected to make a decision within a few months.
Fights over such ships, although not unprecedented, are generally confined to the most coveted of vessels. A group that wanted the USS Missouri — site of Japan's surrender in Tokyo Bay during World War II — to remain moored in Bremerton, Wash. sued the Navy in 1998 when the ship was awarded to the Honolulu-based USS Missouri Memorial Association. A federal court later dismissed the suit.
The Iowa, known as "The Big Stick," was part of the same class of battleships as the Missouri.
It ferried President Franklin D. Roosevelt to a conference of Allied leaders in Tehran, Iran to discuss strategy against Nazi Germany during World War II (a bathtub was installed aboard the vessel for the president). It was also present with the Missouri for Japan's surrender.
A gun turret explosion aboard the Iowa during an exercise in 1989 killed more than 40 sailors.
"(The Iowa) is regarded as one of the world's most historic ships," said Merylin Wong, a founding member of the Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square, the group trying to bring the ship to Mare Island in Vallejo, about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco.
The ship is now part of a fleet of old naval vessels moored close to Vallejo in Suisun Bay. It is the oldest of the eight naval vessels currently available for donation.
Wong said her group applied for the Iowa in 1998 when the donation process was first opened.
Last May, the Navy opened up the application process again. That's when a rival group, the Los Angeles-based Pacific Battleship Center, submitted its bid.
The group wants the ship to be moored in the Los Angeles community of San Pedro.
"There is a big difference between Vallejo and Los Angeles," said Ron Ploof, a spokesman for the Pacific Battleship Center.
Both groups say they have financial commitments and prospects of more worth millions of dollars. The organizations that receive ships are responsible for all the costs associated with their transfer, conversion into museums and upkeep. To date, the Navy has donated 47 ships.
Ploof said the Iowa would have greater financial security in San Pedro, where it would be able to draw from a much larger pool of potential visitors.
Wong disputes that claim, saying the port in San Pedro is in an industrial area that wouldn't draw tourists the way Mare Island would.
"We believe strongly that a united effort within the state of California is in the best interest of saving the ship," Wong said.
The Navy reopened the bidding process in part because the Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square had not shown it could meet all of the donation requirements, said Chris Johnson, a spokesman with Naval Sea Systems Command.
Johnson said among the factors the Navy considers is access to funding, a berthing space for the ship and local government support for the transfer.
Both the Vallejo and Los Angeles city councils have backed their respective groups' proposals
"To think that glorious battleship could be the impetus to bring more tourists to Los Angeles and spend money here, it's a beautiful gift," said Los Angeles City Councilwoman Janice Hahn. "This is a way to revive our local economy not just in San Pedro but really in Los Angeles."
Wong said the Navy was specifically concerned that the Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square had not shown progress in raising money for the project. But she said the economic downturn had made donors skittish although discussions are continuing with a handful of interested parties.
Wherever the ship ends up, veterans who served aboard the Iowa are eager to see a memorial go up soon.
The Veteran's Association of the USS Iowa counts about 1,500 former crew as members, said President Gerald Gneckow. But many, particularly those who served in World War II, have died over the years, he said.
"A lot of them are thinking that if this museum doesn't come soon, they are not going to be alive to step foot on the ship again."