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USS Iowa, the last battleship, filled with memories as it arrives at new home

The USS Iowa will open its decks to the public this weekend in San Pedro, Calif. NBC's Mike Taibbi reports.

After decades of action and several stints in mothballs, the USS Iowa has found a new home in San Pedro, Calif., where she will become a museum. The Iowa, one of America's last battleships, has a storied past that includes tours in World War II, Korea, and the Cold War.

She was the first of four fast battleships built during World War II, giving the name "Iowa" to her class.  "The Iowas were the fastest U.S. battleships at [40 mph]," said Paul Stillwell, a naval historian who served aboard the New Jersey. And with nine 16-inch guns the Iowas were, in Stillwell's words, "beautiful, fast, awesome and inspiring."


Besides the Iowa and New Jersey, the other two completed in the class were the Missouri and the Wisconsin.

The Iowa was a monolith of war and power. As Stillwell points out, there was a time when disarmament conferences focused on battleships, not nuclear weapons.

PhotoBlog: Battleship USS Iowa finds a new home as a museum

"For the first half of the 20th century, they really were the embodiment of national power," Stillwell said.

Steven Louie / NBC News

A view from the USS Iowa approaching San Pedro, Calif.

But it didn't take long to notice the changing nature of warfare. Images of sailors at sea fighting broadside battles were quickly becoming a matter of nostalgia, the essence of a bygone era.

"The Iowa ended up not fulfilling the role that was expected of her -- to have gun duels with other battleships," Stillwell said.

But the Iowas also served a symbolic purpose, and they held a special place in their sailors' hearts. Intimidating, each visage held a daunting presence on the horizon all the way to Tokyo bay where Japanese officials boarded the USS Missouri to mark the end of World War II.

That moment, nearly 67 years ago, solidified the Missouri's place in history, but almost immediately it sparked a rivalry that would persist for the better part of a century.

U.S. Naval Institute

The USS Iowa fires its guns during a training exercise in the '80s.

"If [President Franklin] Roosevelt had lived, the peace treaty would have been signed on the Iowa," said WWII veteran John Wolfinbarger. "That was his baby."

And through the years that sailor's tale became anecdote, and anecdote became legend.

The Iowa was considered Roosevelt's ship, but he died months shy of Tokyo Bay, and, as many Iowa veterans contend, President Harry Truman, being a Missouri native, switched the flagships.

The Iowa's claim is just one of many, according to Stillwell.

"The people on the New Jersey have their own claim. The carrier Enterprise probably contributed more to the war effort than any other ship. She had a claim, and the answer is we'll never know," Stillwell said.

While this rivalry makes for a good story at the local Lion's Club, it also illustrates something innate -- the connection between sailor and ship.

"This ship is in my heart. It means so much to me and so many other people," said Michael McEngteggart, who served on the Iowa in the ‘80s and recently helped restore the ship before its final voyage to the Port of Los Angeles.

That connection has inspired countless veterans, family members and others to volunteer to help restore the USS Iowa to her former glory.

U.S. Naval Institute

The USS Iowa fires its guns in this historic Navy photo.

"It's been quite the experience, and it's like we're on a new mission again." McEngteggart said. 

The final journey began nearly 10 months ago when the Navy awarded the USS Iowa to the Pacific Battleship Center in San Pedro. And the museum, set to open July 7, is the culmination of years of hard work.

"We want the public to see, hear and feel what it was like to be a battleship sailor; that's our goal," said Robert Kent, president of the Pacific Battleship Center.

And for the sailors gathered in San Pedro for the Fourth of July ceremonies, it was a moment of great satisfaction, pride and thoughtful reflection.

"It brightened my life," said Alfred Hodder, who served on the Iowa in the ‘50s. "And it's wonderful that it's being made into a permanent museum so the public can understand and enjoy. In those days it was one of the great ships of the sea."

"When I served on the Iowa, it was the greatest experience I ever had," Wolfinbarger said. "The most important thing in the world to me is that the younger generations can go aboard that ship and see what it's like -- you know, it's not in a text book."

The USS Iowa was the considered one of the greatest naval ships during its nearly five decades of service. Now visitors will get the chance to climb aboard the historic ship and experience what life was like for Navy sailors.