USS Iowa (BB-61) ("The Big Stick") was the lead ship of her class of battleship, and was the fourth ship of in the United States Navy to be named in honor of the 29th state. Iowa is the only ship of the class to have served a combat tour in the Atlantic Ocean during World War II.
During World War II, Iowa served in the Atlantic fleet as a countermeasure against the German battleship Tirpitz. When transferred to the Pacific fleet in 1944, Iowa shelled beachheads at Kwajalein and Eniwetok in advance of Allied amphibious landings and screened aircraft carriers operating in the Marshall Islands. During the Korean War, Iowa was involved in raids up and down the North Korean coast, after which she was decommissioned into the United States Navy reserve fleets, better known as the "mothball fleet". She was reactivated in 1984 as part of the 600-ship Navy plan, and operated in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets to counter the recently expanded Soviet Navy. In April 1989 an explosion of undetermined origin wrecked her #2 gun turret, killing 47 sailors.
Iowa was decommissioned for the last time in 1990, and was initially struck from the Naval Vessel Register in 1995; however, she was reinstated in 1999 to allow her sister ship New Jersey to be donated to her namesake state for use as a museum. Iowa is currently berthed with the Suisun Bay reserve fleet near San Francisco, California, and is awaiting donation to a not-for-profit entity for use as a museum ship. At present, Iowa is the only member of her class not open to the public.
Iowa’s main battery consisted of nine 16 inch (406 mm)/50 caliber Mark 7 naval guns, which could fire armor-piercing shells some . Her secondary battery consisted of twenty 5 inch (127 mm)/38 caliber guns in twin turrets, which could fire at targets up to away. With the advent of air power and the need to gain and maintain air superiority came a need to protect the growing fleet of Allied aircraft carriers; to this end, Iowa was fitted with an array of Oerlikon 20 mm and Bofors 40 mm anti-aircraft guns to defend Allied carriers from enemy airstrikes. When reactivated in 1984 Iowa had her remaining 20 mm and 40 mm Anti-Aircraft guns removed, and was outfitted with Phalanx CIWS mounts for protection against enemy missiles and aircraft, and Armored Box Launchers and Quad Cell Launchers designed to fire Tomahawk missiles and Harpoon missiles, respectively.
On 24 February 1943, Iowa put to sea for sea trial shakedown in the Chesapeake Bay and along the Atlantic coast. She got underway on 27 August 1943 for Argentia, Newfoundland to counter the threat of German battleship Tirpitz which was reportedly operating in Norwegian waters before returning to the United States 25 October for two weeks of maintenance at the Norfolk Navy Yard.
After refueling and gathering her escorts, Iowa carried President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Secretary of State Cordell Hull, and other World War II military brass to Casablanca, French Morocco on the first leg of the journey to the Tehran Conference. Among the vessels escorting Iowa on the journey was the Fletcher-class destroyer . William D. Porter had already been involved in a major mishap when her anchor tore the railing and lifeboat mounts off of a docked sister destroyer while backing up the night before. The poor performance continued the next day when a depth charge from the deck of Porter fell into the rough sea and exploded, causing Iowa and the other escort ships to take evasive maneuvers under the assumption that the task force had come under torpedo attack by a German U-boat.
On 14 November, at Roosevelt's request, Iowa conducted an anti-aircraft drill to demonstrate her ability to defend herself from enemy aircraft. The drill began with the release of a number of balloons for use as AA-targets, most of which were shot by AA gunners aboard Iowa, however a few of the balloons had drifted toward William D. Porter. Porter went to battle stations and began shooting down the balloons Iowa had missed, and with the other escort ships demonstrated a torpedo drill by simulating a launch at Iowa; however this drill abruptly turned serious when the #3 torpedo aboard William D. Porter discharged from its tube and headed toward Iowa.
William D. Porter attempted to signal Iowa about the incoming torpedo, but owing to radio silence was forced to use a blinker light, and while relaying the message to Iowa the destroyer misidentified the direction of the torpedo and then relayed the wrong message. In desperation the destroyer finally broke radio silence, and using codewords, relayed a warning message to Iowa regarding the incoming torpedo. After confirming the identity of the destroyer, Iowa turned hard to avoid being hit by the torpedo. Roosevelt, meanwhile, had learned of the incoming torpedo threat and asked his secret service attendee to move his wheel chair to the side of the battleship. Not long afterward the torpedo detonated in the wake of the battleship. Iowa was unhurt and trained her main guns on William D. Porter out of concern that the smaller ship may have been involved in some sort of assassination plot.
Iowa would later complete her Presidential escort mission 16 December by returning the President to the United States. Roosevelt addressed the crew of Iowa prior to leaving the battleship, at which time he said, "...from all I have seen and all I have heard, the Iowa is a 'happy ship,' and having served with the Navy for many years, I know—and you know—what that means." He also touched on the progress made at the conference before concluding his address with "...good luck, and remember that I am with you in spirit, each and every one of you," before leaving.
As flagship of Battleship Division 7, Iowa departed the United States 2 January 1944 for the Pacific Ocean, transiting the Panama Canal on 7 January in advance of her combat debut in the campaign for the Marshall Islands. From 29 January to 3 February, she supported carrier air strikes made by Rear Admiral Frederick C. Sherman's Task Group 38.3 against Kwajalein and Eniwetok Atolls. Her next assignment was to support air strikes against the major Japanese naval and logistics base at Truk, Caroline Islands. Iowa, in company with other ships, was detached from the support group on 16 February 1944 to conduct an anti-shipping sweep around Truk, with the objective of destroying enemy naval vessels escaping to the north. On 21 February, she was underway with the Fast Carrier Task Force (TF 58 or TF 38, depending on whether it was part of the 5th Fleet or the 3rd Fleet) while it conducted the first strikes against Saipan, Tinian, Rota, and Guam in the Mariana Islands. During this action, Iowa helped sink the Japanese light cruiser Katori.
On 18 March 1944, Iowa, flying the flag of Vice Admiral Willis A. Lee (Commander Battleships, Pacific), joined in the bombardment of Mili Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Although struck by two Japanese 4.7 inch projectiles during the action, Iowa suffered negligible damage. She then rejoined Task Force 58 on 30 March, and supported air strikes against the Palau Islands and Woleai of the Carolines which continued for several days.
From 22 April to 28 April 1944, Iowa supported air raids on Hollandia (now known as Jayapura), Aitape, and Wakde Islands to support Army forces on Aitape, Tanahmerah Bay, and Humboldt Bay in New Guinea. She then joined the Task Force's second strike on Truk, on 29 April and 30 April, and bombarded Japanese facilities on Ponape in the Carolines on 1 May.
In the opening phases of the Mariana and Palau Islands campaign, Iowa protected the American carriers during air strikes on the islands of Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Rota, and Pagan on 12 June. Iowa was then detached to bombard enemy installations on Saipan and Tinian on 13 June and 14 June, which resulted in the destruction of a Japanese ammunition dump. On 19 June, in an engagement known as the Battle of the Philippine Sea, Iowa, as part of the battle line of TF 58, helped repel four massive air raids launched by the Japanese Middle Fleet. This resulted in the almost complete destruction of Japanese carrier-based air-forces, with Iowa claiming the destruction of three enemy aircraft. Iowa then joined in the pursuit of the fleeing enemy Fleet, shooting down one torpedo plane and assisting in splashing another.
Throughout July, Iowa remained off the Marianas supporting air strikes on the Palaus and landings on Guam. After a month's rest, Iowa sailed from Eniwetok as part of the Third Fleet, and helped support the landings on Peleliu on 17 September. She then protected the carriers during air strikes against the Central Philippines to neutralize enemy air power for the long awaited invasion of the Philippines. On 10 October, Iowa arrived off Okinawa for a series of air strikes on the Ryukyu Islands and Formosa. She then supported air strikes against Luzon on 18 October and continued this duty during General Douglas MacArthur's landing on Leyte on 20 October.
In a last-ditch attempt to halt the United States campaign to recapture the Philippines, the Imperial Japanese Navy struck back with Shō-Gō 1, a three-pronged attack aimed at the destruction of American amphibious forces in Leyte Gulf. The planned called for Vice-Admiral Jisaburō Ozawa to take the surviving Japanese carriers and use them as bait to draw US carriers of TF 38 away from the Philippine beacheads, allowing Imperial Japanese Admirals Takeo Kurita, Kiyohide Shima, and Shōji Nishimura to take surface task forces through the San Bernardino Strait and Surigao Strait, where they would roundezvous and attack the US beacheads. Iowa accompanied TF 38 during attacks against the Japanese Central Force under the command of Admiral Kurita as it steamed through the Sibuyan Sea toward San Bernardino Strait. The reported results of these attacks and the apparent retreat of the Japanese Central Force led Admiral William "Bull" Halsey to believe that this force had been ruined as an effective fighting group; as a result, Iowa, with TF 38, steamed after the Japanese Northern Force off Cape Engaño, Luzon. On 25 October 1944, when the ships of the Northern Force were almost within range of Iowa's guns, word arrived that the Japanese Central Force was attacking a group of American escort carriers off Samar. This threat to the American beachheads forced TF 38 to reverse course and steam to support the vulnerable escort-carrier fleet. However, the fierce resistance put up by the US 7th Fleet in the Battle off Samar had already caused the Japanese to retire and Iowa was denied a surface action. Following the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Iowa remained in the waters off the Philippines screening carriers during strikes against Luzon and Formosa. She sailed for the West Coast late in December 1944.
On 18 December 1944 the ships of Task Force 38 unexpectedly found themselves in a fight for their lives when Typhoon Cobra overtook the force—7 fleet carriers, 6 light carriers, 8 battleships, 15 cruisers, and about 50 destroyers—during their attempt to refuel at sea. At the time the ships were operating about east of Luzon in the Philippine Sea. The carriers had just completed three days of heavy raids against Japanese airfields, suppressing enemy aircraft during the American amphibious operations against Mindoro in the Philippines. The task force rendezvoused with Captain Jasper T. Acuff and his fueling group on 17 December with the intention of refueling all ships in the task force and replacing lost aircraft. Although the sea had been growing rougher all day, the nearby cyclonic disturbance gave relatively little warning of its approach. On 18 December, the small but violent typhoon overtook the Task Force while many of the ships were attempting to refuel. Many of the vessels were caught near the center of the storm and buffeted by extreme seas and hurricane force winds. Three destroyers, Hull (DD-350), Monaghan (DD-354), and Spence (DD-512), capsized and sank with nearly all hands, while a cruiser, five aircraft carriers, and three destroyers suffered serious damage. Approximately 790 officers and men were lost or killed, with another 80 injured. Fires occurred in three carriers when planes broke loose in their hangars and some 146 planes on various ships were lost or damaged beyond economical repair by fires, impact damage, or by being swept overboard. Iowa reported zero injured sailors as a result of the typhoon, but suffered a loss of one of her float planes, and damage to one of her shafts. The damaged shaft required Iowa to return to the US, and Iowa arrived San Francisco, California, on 15 January 1945, for repairs and an overhaul. During the course of the overhaul Iowa had her bridge area enclosed, and was outfitted with new search radars and fire-control systems.
Iowa sailed on 19 March 1945 for Okinawa, arriving on 15 April and relieving her sister ship . Beginning 24 April, the Iowa supported carrier operations which aimed to establish and maintain air superiority for ground forces during their struggle for the island. She then supported air strikes off southern Kyūshū from 25 May to 13 June 1945. Iowa then sailed toward northern Honshu and Hokkaido, and participated in strikes on the Japanese home-islands on 14 July and 15 July by bombarding Muroran, Hokkaidō, destroying steel mills and other targets. The city of Hitachi on Honshū was shelled beginning the night of 17 July and lasting to 18 July. On 29 and 30 July, Iowa trained her guns on Kahoolawe for a bombardment. Iowa continued to support fast carrier strikes until the cessation of hostilities on 15 August as a result of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. On 27 August, Iowa and her sister ship entered Sagami Bay to oversee the surrender of the Yokosuka naval district.
Iowa entered Tokyo Bay with the occupation forces on 29 August 1945. While in the bay she received a number of sailors from sister ship Missouri who were temporarily transferred to Iowa for the duration of the surrender ceremony aboard Missouri. After serving as Admiral Halsey's flagship for the surrender ceremony on 2 September 1945, Iowa remained in the bay as part of the occupying force. As part of the ongoing Operation Magic Carpet, she received homeward bound GIs and liberated US POWs before departing Tokyo Bay on 20 September, bound for the United States.
On 25 May Iowa, following her sister ship Missouri’s example, arrived in the waters off Chongjin, a North Korean industrial center about 48 miles from the Russian border. Upon arrival, Iowa proceeded to shell the industrial and rail transportation centers in Chongjin, after which she moved south to aid the U.S. X Corps. En-route to U.S. positions, Iowa again bombarded Songjin, destroying several railroad tunnels and bridges in the area. On 28 May 1952, Iowa rejoined the main body of the U.S. fleet supporting the X Corps, heavily shelling several islands in Wonsan Harbor.
Throughout June, Iowa trained her guns on targets at Mayang-do, Tanchon, Chongjin, Chodo-Sokto and ports of Hungnam and Wonsan in support of the UN and South Korean Forces. On 9 June, a helicopter from Iowa rescued a downed pilot from the carrier . At the time, Princeton was operating with TF 77, and with other carriers in the task force were involved in a bombing campaign against North Korean supply lines, troop concentrations, and infrastructure; additionally, the carriers were flying close air support missions for ground forces fighting against the North Korean forces. In July Iowa received a new skipper, Captain Joshua W. Cooper, who assumed command of the battleship for the remainder of her Korean War tour.
On 20 August, Iowa took aboard nine wounded men from the Gleaves-class destroyer after Thompson was hit by a Chinese artillery battery while shelling enemy positions at Sŏngjin. At the time Iowa was operating 16 miles (30 km) south of Sŏngjin, and after receiving the wounded destroyermen Iowa covered Thompson as she retreated into safer waters.
On 23 September, General Mark Wayne Clark, the Commander-In-Chief of United Nations Forces in Korea, came aboard Iowa. During his time aboard the battleship Clark observed Iowa in action as her guns shelled Wonsan area for a third time, accounting for the destruction of a major enemy ammunition dump. On 25 September, Iowa fired her guns at an enemy railroad and thirty-car train.
In October, Iowa was part of the force involved in Operation Decoy, a feint to draw enemy troops into Kojo and bring them within striking distance of the battleships big guns. On 16 October, during the operation, Iowa provided anti-aircraft support to , an amphibious force command ship.
Iowa embarked midshipmen for at sea training to Northern Europe in July 1953, and shortly afterwards took part in Operation "Mariner," a major NATO exercise, serving as flagship of Vice Admiral Edmund T. Wooldridge, commanding the Second Fleet. Upon completion of this exercise, until the fall of 1954, Iowa operated in the Virginia Capes area. In September 1954, she became the flagship of Rear Admiral R. E. Libby, Commander, Battleship Cruiser Force, United States Atlantic Fleet.
From January to April 1955, Iowa made an extended cruise to the Mediterranean Sea as the flagship of the Commander, Sixth Fleet. Iowa departed on a midshipman training cruise 1 June 1955 and upon her return, she entered Norfolk for a four-month overhaul. Following the overhaul, Iowa continued intermittent training cruises and operational exercises, until 4 January 1957 when she departed Norfolk for duty with the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. Upon completion of this deployment, Iowa embarked midshipmen for a South American training cruise and joined in the International Naval Review off Hampton Roads, Virginia, on 13 June 1957.
On 3 September 1957, Iowa sailed for Scotland for NATO Operation Strikeback. She returned to Norfolk on 28 September 1957, and departed Hampton Roads for the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on 22 October 1957. She was decommissioned 24 February 1958 and entered the Atlantic Reserve Fleet at Philadelphia.
As part of President Ronald Reagan’s and Secretary of the Navy John F. Lehman’s effort to create an expanded 600-ship Navy, Iowa was reactivated and moved under tow to Avondale Shipyards near New Orleans, Louisiana for refitting and equipment modernization in advance of her planned recommissioning. During the refit, Iowa had all of her remaining Oerlikon 20 mm and Bofors 40 mm anti-aircraft guns removed, due to their ineffectiveness against modern jet fighters and anti-ship missiles. Additionally, the two 5 inch gun mounts located at mid-ship and in the aft on the port and starboard side of the battleship were removed.
The Iowa was then towed to Ingalls shipbuilding, Pascagoula, Mississippi, where over the next several months the battleship was upgraded with the most advanced weaponry available. Among the new weapons systems installed were four MK 141 quad cell launchers for 16 AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles, eight Armored Box Launcher (ABL) mounts for 32 BGM-109 Tomahawk missiles, and a quartet of Phalanx Close In Weapon System (CIWS) gatling guns for defense against enemy anti-ship missiles and enemy aircraft. Iowa was the first battleship to receive the RQ-2 Pioneer Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, a remotely controlled drone that replaced the helicopters previously used to spot for her nine 16 in/50 Mark 7 guns, and Iowa could carry up to eight of the UAVs at a time. Also included in her modernization were upgrades to radar and fire control systems for her guns and missiles, and improved electronic warfare capabilities. Armed as such, Iowa was formally recommissioned on 28 April 1984, ahead of schedule, within her budget at a cost of $500 million, and under the command of Captain Gerald E. Gneckow. In order to expedite the schedule, many necessary repairs to Iowa's engines and guns were not completed and the mandatory US Navy Board of Inspection and Survey (InSurv) inspection was skipped.
From April to August 1984, Iowa underwent refresher training and naval gunfire support qualifications in the Atlantic Ocean, then spent the rest of 1984 on a shakedown cruise in the area around Central America. During this cruise she aided in several humanitarian operations, such as those conducted in Costa Rica and Honduras before returning to the United States in April 1985 for a period of routine maintenance.
In August 1985, Iowa joined 160 other ships for Exercise Ocean Safari, a NATO naval exercise aimed at testing NATO's ability to control sea lanes and thereby maintain free passage of shipping. Owing to bad weather, Iowa and the other ships were forced to ride out rough seas, but Iowa made use of the rough seas to practice hiding herself from enemy forces. While serving with the exercising force Iowa crossed the Arctic Circle. In October, Iowa took part in Baltic Operations, and fired her phalanx guns, 5 inch guns, and 16 inch guns in the Baltic Sea on 17 October while operating with U.S. and other allied ships. After the conclusion of the Baltic operations Iowa returned to the United States.
Beginning on 17 March 1986, Iowa underwent her overdue InSurv inspection. Conducted under the supervision of Rear Admiral John D. Bulkeley, the ship failed the inspection. During the inspection, the ship was unable to achieve its top speed of 33 knots during a full-power engine run. Bulkely, reportedly extremely angry with the numerous safety and maintenance failings discovered during the inspection, recommended that Gneckow and several other of the ship's officers be charged with dereliction of duty. Bulkeley personally recommended to the Chief of Naval Operations and Lehman that Iowa be taken out of service immediately. Lehman did not take the ship out of service, but instructed the leaders of the Atlantic Fleet to ensure that Iowa's deficiencies were corrected.
A month after the InSurv, Iowa failed an Operation Propulsion Program Evaluation (OPPE). A short time later, however, the ship retook and passed the OPPE.
After the OPPE evaluations, Iowa returned to the waters around Central America, conducting drills and exercises while providing a military presence to friendly nations. On 4 July 1986, President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan boarded Iowa for the International Naval Review, which was held in the Hudson River. That same month Larry Seaquist assumed command of the battleship and her crew.
On 17 August, Iowa set sail for the North Atlantic and in September participated in Exercise Northern Wedding by ferrying Marines ashore and assisting helicopter gunships. During the exercise Iowa fired her main guns at Cape Wrath range in Scotland in support of a simulated amphibious assault 5 and 6 September, firing a total of nineteen 16 in shells and thirty-two 5 in shells during a ten hour period. As with Exercise Ocean Safari, Iowa operated in rough seas and adverse weather conditions. During the live fire exercise a small number of Marines assigned to Iowa were put ashore to monitor the fall of shot and advise the battleship of gunnery corrections. At the conclusion of the exercise Iowa visited ports in England and Germany before returning to the United States in October.
In December Iowa became the testbed for the Navy's RQ-2 Pioneer Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). The drone was designed to serve as an aerial spotter for the battleship's guns, thereby allowing the guns to be used against an enemy without the need for a airplanes or helicopter spotter. Pioneer passed its tests and made its first deployment that same month aboard Iowa.
From January to September 1987 Iowa operated in the waters in and around Central America and participated in several exercises until sailing for the Mediterranean Sea 10 September to join the US 6th Fleet based there. She remained in the Mediterranean Sea until 22 October, when she was detached from the sixth fleet and departed for operations in the North Sea. On 25 November, as part of Operation Earnest Will, Iowa transitioned the Suez Canal and set sail for the Persian Gulf, which at the time was one of the battlefields of the Iran–Iraq War. The presence of U.S. Naval vessels in the gulf was in response to a formal petition from Kuwait, whose ships were being attacked by Iranian forces in what would later be called the "Tanker War" phase of the Iran-Iraq War. Iowa and other vessels operating in the gulf were assigned the job of escorting Kuwaiti tankers from Kuwaiti ports to the open sea, but because U.S. law forbade military escorts for civilian ships flying a foreign flag the tankers escorted by the United States were reflagged as U.S. merchant vessels and assigned American names. For the remainder of the year Iowa escorted Kuwaiti gas and oil tankers "reflagged" as U.S. merchant ships from the Persian Gulf through the Straits of Hormuz.
On 20 February 1988 Iowa departed from the Persian Gulf, transited the Suez Canal, and set sail for the United States, arriving at Norfolk 10 March for routine maintenance. In April she participated in the annual Fleet Week celebrations before returning to Norfolk for an overhaul. On 23 May, Fred Mosally replaced Larry Seaquist as Captain of the Iowa. After completion of the overhaul, Moosally took Iowa on a shakdown cruise around Chesapeake Bay on 25 Agust 1988. Encountering difficulty in conning the ship through shallow water, Iowa, with Moosally at the helm, narrowly missed colliding with the frigates USS Moinster and Farragut and cruiser South Carolina before running aground in soft mud outside the bay's main ship channel near the Thimble Shoals. After one hour, Iowa was able to extricate herself without damage and return to port. Throughout August and September, Iowa continued with sea trials, then began refresher training in the waters around Florida and Puerto Rico in October, during which the ship passed an OPPE.
On 20 January 1989, during a gunnery experiment off Vieques Island, Iowa fired a 16 in shell 23.4 nautical miles, setting a record for the longest 16 in shell ever fired. In February the battleship sailed for New Orleans for a port visit before departing for Norfolk. On 10 April the battleship was visited by commander of the US 2nd Fleet, and on 13 April sailed to participate in fleet exercise.
At 9:55 AM on 19 April 1989, an explosion ripped through the Number Two 16 inch gun turret, killing 47 crewmen. A gunner in the powder magazine room quickly flooded the #2 powder magazine, likely preventing catastrophic damage to the ship. At first, the NCIS investigators theorized that one of the dead crewman, Clayton Hartwig, had detonated an explosive device in a suicide attempt after the end of an alleged homosexual affair with another sailor. To support this claim naval officials pointed to several different factors, including Hartwig's life insurance policy, which named Kendall Truitt as the sole beneficiary in the event of his death, the presence of unexplained materials inside Turret II, and his mental state, which was alleged to be unstable.
Although the Navy was satisfied with the investigation and its results, others were unimpressed with the NCIS investigation, and in October 1991, amid increasing criticism over what was seen as a very poor investigation with little or no real forensic proof, Congress relented and forced the Navy to reopen the investigation. This second investigation, handled by independent investigators, was hampered by the fact that most of original debris from Iowa had been cleaned up or otherwise disposed of by the Navy before and after the first investigation, but the investigation did manage to uncover evidence pointing to an accidental powder explosion rather than an intentional act of sabotage.
While Iowa was undergoing modernization, sister ship had been dispatched to Lebanon to aid the peacekeeping forces by providing offshore fire support. Unfortunately, New Jersey was at the time the only commissioned battleship anywhere in the world, and in an effort to get another battleship commissioned to relieve New Jersey, the modernization of Iowa was stepped up, leaving her in poor condition when she recommissioned in 1984. In May 1988, Fred Mosally replaced Larry Seaquist as captain of the Iowa. Unlike Seaquist, who had placed emphasis on the training and manning of guns, Mosally was more concerned with the maintenance of the missiles on Iowa. Lastly, the Navy had improperly stored the gunpowder used aboard the battleship; it had been placed aboard a barge where sunlight and other elemental factors contributed to its degradation.
Powder from the same lot as the one under investigation was tested at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division. Spontaneous combustion was achieved with the powder, which had been originally milled in the 1930s and improperly stored in a barge at the Navy's Yorktown, Virginia Naval Weapons Station during a 1988 dry-docking of the Iowa. Gun powder gives off ether gas as it degrades; the ether is highly flammable, and could be ignited by a spark. This revelation resulted in a shift in the Navy's position on the incident, and Admiral Frank Kelso, the Chief of Naval Operations at the time, publicly apologized to the Hartwig family, concluding that there was no real evidence to support the claim that he had intentionally killed the other sailors. The captain of the Iowa, Fred Moosally, was severely criticized for his handling of the matter, and as a result of the incident the Navy changed the powder-handling procedures for its battleships. The incident remains the surface Navy's worst loss of life during peace time operations, surpassing the loss of life incurred from the attack of an Iraqi Air Force jet on the Oliver Hazard Perry-class guided missile frigate .
With the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the lack of a perceived threat against the United States came drastic cuts to the defense budget, and the high cost of maintaining battleships as part of the active fleet became uneconomical; as a result, Iowa was decommissioned for the last time on 26 October 1990. Iowa was the first of the reactivated battleships to be decommissioned, and was decommissioned earlier than originally planned as a result of the damaged #2 turret. Iowa, as part of the National Defense Reserve Fleet, was berthed at the Naval Education and Training Center in Newport, from 24 September 1998 to 8 March 2001, when the ship began her journey, under tow, to California. The ship arrived in Suisun Bay near San Francisco on 21 April 2001 and is part of the Reserve Fleet there, where she remained in reserve until struck from the Naval Vessel Register in January 1995.
Section 1011 of the National Defense Authorization Act of 1996 required the United States Navy to reinstate to the Naval Vessel Register two of the Iowa-class battleships that had been struck by the Navy in 1995; these ships were to be maintained in the United States Navy reserve fleets (or "mothball fleet"). The Navy was to ensure that both of the reinstated battleships were in good condition and could be reactivated for use in the Marine Corps' amphibious operations. Due to Iowa’s damaged turret #2, the Navy selected New Jersey for placement into the mothball fleet, even though the training mechanisms on New Jersey's 16 in guns had been welded down. The cost to fix New Jersey was considered less than the cost to fix Iowa; as a result, New Jersey and Wisconsin were reinstated to the Naval Vessel Register and placed back in the reserve fleet.
New Jersey remained in the mothball fleet until the Strom Thurmond National Defense Authorization Act of 1999 passed through the United States Congress 18 October 1998. Section 1011 required the United States Secretary of the Navy to list and maintain Iowa and Wisconsin on the Naval Vessel Register, while Section 1012 required the Secretary of the Navy to strike New Jersey from the Naval Vessel Register and transfer the battleship to a not-for-profit entity in accordance with section 7306 of Title 10, United States Code. Section 1012 also required the transferee to locate the battleship in the State of New Jersey. The Navy made the switch in January 1999, allowing New Jersey to open as a museum ship in her namesake state.
For several years plans had been under way to berth the Iowa in San Francisco, California, opening the battleship there as a museum; however, in 2005, San Francisco’s city council, citing opposition to the Iraq War and the military's policies regarding homosexuals, voted 8-3 against maintaining Iowa in the city, paving the way for other California communities to bid for the battleship. Vallejo, site of the former Mare Island Naval Shipyard and Stockton are competing for the vessel. The Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square (HSMPS) organization that attempted to place the ship in San Francisco is now working with the Mare Island, Vallejo, site. Both communities have identified berthing piers and have submitted proposals to the Department of the Navy to open the vessel to tourists and educational groups as a memorial and museum.
On 17 March 2006 the Secretary of the Navy exercised his authority to strike Iowa and Wisconsin from the NVR, which has cleared the way for both ships to be donated for use as museums; however, the United States Congress remains "deeply concerned" over the loss of naval surface gunfire support that the battleships provided, and has noted that "...navy efforts to improve upon, much less replace, this capability have been highly problematic." Partially as a consequence, the US House of Representatives has asked that the battleships be kept in a state of readiness should they ever be needed again. Congress has asked that the following measures be implemented to ensure that, if need be, Iowa can be returned to active duty:
These four conditions closely mirror the original three conditions that the Nation Defense Authorization Act of 1996 laid out for the maintenance of Iowa while she was in the Mothball Fleet. It is unlikely that these conditions will impede the current plan to turn Iowa into a permanent museum ship.