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A new berth, and rebirth, for the battleship Iowa

By Martha Groves, Los Angeles Times –

LOS ANGELES — As a fireboat shot a plume of water and crowds waved jubilantly from the shore, the battleship Iowa docked at its new permanent home at Berth 87 on the San Pedro waterfront Saturday, where the historic war horse will become a floating museum.

Hundreds of dignitaries, elected officials and sailors who served on the ship during World War II were on deck as the boat, pulled and guided by tugboats because it no longer has power of its own, completed its final 3.4-nautical mile journey through Los Angeles Harbor.

(PHOTO: The USS Iowa is moved, with great fanfare, into its permanent home at Berth 87 in the Los Angeles Harbor in Los Angeles, California, on Saturday, June 9, 2012. Here the Iowa emerges from the shadow the Vincent Thomas Bridge. The WWII-era battleship will open as an interactive museum.)

“This is my first time aboard since 1946,” said Bob Dedic, who served from 1944 to 1946 and sported a cap he had bought at the ship’s store more than six decades ago. He recalled wild storms, including one typhoon in which he feared the vessel would capsize. He also remembered calmer days, when sailors would jump into the ocean for a swim, while back on deck other sailors would shoot at sharks to keep them away from those frolicking in the water.

Every day that he was on board, Dedic recalled, “I wrote my sweetheart.” He married her too, and Eleanor Dedic, his wife of 66 years, was with him Saturday, along with their two daughters and a granddaughter.

The biggest U.S. battleship ever built, the 45,000-ton Iowa is known as the “battleship of presidents.”

In November 1943, the Iowa carried President Franklin Roosevelt to a crucial meeting with Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek in Tehran. The bathtub with rails that was installed for FDR’s use will be on display when the museum is opened.

President Ronald Reagan boarded the Iowa on July 4, 1986, for Liberty Weekend, the celebration of the restoration and centenary of the Statue of Liberty in New York City. In 1989, President George H.W. Bush joined the crew and families of the Iowa at a memorial service for 47 crew members killed in the ship’s greatest tragedy, a gun turret explosion in the Caribbean.

Others on board Saturday had their own memories of the ship.

Joseph Aguilar, 85, of East Los Angeles showed off a still-crooked finger — the result, he said, of an accident on board in 1946. He also remembered how he spent his first night on the Iowa: “In the stern, feeding the fish. I was so sick. This thing pitches and rolls.”

There were a few pitches and rolls at Saturday’s event too.

There was no ramp to get on board, meaning even octogenarian veterans had to climb a steep flight of stairs. Dedic, who gets around with a walker, had to be lifted by volunteers.

At the other end of the short journey, as people were eager to disembark after hours in the sun, a problem with tying the ship to the dock prolonged the short cruise by nearly two hours.

But many in San Pedro said they weren’t complaining.

Bungy Hedley said that the arrival of the Iowa, which had been docked temporarily at Berths 51-52 since arriving from San Francisco Bay last month, has invigorated the community. “The town is like (it has) awakened,” she said.

Rep. Janice Hahn, D-Calif., who represents the area, said she hopes the ship’s presence will boost San Pedro’s waterfront as a tourist attraction and improve its economy, goals city officials have been working on, with limited success, for decades.

She said that on her first day in Congress last year, she marched into the office of the secretary of the Navy and told him: “I expect the Iowa to be in Los Angeles.”

Councilman Dennis Zine was doing his part. He said he spent more than $200 on souvenir T-shirts, hats and windbreakers. He also took about 900 photographs, he said.

“This is a historical event,” he said. “The port has been a silent giant for so long.”

Other dignitaries on board Saturday included Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, several members of the Los Angeles City Council and actor Bernie Kopell. Best known for his role as “Doc” on the television show “The Love Boat,” Kopell served on the Iowa in the 1950s as the ship’s librarian.

Still, many on board noted that the Iowa needs a lot of work to be shipshape. The teak decks alone, now dotted with plywood, need “$5 million of effort,” said Nate Jones, founder and director of the Pacific Battleship Center, which is raising funds to restore the ship and operate the museum.

Norm Stricklin, of Norco, a master-at-arms in the Navy Reserve, said he was thrilled to see the crowds. He noted that he had served in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2010, and seeing the appreciation of the people “made it worth it.”

As the boat was pushed into the dock, the ship’s loudspeakers blasted Randy Newman’s “I Love LA.” “This is a great military event,” said Air Force Col. Richard E. Nolan, who is stationed at Los Angeles Air Force Base. He was there with his three sons, Jacob, 12, Nathan, 11, and Zachary, 10. “I’m telling my sons this is part of U.S. history and hoping they will someday bring their children to see it.”

The Pacific Battleship Center plans to recommission the ship July 4 and hold the first public tours three days later.

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