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RICHMOND, California - From the moment the U.S. Navy approved a plan to turn the USS Iowa into an interactive museum, veterans who served on the battleship from around the country began flocking to California to help with the massive restoration project.
"Iowans are interested in seeing the ship saved, and they should be," said John Wolfinbarger, 87, who served on the Iowa during World War Two. "This ship is named after that state."
The restoration, which carries a price tag of up to $12 million, got underway shortly after the ship was moved from the "ghost fleet" of Suisun Bay to Richmond, California in October.
Wolfinbarger has spent more than a dozen weekends on the Iowa while it has been docked at the Port of Richmond where the first leg of the project is nearing completion. During recently completed weekend tours, Wolfinbarger served as the ship historian.
"One weekend more than three thousand people came aboard," he said. "People want to see it."
On Sunday the ship was scheduled to begin tow to the Los Angeles area where it will officially open in San Pedro in early July. The likely final mission was temporarily delayed because of an approaching storm. While the Navy still owns the vessel, the Pacific Battleship Center (PBC) will run, possess and maintain her. The PBC is a nonprofit organization established in 2009.
"It's exciting, it's stressful, it's pretty much perseverance," said Robert Kent, president of the PBC. "We run into blocks pretty much on a weekly basis, but we just punch through them and keep going."
In February, Governor Branstad signed a bill pledging $3 million in state money for the project. The money has helped fund contract work, which has included anything from painting to a massive deck replacement project. It has also funded supplies for USS Iowa veterans who have returned to volunteer for the restoration. "We could have never done it without the state of Iowa," said Michael McEnteggart, who served on the ship from 1985-89. "So thank you, thank you very much."
McEnteggart, 46, of New York has spent the last three months in northern California where he helps with various projects. "I left everything, I put my stuff in storage, kissed my girlfriend goodbye, said goodbye to my friends and family and drove across the country," he said. "We're so thankful to the state of Iowa, and we'd bring the ship to Iowa if we could."
Fundraisers are currently only half-way to their goal of $10-12 million. Jeff Lamberti, a lead fundraiser for the project and the former president of the Iowa senate, said he expects the fight for funding will continue for another couple years. "We have enough to get it to L.A. and to get it open," he said. "Eventually we'd like to open as many as five different (onboard) tours."
Iowa's multi-million dollar investment has been the single largest investment into the project. As a thank you, the PBC is offering Iowans a free boarding pass simply by showing a valid state ID. "It's a really cool way to say thank you to the state of Iowa," said Kent.
A final "commissioning" ceremony has been set for the USS Iowa on July 4th. The ceremony will coincide with the ships annual veterans reunion. A handful of local USS Iowa veterans are expected to travel to Los Angeles for the festivities. "We bought (airline) tickets for my father's 80th birthday," said Chuck Cavanaugh of Cedar Rapids, who plans to visit the ship for the first time alongside his Dad. "It is going to be surreal to stand next to my Dad on the ship he was on."
Melvin Rhodes, 86, a Korean War veteran who served on the ship from 1951-53, said he plans to attend the event with his wife. "There's a lot of guys that were really anxious to get it saved and as a museum," said Rhodes, also of Cedar Rapids. "It's always fun to see those guys."
Dave Way, tour manager for the PBC, said the organization knows veterans like Rhodes have been keeping a close eye on their progress, something that provides a positive and uplifting pressure for the organization. "All of us have a giant love for this particular class of battleship and a gigantic appreciation for what the Navy has done for our country," said Way. "We're very committed for doing the best for the ship and the best in remembering all the crews."
Despite numerous inquiries from Iowans, Lamberti said there is no way the Mississippi River, the obvious choice, could handle the Iowa. "We just can't, it's too big. It's three football fields long," said Lamberti. "We can't get it to Iowa and we want the world to see the USS Iowa."
When the ship is towed into the Los Angeles area, three flags will by flying from her mast; The American flag, the California state flag and the Iowa state flag.
Iowa's approaching mission is expected to be its last. Since the Navy still owns the vessel they reserve the right to call it back into service in the event of a "national emergency". "That'll never happen, they don't need it and it's too expensive to run," said Wolfinbarger.
You can monitor the ship's progress, as it is towed by the Warrior, by clicking here.
WATCH: Tour of the USS Iowa