The Big Stick: A photo tour of the battleship USS Iowa

The USS Iowa served her country for over 47 years and was the lead ship in the last class of battleships the US will ever make. Here's a full tour.

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

The USS Iowa was the first ship in her class, designed to escort the new, and fast, aircraft carriers. Started in June 1940, and launched just over 2 years later, the Iowa was big, fast, and powerful.

Nicknamed "The Big Stick," she was decommissioned and recommissioned several times over the decades, fighting in World War II, the Korean War and again through the '80s.

After years in the mothball fleet, she joins her three other sister ships in their new role as stately museums. Sitting at the Port of Los Angeles, you're able to tour the Iowa right now. Here's how it looks.

Fast battleship

Prior to the Iowa class, the US Navy generally favored heavily armored and gunned ships, with a slight sacrifice of speed. In order to keep up with the new aircraft carriers, the Navy needed faster battleships.

The Iowa is fast, with a top speed over 38 mph (61 kph), yet it still has heavy armor and nine 16-inch guns. She was the first in her class built and launched, though her sister ships followed shortly after.

She served in both the Atlantic and the Pacific. In the Atlantic, she carried President Franklin Roosevelt to Algeria on the way to the Tehran Conference. In the Pacific she was part of many battles, including the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

After the war she was decommissioned, and then recommissioned only a few years later as part of the Korean War. Again, a few years after that war, she was decommissioned.

As part of President Ronald Reagan's 600-ship Navy, she was brought out of mothballs and thoroughly refitted and modernized. The ship was the site of an explosion of the main turret during a drill in 1989, during which 47 crewmen were killed. Two separate major investigations ensued, with conflicting results.

The Iowa was decommissioned a final time in 1990, which was earlier than expected, because of the damaged turret.

Museum ship, complete with app

After many years in the reserve fleet, the Iowa finally became a museum ship, and made her way to her new home at the Port of Los Angeles. Friendly docents have answers to every question. In a nice touch, any former military have their name, rank and where and when they served broadcast as they come aboard.

It's a self-guided tour, but exceptionally well laid out, letting you easily navigate through a single path around all the open areas on the ship.

Something I haven't seen before on a tour is the availability of an official app. It's surprisingly elaborate, with additional info, including historical pictures, audio, and video. You don't need to download the app to do the tour, but it adds a lot.

Though most of the features are designed for use while you're on board, you can access most of the additional info no matter where you are. It's worth checking out, and is available for both Android and iOS.

Sister ships

The USS Iowa was the lead ship in her class, which included four ships. The USS Missouri holds vigil over the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. A tour I did of that ship a few years ago is below. The New Jersey you can tour in Camden, New Jersey, while the Wisconsin is in Norfolk, Virginia.

The Big Stick

Though the oldest of the Iowa-class ships, it's the newest of them to be converted to a museum. As such, there's less to see than others. What there is to see, basically everything above decks, is wonderfully maintained. Not being able to access the engine room and other below decks areas is a bit of a disappointment. No doubt those areas will be opened eventually, as the restoration continues. Even so, the USS Iowa is still definitely worth the trip if you're in the LA area. Depending when you visit, there are also guided tours that show areas off-limits for regular visitors. There's more info on their website.


In his alternate life as a travel writer, Geoff does tours of cool museums and locations around the world including nuclear submarines, medieval castles, Abbey Road Studios, and more. You can follow his exploits on Twitter and Instagram, and on his travel blog BaldNomad. Got a tour-worthy spot you think he should check out? Let him know!

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Geoffrey Morrison/CNET
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