IOWA left Rhode Island on March 8 and arrived under the Golden Gate Bridge just short of midnight on April 19. HSMPS was present with the crew at the send-off ceremonies at Naval Station Rhode Island, met IOWA in Panama with members of the Panama Canal Commission, and hosted the reception ceremonies for IOWA on her arrival in the Bay Area. This tow and relocation was more than a physical transfer process, it was a story of human drama, weather constraints, record-setting Herculean efforts by a tug and its crew, and a national, defining moment for the Panama and the Panama Canal Authority.
HSMPS traveled to the naval base in Portsmouth, Rhode Island to participate in IOWA's departure ceremonies and to meet almost 350 crew members and their families. It was wonderful to shake the hands of these great men and meet their families and recognize the feelings for the relatives of prior crews. There was no question as to the importance of this gathering to a crew legacy that stretches for over half a century. Meeting at the base's Officers Club, the crew found that the Navy had provided a band (Portsmouth Naval Station band above photo) and 21-gun salute. The veterans honored their ship and spoke of their commitment that IOWA be preserved as an eternal beacon and testament to the spirit of her crew and the American Sailor. With tears flowing, they relived IOWA's history for themselves, for the families of fallen comrades, and their children who traveled to Rhode Island. HSMPS Director Bill Stephens commented that "no one there, even the media, could escape the enormous pride and feeling that exulted from members of one of the largest crew member associations in the world. The stirring, unbelievable power of the moment was as if a veil had lifted to another dimension. "
Towing IOWA to the San Francisco Bay Area from Coddington Cove, Rhode Island was much more economical than putting a crew aboard for two months. (IOWA had been moored in Philadelphia and then Rhode Island since being decommissioned at the then Philadelphia Naval Yard on October 26, 1990.) This tow required a large seagoing tug. This tug, SEA VICTORY, was provided by Crowley Marine Services. A well known platform, SEA VICTORY (above photo exiting the Mira Flores Lock with IOWA into the Pacific) at 149 feet and 173 tons gross is monster tug, with a draft of 22 feet. Her horsepower is rated at 7,200 maximum continuous BHP, bollard pull is 240,000 lbs ahead and 130,000 lbs astern. On the Oregon Coast, she is famous for the removal of the beached freighter NEW CARRISSA. Nor was SEA VICTORY a stranger to towing 'Iowa'-class battleships; she towed MISSOURI and NEW JERSEY to their respective final locations in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Camden, New Jersey. Crowley Marine has an unsurpassed record for schedule keeping and safe tows.
Considerable care was taken preparing IOWA for sea. This translated to undoing miles of dehumidification ducking within IOWA, setting flooding and fire alarms, warning lights, closing up voids, putting onboard a generator for power. Also, IOWA's height proved a challenge. At 14 stories tall, from the keel to the mast head, her mast was too high for the Benicia railroad bridge in the San Francisco Bay Area. To resolve this dilemma, 13 feet of her mast had to be removed and stored on her fantail. Scheduling was another issue. Influencing the tow were weather considerations, especially the hurricane season. At a tow speed of six knots, IOWA would never outrun that kind of storm. Avoiding the hurricane season dedicated a Spring tow for the Big "I".
To get Iowa to San Francisco, she transited the Panama Canal, a delicate operation. Indeed, last Spring the Panama Canal Commission met in IOWA's wardroom. IOWA and her three sisters of the 'Iowa'-Class, all with a beam of 108 feet, make it through the locks of the Panama Canal with only inches to spare. Special permission was required by the Panama Canal Commission for a "dead stick" (no maneuvering power available) tow of such a large vessel. As IOWA's engineering plant was shut down, any accidents associated with movement could not be easily corrected using the ship's own maneuvering capacity.
IOWA at the Mira Flores Locks Panama Canal
HSMPS staff rendezvoused with IOWA in Panama. Flying down with two video cameras and five still cameras were Director Bill Stephens and 'Iowa'-Class Committee Member, photographer and naval historian George Bisharat. Meeting IOWA at the Mira Flores locks, the last set of locks before IOWA entered the Pacific, was one of the greatest moments in both men's lives--to witness a five year endeavor become reality, to be apart of a historic relocation. In the Canal Zone, HSMPS met Navy and Panama Canal officials as well as with Associated Press and Reuters News Service. As a sign of the goodwill being experienced by all, Navy personnel forwarded a request to HSMPS from the Panamanian pilots for Iowa ball caps! In a very generous gesture, Panama Canal officials invited Director Bill Stephens to the central control tower to view the transit and even allowed Bill to ceremoniously participate in the draining of the locks that lowered IOWA into the Pacific. Meanwhile, George Bisharat was taken to the press observation post, with others photojournalists, to photograph IOWA's passage. Both Bill Stephens and George Bisharat enjoyed an enormous amount of cooperation by the Panama Canal officialdom and benefited from having personal guides. We are indebted to the people of Panama for their tremendous hospitality.
It was particularly significant that IOWA was the largest Navy ship to move through the Canal since the Panamanian Government assumed control of its operations from the United States, effective January 1 ,2001. Even more symbolic, was the fact that IOWA is called President Franklin D. Roosevelt's personal battleship and it was Teddy Roosevelt that help build the Canal. IOWA's passage denoted a new era. The Canal officials moved IOWA almost lovingly through the locks, as it was a point of pride to make this transit perfect, thus proving their skill at operating the Panama Canal and demonstrating that the U.S. Navy can rely on the Canal. This message was of enormous importance and consequence.
IOWA's transit drew considerable attention. Embassy staff were present, international bankers of the Canal Authority were present, the viewing pavilion was packed to capacity with spectators. The Canal officials furnished live camera footage of the Mira Flores locks, which is posted on the Internet. It was with no small amount of amusement and interest that they cited an unparalleled amount of e-mail flooding their website from members of the Veterans Association of the U.S.S. Iowa, one of the Navy's largest crewmember associations. IOWA's passage was probably the most watched ship transit in Canal history.
The tow to San Francisco must have set a record, taking only 44 days, and consumed almost 600,000 gallons of fuel to complete one of the longest peacetime tows involving a battleship, almost 7,000 nautical miles. NEW JERSEY's (BB-62) tow from Bremerton, Washington to Philadelphia was of comparable length. ALABAMA's (BB-60) tow was 5,600 miles from Bremerton via the Panama Canal to its current berth in Mobile, Alabama. What was amazing, despite leaving almost 5 days late because of a snow storm, IOWA arrived in San Francisco only one day off the projected arrival date of April 19!!!! Well done Crowley Marine Services.
Clearly, IOWA's tow was an impressive and complicated process involving civilians, Navy personnel, international organizations, and considerable planning. In no small way, her passage was a rite of passage for the Navy and represents a proud, national moment.
For more outstanding photographs of IOWA's Panama Canal, click here!
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