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Warships Make News Across Country

This week, three separate old warships made tourism news. The USS Wisconsin began life as an attraction in Norfolk, VA; the USS Iowa made it to the San Francisco Bay in its penultimate step toward the same fate; while existing attraction USS Lexington survived a fire in Corpus Christi, TX.

On Monday, the battleship Wisconsin, which saw action in World War II, Korea and the Persian Gulf, opened as a floating museum. Norfolk, home of the world's largest Navy base, was the Wisconsin's home port during much of the ship's service. The ship will remain in Norfolk for five years. The Navy then will either donate or sell the ship, probably to the city.

The 887-foot Wisconsin launched in 1943 and decommissioned in 1991, was one of four Iowa-class battleships, the largest and last built by the Navy.

Following a ceremony, visitors swarmed the ship's teakwood decks and stood beneath its nine 16-inch guns, which are the most powerful ever mounted on a U.S. battleship and which can fire shells up to 23 miles. Tomahawks were launched from here into Iraq during Desert Storm.

The ship's interior, with its sensitive electronic systems, is off-limits and is being preserved with dehumidifiers in the unlikely event that the Wisconsin is recalled to active duty.

Meanwhile, The Iowa -- also 887 feet long, and 48,000 tons in weight -- was towed beneath the Golden Gate Bridge this week on its way to the Navy's mothball fleet in Suisun Bay near Benicia, and maybe an eventual new life as a tourist attraction in San Francisco.

In Benicia, bleachers were erected on the waterfront green at the foot of First Street, and an air show of World War II-vintage military planes greeted the ship. The Iowa was towed through the Panama Canal from its former port of Newport, R.I.

For at least the next three years, The Navy plans to keep the ship on standby in case it is needed for emergency service. After that, the Navy has promised the Iowa to the Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square, the volunteer group that is helping to organize the Iowa's welcome and wants to turn it into a floating museum in San Francisco. The Bay Area is already home to a small fleet of tourist ships including the submarine Pampanito and the haunted aircraft carrier Hornet.

The Iowa, which served in World War II and the Korean War, was involved in a controversial episode in 1989 when 47 crew members die in a turret explosion.

Finally, the tourist aircraft carrier Lexington, which survived kamikaze attacks and a Japanese torpedo when on active duty, easily shook off a fire this week.

"The ship did her job," said the museum's marketing director. "She was built to sustain damage. You have these huge, steel, watertight doors. That fire was going nowhere."

The ship's superstructure has been closed indefinitely. An insurance adjuster will estimate the damage, and the museum's staff will assemble a restoration plan.

However, The Lexington Museum on the Bay, as it is now called, was shut down for only one day after the fire singed the navigation room on the fifth floor. Still open is the museum's new theater, built in the ship's main elevator, and and a state-of-the-art flight simulator allowing passengers to feel as if they're destroying Iraqi tanks and Scud missile launchers.

1 Waterside Drive, Norfolk, VA
I-264 exit 9. Drive on Waterside Drive for four stoplights (the corner of Main St.). Entrance on the left, at the Nauticus building.
T-Sa 10-5, Su 12-5 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Adults $14.
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