Last battleships are stricken from the fleet

January 26, 1995|By Knight-Ridder Newspapers

LONG BEACH, Calif. -- America's last battleships fought through three wars and regional conflicts, survived torpedoes, mines and missiles, but they couldn't survive the end of the Cold War and the defense cuts that followed.

Now they're gone for good. The Missouri, New Jersey, Iowa and Wisconsin, all mothballed, have been stricken from the Navy's register of ships.

Secretary of the Navy John Dalton has cleared the way for the four Iowa-class dreadnoughts to be scrapped or used as museum ships.

Two of those 887-foot ships -- the Missouri, on whose decks the Japanese surrendered, ending World War II, and the New Jersey, the most decorated U.S. warship -- were home-ported at the Long Beach (Calif.) Naval Station for nearly a decade, until they were decommissioned several years ago.

The cost of maintaining the ships outweighs their value, said Navy Lt. Dave Albritton.

The Jan. 12 decision to scrap the ships came after a review of costs and operational requirements, the same forces that prompted retirement of the ships. The four ships had cost $80 million annually to operate, more than half of which went to pay the crews of 1,500 per ship.

After service in Vietnam, the New Jersey was mothballed. It was the first of the four battleships refurbished, at a cost of $329 million, and was recommissioned in Long Beach in 1982. Ten years later, the Navy spent $23 million to mothball it again.

The large crew needed to run the big ships was the Achilles' heel of the battleships, said John Chernesky, a retired Navy captain who was skipper of the Missouri and recommissioning officer of the Iowa.

"Battleships had the ability to show up at a conflict and project, 'Here we are. Look at us. Do you want to flaunt the will of America?'" he said.

For 50 years, from World War II to Korea, Vietnam and the Persian Gulf, the U.S. battleships and their 16-inch guns ruled the sea.

If the ships become floating museums, their big guns will be disabled and never fire again.

Now the Mighty Mo and the Big J lie sandwiched between aircraft carriers and other mothballed ships at the Navy's Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Wash. The Iowa and Wisconsin are in Philadelphia.

"The ships won't be scrapped. There's too much history," said Bob Callaham, Bremerton facility spokesman.

The Missouri, long a popular tourist attraction in the Northwest before it was reactivated in 1986, has not been open to the public since returning to Bremerton.

The Missouri is the centerpiece of a 50th-year celebration of the end of World War II that Bremerton civic leaders are planning for Sept. 2. Bremerton officials would like to keep the ship right where it is.

Two groups -- the USS New Jersey Battleship Commission and the Battleship New Jersey Historical Museum Society -- want to bring the Big J to New Jersey, said Leon Morrison, society vice president.

It's estimated it will cost $7 million to build a pier, dredge a harbor and tow one of the ships to a new home and another $1 million annually to maintain it, said Mr. Callaham, but it could be years before the battleships are moved.

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