For more than a decade the USS Iowa sat quietly mothballed in the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet, luring military history junkies with her giant guns, sleek prow and romantic history who dreamed of making her a floating a museum -- and a big Bay Area tourist attraction.
Those who wanted the WW II battleship known as "The Big Stick" envisioned her anchored in a Northern California city -- San Francisco, Stockton, Vallejo and Alameda among them -- and drawing hundreds of thousands of visitors a year, boosting the local economy. But plan after plan to keep the storied vessel in the region collapsed and eventually her supporters looked elsewhere.
Sunday afternoon, after nearly 11 years in Bay Area waters, the Iowa is scheduled to glide, under tow, under the Golden Gate Bridge and disappear into the Pacific one final time on what is likely her last voyage.
The Iowa will be on the way to the Port of Los Angeles, where she is scheduled to open to the public in July, and leaving in her wake ruined dreams and remaining questions about why a region with both a rich nautical and military heritage and dependency on tourism dollars couldn't keep one of the most historic ships the United States ever launched.
Built in 1940, the Iowa has been called "the world's greatest Naval ship." She hosted more U.S. presidents than any other ship in the Naval Fleet, and saw combat in World War II and the Korean War. In 1989, the Iowa was the scene of one the largest noncombat
To Oakland resident Kevin Gaines, a Navy veteran who served on the Iowa in the 1980s, the region's loss is immense and regretful.
"People would have flocked to it," he said. "To actually have a WWII battleship with the history, the casualties, the stories that come along with it, that would have been ridiculous. It would have been a cash cow."
But the Iowa is set to leave.
"Northern California couldn't get it together," said Marilyn Wong, a Mill Valley resident and president of a nonprofit group -- Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square -- that tried to find a local home for the Iowa for years. "We couldn't get anywhere. It got messy. Everything that could have gone wrong, went wrong."
But members of another nonprofit, The Pacific Battleship Center, who had been part of Wong's group for years but left it in frustration, managed to raise money and convince Port of Los Angeles officials to let them dock the Iowa at a pier in San Pedro. There, they estimate, the dreadnought could draw upward of 400,000 visitors yearly.
"It was more of an organizational-type thing," said Jonathan Williams, the Pacific Battleship Center's vice president, of the Bay Area failures to keep the Iowa. Wong, he said, lacked "a clear understanding of how to make it work and (didn't have) a full idea on a business plan."
The Historic Ships group floundered at fundraising, records show, never approaching the millions needed to make the Iowa a museum. Nonprofit statements filed with the IRS show that between 2008 and 2010, the organization raised just less than $130,000 and in 2010 had $12,654 in the bank.
But Williams' group, bolstered by a recent $3 million grant by the Iowa state government to preserve its namesake and an aggressive fundraising campaign, has raised $7 million in cash, donated labor and sponsorships, he said. Federal nonprofit records, which lag as long two years before being made public, are not yet available for Pacific battleship Center.
Wong conceded her efforts to win the ship are over -- the Navy formally awarded it to Pacific Battleship on Sept. 6 -- but her group is still soliciting donations for an Iowa museum on its website. She said she is interested in acquiring other ships for Bay Area museums, but her site clearly asks for donations to save the Iowa, to which her group no longer has any formal ties.
Williams questioned Wong's honesty for still raising money under the ship's name. "It's very frustrating to us," he said.
Wong claims Williams and others "hijacked" the ship from her.
Each was drawn to the Iowa for the same reason -- a dream. Wong is a self-described history buff who thought it would be "neat" to help run a museum ship. Williams, who lives in Modesto, calls the Iowa a "labor of love" kindled by his grandfather, a Navy veteran who served on battleships in WWII.
But neither of their organizations could keep the ship in the region.
San Francisco supervisors voted in 2005 to turn the Iowa away from what Wong said was always the most logical home for it -- the city's sprawling waterfront, probably near Fisherman's Wharf or along the Embarcadero. The city's rejection was fueled largely by opposition to the Iraq War and the Defense Department's then "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy governing gays in the military.
"It was after the 9/11 patriotism had turned down and the worm had turned in Iraq," said San Francisco Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, one of three who voted to accept the ship. "There was a lot of push back against the war."
Wong then sought a home at the former Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, but also had to fight off an effort by former U.S. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, to have the ship moved to the Port of Stockton as an attraction. But even after the Stockton idea withered, Wong's group was unable raise much money for the Vallejo proposal. Those efforts were further stymied because the Mare Island Strait needed to be dredged so the Iowa could pass through, adding millions to the price tag.
It was during the failed efforts in Vallejo that Williams and others left Wong's organization, creating their own nonprofit group and eventually convincing the Navy last year to award them the ship. Seeing no viable options left in the Bay Area, the group agreed to tow it to Southern California.
Could the Iowa have been successful draw in the Bay Area, and especially San Francisco?
"They would have had to beaten people away with a stick," said Bill Tunnell, executive director of the USS Alabama, another World War II battleship turned museum, but Wong's group "wasn't successful in fundraising at all."
The Alabama, docked in Mobile, Ala., is part of a larger museum that includes aircraft and a submarine. It pumps about $30 million a year into the local economy, Tunnell estimated.
The Iowa could have produced bigger numbers in the Bay Area, he added. "It's just a real shame."
Still, the maintenance costs of museum ships are immense, he said, and the Alabama, smaller than the Iowa, requires about $700,000 a year in upkeep.
Another museum professional had a more pragmatic view of how the Iowa will fare regardless of where it is docked.
"Historic capital ships are difficult to market as museums because of the business plan and the difficulties of generating enough audiences," said Steven Horn, vice president of Museum Management Consultants in San Francisco. "They are a challenge."
For Williams, that challenge will be faced in San Pedro, a small port just west of Long Beach, where pier space was available and where there are no other museum ships. The Iowa is being billed as the centerpiece of a waterfront redevelopment project.
Wong is skeptical the ship museum will do well there. The city has few other attractions and its main tourists are people boarding and leaving cruise ships. "Are people really going to get off a (cruise) ship and then go visit (a battleship)?" Wong said. "San Francisco is the only place for it really."
Williams said his group was not interested in wrestling with San Francisco again. It dismissed the Oakland Estuary because of containership traffic, and also Alameda, near the USS Hornet, because it is in an isolated place with no foot traffic.
Richmond, where the ship has been docked since late last year for renovations, has a deep-water facility, but Williams said he didn't even know about it until after the Southern California deal was signed.
"It is going to be difficult to watch it leave the Bay Area," he said. "But it is going to be more exciting to watch it come into Los Angeles. She's turning a new leaf, she has been saved."
So, Sunday, with tugboats slowly nudging her across San Francisco Bay and out to sea, the Iowa will be gone.
"It's going to be the last battleship to go out the Golden Gate," Williams said. "It's going to be a cool sight. You'll never catch that again."
Nicknames: "The Big Stick," "The Battleship of Presidents"
Launched: Aug. 27, 1942
Length: 887 feet, 3 inches
Displacement: 45,000 tons
Top speed: 33 knots
Main batteries: Nine 16-inch guns, 20 5-inch guns
Major battles: 1944: Marshall Islands, Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Rota, Philippine Sea; 1945: Okinawa; 1951-52: Extensive action in Korean War
Commendations: Eleven battle stars
Tragedy: April 18, 1989, 47 crew members killed in turret explosion
Unique feature: Only battleship in U.S. history with a bathtub, installed for President Franklin Roosevelt when the Iowa carried him to Africa in 1943
IF YOU GO
Departure: The Iowa is scheduled to depart Richmond, where it has been undergoing repairs, about 2:30 p.m. Sunday. The ship is expected to be towed through the Golden Gate about 3:30 p.m.
Best viewing positions: Hills above San Francisco Marina district; Crissy Field; Marin Headlands; Baker Beach; Lands End
Trip to Los Angeles: The Iowa will be towed south, staying about 50 miles off coast. The journey is expected to take about four days.
More information: PacificBattleshipCenter.com