Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday November 29, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 222: Thanksgiving on the Battleship Iowa


uss iowa

University of Iowa President Virgil Hancher (seated far right) and Iowa historian 
William J. Petersen (kneeling at right) were among 14 Iowans who spent Thanksgiving 1951 
aboard the USS Iowa on a shakedown cruise from Long Beach to Pearl Harbor. 
Dinner was traditional turkey, oyster dressing and candied sweet potatoes.


By Bob Hibbs


Thanksgiving a half-century ago found University of Iowa President Virgil Hancher and Iowa City’s Bill Petersen cruising the Pacific between Long Beach and Pearl Harbor aboard the U.S. Navy’s most powerful battleship, the USS Iowa.

They were among 14 Iowans invited to join the shakedown cruise after the Iowa had been refurbished and recommissioned at San Francisco for the Korean War.  Adm. Chester Nimitz gave the commissioning address, and the wife of Iowa Gov. William Beardsley presented the ship its new state flag.

Originally launched in 1943, the Iowa carried nine 16-inch guns which had blasted Japanese cities from miles off shore as World War II drew to a close. At 887 feet, she was nearly the length of three football fields. At 108 feet wide, she is the broadest ship ever to pass through the Panama Canal.

She carried U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to a World War II summit in Tehran, and afterwards was referred to as Roosevelt’s personal battleship. Roosevelt was an avid sailor.

The Iowa stood by in Tokyo Harbor in 1945 as the Japanese surrender was accepted on her twin sister, the USS Missouri, named for the home state of the U.S. president at the time, Harry Truman.

This Iowa was the fourth to carry the state’s name, dating to the Civil War era. That first one was a twin-screw sloop originally named the Ammonoosuc, built in Boston in 1864. The 335- footer, only one-third the length of the fourth Iowa, received her Iowa name in 1869, then was mothballed in Boston from 1870 to 1883 and retired.

The second came into service in 1896 at Philadelphia, one of seven such ships built prior to the Spanish-American War. This 360-foot rig was stationed off Cuba at the time her sister ship the USS Maine exploded and sank, bringing on that war.

After a brief battle, surrender was affected aboard the Iowa from the Spanish captain of one of the offending ships. Then, after 20 uneventful years, that second Iowa became target practice for the new Mississippi battleship, which sunk her in 1923. She carried six 13-inch guns.

The third Iowa was under construction in 1922 when terms of a new treaty limited naval armament. The unfinished hull also became a floating target.

The fourth Iowa, the largest of her type ever built, is a mighty product of the industrial age during which sails have given way to steam, coal to fuel oil and a few relatively small guns to the 16-inch monsters aboard the 1943 Battleship Iowa. 

An original 1943 crew of 2,700 operated her 36-foot draft using 115,000 horse power to move her 57,600 loaded displacement. In addition to the big guns, they also operated 20 five-inch guns, and an array of smaller anti-aircraft weapons.

In 1951, from Sunday, Nov. 18, through Saturday, Nov. 24, Hancher and Petersen joined Fred Maytag of Newton, Craig Sheaffer of Fort Madison, Fred Hubbell and E.T. Meredith Jr. of Des Moines, B.J. Palmer of Davenport and seven other Iowans in a privileged voyage few civilians experience.

In his summary, Petersen as longtime superintendent of the State Historical Society wrote in the March 1952 Palimpsest magazine: “We were all amazed with everything we saw, from the up-to-date laundry to the three shoe cobblers who put on 650 pairs of heels and 250 soles monthly.”

Medical staff and care available aboard ship impressed Hancher.

Battleship Iowa was recommissioned again in 1984 and saw action in Middle East during 1987 and ’88. She set a record in 1989 by blasting a shell the size of a small car 24 miles to target. Decommissioned in 1990, she’s currently docked near her new base in San Francisco Bay, destined to become a museum.

Perhaps that’s a noble end for all ships of war.

Next Saturday: The Coldren Opera House.

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them. 

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