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Sat July 7, 2012
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USS Iowa's Guns Are Now For Show

Originally published on Thu July 12, 2012 1:53 pm

On Saturday, the USS Iowa battleship opens its decks to visitors in the Port of Los Angeles in San Pedro. The battleship, commissioned by the Navy for World War II, will now serve as a museum.

On a gray morning, former USS Iowa crew member Mike McEnteggart shows off the ship's main deck. McEnteggart first arrived on the Iowa in 1985, fresh out of boot camp.

"I was 20 years old," he says. "Just barely 20 years old."

McEnteggart served on the ship for four years. Across his shoulder is a tattoo of the battleship and "BB-61," the ship's technical name. He leans back on the barrel of a what looks like a giant cannon.

"This is the right gun, Turret 1. It's 67 feet long, brother. Look at the size of it. I could put you in this," he says.

The Iowa was decommissioned in 1990, and now the ship is beginning a second life. McEnteggart has come back to help.

A Famous Guest

The Iowa's curator is Dave Way. Down below, he travels through the ship's tight passageways to the captain's cabin, which once housed a famous passenger.

"This was President [Franklin] Roosevelt's cabin that he used during the crossing over to North Africa to attend the Tehran conference with [British Prime Minister Winston] Churchill and [Soviet Premier Joseph] Stalin," he says.

The leaders planned D-Day in that 1943 meeting. Way stands inside a modest room. Just through the doorway, there's a bathtub that was installed for Roosevelt. It looks a little small for a president, though.

"Well, the one thing you pick up on, walking around the ship, is creature comforts are secondary. Everything is built around delivering the ordnance to the target," Way says.

A Cold War And Final Fire

After World War II, the Iowa served in the Korean conflict. In the early '80s, the Reagan administration used the ship as part of its Cold War-era strategy.

In his four years on board, McEnteggart never saw combat. Still, he remembers one particularly uneasy encounter with a Russian battleship in the Atlantic.

"They came so close to us once. I bet she wasn't even 100 yards off us," he says.

Most of the Iowa crew was on the main deck that day, and the Russian crew was on theirs.

"We were looking at them and they were looking at us ... we didn't want to fight," he says. "You know, nobody wanted it. It was like 'Oh, they're men just like we are.' "

For McEnteggart, returning to the Iowa is primarily about honoring the memory of former crew mates. In 1989, an accidental explosion in the second turret killed 47 men and endangered the entire crew. McEnteggart helped put the fire out.

"That's why I'm here today," he says.

When he heard they were restoring the ship, McEnteggart left his home in New York and moved to California to work on the Iowa. He's back on board and taking his duties as seriously as ever. Even though it won't be leaving port again, McEnteggart plans to stay with the 70-year-old ship for as long as it needs him.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Today, the USS Iowa opens its decks to visitors - in San Pedro, California, just south of Los Angeles. The U.S. Navy commissioned the battleship for World War II, where it saw service in the Pacific. Will Stone reports that the decommissioned ship is beginning its second life as a museum.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: On a gray Friday morning, former Iowa crew member Mike McEnteggart is showing off the main deck. It was 1985 when he first arrived on the Iowa, fresh out of boot camp.

MIKE MCENTEGGART: I was 20 years old. I - just barely 20 years old.

STONE: Across McEnteggart's shoulder, there's a tattoo of the battleship and the letters BB-61 - the ship's technical name. He leans back on the barrel of what looks like a giant cannon.

MCENTEGGART: This is a right gun in turret 1. It's 67 feet long, brother. Look at the size of it. You could fit in - I could put you in this.

DAVE WAY: Oh, don't forget to duck - and hang on, if you can.

STONE: The Iowa's curator is Dave Way. Down below, he leads us through the ship's tight passageways to the captain's cabin that once housed a famous passenger.

WAY: So this was President Roosevelt's cabin that he used during the crossing over to North Africa, to attend the Tehran Conference with Churchill and Stalin.

STONE: That's where they planned D-Day. Way stands inside a modest room. Just through the doorway, you can make out the bathtub that was installed for FDR - though it looks a little small for a president.

WAY: Well, the one thing you pick up on, walking around this ship, is the creature comforts are secondary. Everything is built around delivering the ordnance to the target.

STONE: In the early '80s, the Reagan administration used the ship as part of its Cold War-era strategy. In his four years on board, McEnteggart never saw combat. Still, he remembers one particularly uneasy encounter with a Russian battleship in the Atlantic.

MCENTEGGART: They came so close to us once. I don't even - I bet she wasn't even a hundred yards off of us.

STONE: Most of the Iowa crew was on the main deck that day, and the Russian crew was on theirs.

MCENTEGGART: We were looking at them, and they were looking at us. And it was kind of like, we didn't want to fight. You know, nobody wanted - it's like, oh, they're men - just like we are.

STONE: For McEnteggart, returning to the Iowa is primarily about honoring the memory of some former crew mates. In 1989, an accidental explosion in the second turret killed 47 men, and endangered the entire crew.

MCENTEGGART: Yeah, I was on the fire party that day. And yeah, I helped put the fire out. And that's why I'm here today.

STONE: When he heard they were restoring the ship, McEnteggart left his home in New York and moved, to work on the Iowa. He's back on board, and taking his duties as seriously as ever. And even though it won't be leaving port again, McEnteggart plans to stay with the 70-year-old ship for as long as she needs him.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY")

SIMON: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.