The Commissioning of USS Iowa


(The commissioning of USS Iowa on February 22, 1943.)

On February 22, 1943, George Washington’s birthday, the USS Iowa, the nation’s newest and largest battleship, was commissioned at the New York Navy Yard in Brooklyn, NY, under the command of Captain John L. McCrea. The commissioning took place a record six months after the ship was launched on August 27, 1942.

The ceremonies were held on the stern of the ship. The speakers, including Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox, Captain McCrea, and others, were assembled facing aft under the big 16″ guns of the ship’s after turret. Invited guests were seated before them, and the ship’s company stood in ranks on either side. Others witnessed the ceremony from adjacent piers and buildings, and from ships moored nearby.

Captain McCrea was the last speaker. He addressed most of his remarks to the ship’s company. He stated unequivocally his demands for the ship: “I expect a clean ship. I expect a smart ship. Above all, I expect a fighting ship.” He then spoke of the need for rigorous training, and as he did so, he shifted to the pronoun “we,” suggesting a common interest shared by captain and crew. He concluded:

“As you all know, much remains to be done. The tremendous amount of work thus far accomplished augurs well for the future which you and I face together–the future which you and I face together with confidence and determination. Our Commander in Chief, our Secretary, and our brothers in arms expect much of us. We cannot and must not fail them.”

It was not the last speech to the ship’s company where McCrea conveyed that he and his men were part of the same team.

After the ceremony, McCrea hosted a luncheon in his quarters. During the luncheon the Secretary Knox hit it off with McCrea’s mother, who had come east from her home in Marlette, Michigan, for the commissioning. According to the Secretary, Mrs. McCrea remarked to him that her son was too young to command such a large ship. He was 52 at the time.


McCrea, John L.. History of the USS Iowa (BB 61) (Unpublished history of Iowa’s first year). John L. McCrea Papers. Library of Congress.

Young In World War II


(A group of very youthful bluejackets sunbathing on USS Iowa)

My husband and I sent a copy of Captain McCrea’s War to Elmer, my husband’s 90-year-old cousin who, after 20 years of farming, had recently moved to a retirement community in Nebraska. Some years ago, we attended a family reunion at the farm that Elmer and his wife ran in northeastern Nebraska. At the time, Elmer expressed great interest in my wok editing John McCrea’s memoirs because he too had served in the navy during WW II, although at a far lower rank, he hastened to add.

I was moved and intrigued by Elmer’s letter about our gift. He was amazed by the book’s pictures and was thrilled to have this “lesson in history.” He signed off as “a swabby Electrician’s Mate second class,” and I sensed his pride in the role he had played in defending our country and his powerful emotional connection to that important time.

With his note, Elmer enclosed a recent article written about him when he and his wife moved to their retirement community. Entitled “Brookdale resident fondly remembers his days in the Navy,” the article offers a glimpse of Elmer’s WW II experience, which was very different from John McCrea’s, but important service none the less:

“I was drafted into the Navy. When we went to the induction place, they said ‘Army, Army, Navy, Marine,’ I happened to be the third one so I was in the Navy. This was in 1944.”

[Elmer] graduated from Lincoln High on May 19, and headed off to boot camp in June. He worked on a ship where they delivered ‘frog men.’ These ‘frog men’ were guys dressed in rubber suits, fins, goggles and had good swimming ability. They would set charges out for ships.

Specifically, he was an electrician on an amphibious personnel destroyer, and received his training as such up north in the Great Lakes. [Elmer] said that his most memorable Navy experience out of his two years was WWII’s ending.

“We saw that little boat come up by our ship. We were tied up to the [USS] Missouri, and the Japanese Generals and Admirals were going up the ladder on the Missouri to sign the surrender. We watched, and when it was over, they came back. That was the highlight of my life in the Navy.”

The worst experience [Elmer] remembers about the Navy is a typhoon that came up while his boat was docked at Tokyo Bay. This typhoon ended up destroying two ships and killing 46 men.

I was struck by two features of Elmer’s story. First, his description supports the impression I have from photographs that the lower ranks in Navy ships were full of teenagers and very young adults. It must have been an enormous challenge for commanding officers such as John McCrea to mold these youngsters into an effective fighting team and to maintain their morale when many had never been away from home before. Second, was the randomness that shaped wartime experience. Many battle veterans have spoken of the randomness of death–how some died and others, right next to them, survived. Not only was the draft random, but pure chance determined that Elmer went into the navy and not the army or the marines.


Courtney Upah, “Brookdale resident fondly remembers his days in the Navy,” in “Golden Years,” Wayne Herald (Wayne, NE), December 13, 2016, p. 2.



(This photo shows Iowa’s commissioning ceremony at the NY Navy Yard on February 22, 1943. The ceremony took place on the stern of the ship under the 16-inch guns of the ship’s third big gun turret)

As I selected photographs for my talk on December 7th at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum, I was struck once again by the enormous size of USS Iowa. She is the first of the Iowa class battleships, the largest battleships ever built by the United States. Her length is 887 feet, about the size of 3 football fields laid end to end. Her beam (width) is 108 feet. She was designed to be able to pass through the Panama Canal with a mere 22 inches of clearance, 11 inches on either side.

However, statistics fail to capture the size of the ship. This shot shows Iowa’s bow with 2 of her three 16-inch gun turrets. The photo was taken from sky patrol, where men with binoculars surveyed the ship’s surroundings.


(In this photo, taken at Iowa’s christening and launch on August 2, 1942, her hull dwarfs the onlookers on the side of the launching ramp)


(This shot shows a portion of Iowa’s superstructure)


USS Iowa’s Big Guns


(Iowa’s 16” guns at work during a drill in the Pacific.)

Another BIG feature of USS Iowa is the 16” guns. There are 9 of them, 3 in each of 3 turrets. Two of the turrets are forward of the bridge. The third is to the stern. When the guns were operational, they could fire a shell of approximately 2,700 lbs.–roughly the weight of a Mini Cooper car–a distance of 23 miles.


(Captain John McCrea speaking under the guns of the aft turret.)

When I was 12 or 13, I had occasion to have lunch on board the USS Missouri, one of Iowa’s sister ships, as a guest of the ship’s commanding officer. After lunch I had a tour of the ship, including one of the 16” gun turrets. I was able to get my head and shoulders into a gun barrel. (They wouldn’t let me go in any further.)



(John wrote “Keep” on the cover of a Proceedings magazine featuring Admiral Chester W. Nimitz. John worked with Admiral Nimitz at the Navy Department after WW2.)

When John McCrea moved to our house, he did not come alone. He brought with him a Filipino steward named Pique, who had worked for him since his navy days, and 17 coffin-size wooden boxes of papers, uniforms, and memorabilia. All took up residence in our cellar, Pique in a renovated space in the old laundry; the boxes, in stacks on the cellar floor.
As a collector and keeper of stuff, John fit right into our family. None of the Tobeys ever threw anything out. This was forcefully brought home to me when, in my 40s, I helped empty our Chestnut Hill house before it was sold. In the attic, I was startled to discover my old toilet training equipment and the birdcage that was home to our canary, who died when I was ten. Still, when it came to saving papers and photographs, the Tobeys were amateurs compared with John.
John was an avid reader of correspondence, newspapers and magazines. When he found things of interest, he would pass them on to Mother to read. If he wanted her to return an item to him, he wrote on it in his compact but powerful script, “Keep.” If the item was particularly precious, he wrote something like “Keep, keep and keep!” These treasures accumulated in piles in his study, and in time some migrated to the wooden boxes.
During John’s lifetime, I had nothing to do with the boxes. I was dimly aware that when John dictated his memoirs, he referred to papers from the boxes to jog and supplement his remarkable memory. No doubt this contributed to the accuracy and completeness of his recollections. I knew that some of the navy materials were classified, and that he had had them de-classified before he used them. Beyond that I don’t know what papers he worked with.
After John’s death, my husband Ken and I undertook to sort through the papers in the boxes. The uniforms, decorations, and swords had long since been distributed. The boxes were a jumble, but what a fascinating experience it was to explore them. There were childhood drawings by, and letters from, his daughters, coins, folders of speeches, and reams of correspondence from his navy and John Hancock careers. We noted famous names in the correspondence files, but we didn’t have time to read, just to sort.
The photographs made the biggest impression. There were thousands of them, collected by John or sent to him by friends. There were pictures of what appeared to be German warships at the surrender of the German navy after WWI. There were shots in unusual formats of other unidentified ships and naval officers of ancient vintage. More modern pictures showed trips with FDR and the launch and early days of USS Iowa. We even found pictures of John with President Harry S. Truman and with a very youthful John F. Kennedy. As musicians, we were intrigued to find photos of conductors Andre Kostelanetz and Arthur Fiedler and singer Lily Pons, but there was no explanation of why John came to be photographed with them. While our photographic tour left more questions than answers, I came away with a powerful sense of the breadth of John’s experience and the importance of his career.
Postscript: We boxed up the papers and gave them to the Naval Historical Foundation. Some years later I was surprised to discover they had been neatly organized, cataloged, and transferred to the Manuscript Room of the Library of Congress. I kept the photos, at least for now. After all, I am a Tobey.