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Battleship Iowa to Engage New Role as L.A. Museum

SF Gate

07-05-2012

Almost ready.

Freshly scrubbed and decked out in patriotic bunting, the battleship Iowa opens to the public on Saturday.

After years of planning and work, that’s when the World War II icon begins its new life as an interactive museum on San Pedro’s waterfront.

The ship remains a work in progress – more areas will be opened up as work continues – but guests on Saturday will be able to walk along the main deck and see the 16-inch gun turrets, the captain’s room, the Roosevelt cabin, the bridge, the galley, the flight deck and the missile deck.

A ship museum and gift shop are also onboard as well as several exhibits that highlight the Iowa’s rich history.

Below are the stories of three people who have had a stake in the ship – a Korean War veteran from Carson, a fundraiser and the ship museum’s curator.

They all remind us that the opening of the USS Iowa is much more than a story about a ship.

It’s a tribute to all those in uniform who called her home – during World War II, the Korean War and the Cold War – as they served their nation.

And it’s also a testimony to those who have dedicated so much of their time, effort and money to making sure the ship – and its history – were preserved for generations of Americans to come.

A teen joins the Navy

The Cold War was heating up in Korea in April 1951 when Charlie Valle, a San Pedro teen, joined the Navy.

It was that or be drafted into the Army, he said.

“My uncle was in World War II and he told me, ‘Don’t dig no foxholes. Join the Navy and you’ve got a bed.’ ”

A high school dropout – he finished school after he came back from the war – Valle signed on the dotted line in Long Beach and was sent to boot camp in San Diego.

He was assigned to the USS Iowa, the fast and powerful World War II battleship that was being brought back into service for a new generation of sailors.

“They took it out of mothballs in San Francisco,” Valle said, referring to the ship as his “yacht.”

“That thing is huge,” he said. “Everyone was in awe of the ship, it was so big.”

The Iowa was initially put into dry dock at Terminal Island and then Valle and the rest of the crew helped paint and do other work off the Northern California coastline.

In 1952, they arrived off the coast of Korea and provided firepower for the United States and its allies.

While he experienced no close calls in combat, Valle – who worked at the fantail at the extreme rear of the ship handling projectiles and powder for the gun turrets – said the ship survived a monster storm on its way there.

“We hit a storm in the Sea of Japan, the ship was just like a rowboat going through that damn thing,” Valle said. “It tore the helicopter right off the ship.”

Standing on the ship’s bridge, Valle watched the waves surge by, reaching heights that were nearly as tall as the ship’s superstructure.

“I said, ‘Man, that is pretty,’ ” Valle said. “A guy standing next to me said, ‘Are you crazy?’ But I was only 19 or 20 years old. I had no fear.”

His stint in the Navy ended in 1955 and he went on to become a longshoreman in civilian life.

Valle, 79, retired seven years ago and now lives with his wife in Carson. He’s junior commander for the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2967 in Wilmington.

What does he think about making the ship a museum?

“It’s a damn good idea,” he said. “A lot of people … will go see that thing.”

An Iowa fundraiser

If you follow the news about the USS Iowa on Facebook, you know who Puppy Jake is.

The 2-year-old (reddish) yellow Lab goes everywhere with Becky Beach, the powerhouse Iowa-based fundraiser who’s been brought to San Pedro to help with the ship’s opening.

Along with her work in politics – she was former first lady Barbara Bush’s personal assistant, worked in the U.S. Department of Energy from 1988-92, and served in the Iowa Senate from 1995-2007 – Beach promotes therapy dog training.

Most recently representing ECAD (Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities), Beach helps raise, train and place dogs that can help veterans and others dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and with mobility issues.

In Jake’s case, he didn’t pass a required service-dog eye exam, making him unable to continue in his training under Beach. So he now serves as a goodwill ambassador, traveling with Beach throughout the country.

“We do a lot of (therapy dog) advocacy and awareness events, he comes with me on speaking engagements. … He gets to go to some really cool, fun places.”

Like the USS Iowa.

Beach’s Facebook page these days is a virtual “Find Jake” tour.

Photos show Puppy Jake sitting on the warship’s main deck, lounging in the captain’s quarters during a staff meeting, napping at the Crowne Plaza Hotel and greeting the sunrise onboard the battleship.

Recruited four years ago by her friend, U.S. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, to help raise money to save the Iowa, Beach is working with the media and organizing the ship’s large events, including Wednesday’s commissioning ceremony.

She’s also helping with the USS Iowa Veterans Association reunion, which is ongoing this week in San Pedro.

A 91-year-old World War II veteran was among the vets who visited his old ship for the first time this week, Beach said.

“He scooted up those steep stairs like he was 19 again,” Beach said.

“They come on board and they cheer up,” she said, but adding that for many it’s a tearful reunion. “Just knowing how proud they are to be here and to see where they used to work. … It’s very, very rewarding. They all want to thank us.”

Curator’s dream job

David Way grew up listening to his dad’s Navy stories, watching reruns of “Victory at Sea” and building model ships.

And he still hasn’t grown out of it.

Today, the 57-year-old Long Beach resident has landed his dream job – curator of the USS Iowa.

Way has been with the Pacific Battleship Center since its beginnings, relocating for several months late last year to help with the initial refurbishment of the ship while it was in port in Northern California.

Now, he’s racing the clock as final touches are added to the exhibits and tour features, getting ready for the public premiere on Saturday.

Probably the best part about working on the Iowa, he said – especially this week with so many of the ship’s former crew members in town for a reunion – is hearing all the personal stories.

“What’s amazing is how this ship has touched so many people’s lives,” he said.

“Watching (veterans) come on board, they’re just thrilled to be back. They walk around and find their old work areas, then they get to share it with their grandkids, their sons and daughters, their spouses.”

For more information: http://www.sfgate.com/news/article/Battleship-Iowa-to-engage-new-role-as-L-A-museum-3687410.php#page-1

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