With its gun muzzles shrouded and its bridge windows masked with gray paint, the USS Iowa -- for all its massiveness -- looks like a lifeless wooden toy in the gentle May sunshine.

It is difficult to imagine the nine 16-inch guns belching black smoke and incandescent gas as they hurl a broadside at enemy shore targets. It is equally hard to picture crewmen scurrying through its labyrinthine interior, or a creamy wake fanning out behind it across the trackless wastes of ocean.

But the World War II battleship may once again put to sea if Congress approves a Navy plan to reactivate it, along with three sister ships, the USS New Jersey, USS Wisconsin, and the USS Missouri. Late last month the Senate Armed Services Committee approved reactivation of two of the battlewagons -- the New Jersey and the Iowa.

Taking old battleships out of mothballs and pressing them back into service is "the quickest and most cost-effective way to get more . . . naval muscle to sea in the mid-1980s," according to Navy Secretary John F. Lehman Jr., who is bent on creating a 600-ship fleet to challenge the Soviet Union's burgeoning naval might.

The reactivation plan has come under fire from those who contend it is sheer folly to recommission antiquated capital ships in an age when naval warfare demands smaller, faster craft with less onerous manning requirements. Washington commentator Daniel S. Greenberg has angrily labeled the plan the "nautical version of antique restoration."

The Navy, however, is at pains to point out that the elderly battle-wagons would return to duty equipped with a formidable array of modern weaponry.

According to Vice-Adm. M. Staser Holcomb, director of Navy program planning, the battleships would initially be sent to sea with their 16-inch batteries supplemented by 48 missile launchers -- 32 of them firing Tomahawk cruise missiles and 16 firing Harpoon missiles.

Plans to employ NATO Sea Sparrow missiles for antiaircraft defense on the warships have been scrapped, says the admiral. Instead, a form of Gatling gun, known as the Phalanx close-in weapons system, which fires 20-mm shells, will be installed to tackle any enemy aircraft breaking through the air defense screen provided by the one or more aircraft carriers that will escort each battleship. In addition, helicopter landing pads will be installed on the fantails of the Iowa, Wisconsin, and Missouri.

Admiral Holcomb believes these three ships could be reactivated and reequipped in the foregoing manner for $400 million apiece. The New Jersey, which was recommissioned for a gunfire-support role in Vietnam in 1968 and already has helicopter landing facilities, would cost a little less to put to sea, he says: $74 million less, to be precise.

The Navy would like to see the New Jersey prowling the high seas in 1984, followed by the other battleships at one-year intervals after that. But its plans for the venerable craft do not stop at reactivating and rearming them.

According to Admiral Holcomb, when they receive their first overhaul -- five years after recommissioning -- the Navy would like to remove their aft 16-inch turrets and install an elevated "ski jump" flight deck on each one for vertical short takeoff and landing (VSTOL) Harrier jet fighters. He says the four battleships probably would require between 150 and 200 of the British-designed vectored-thrust machines.

At the same time, says the admiral, a vertical-launch cruise missile system would be added to the warships, along with an Aegis combat system, which can track hundreds of targets in the air, on the surface, and under the sea and bring a panoply of countervailing weapons to bear on them.

Such alterations would make the warships "half-aircraft carrier and half-battleship," observes Admiral Holcomb, conceding that the plan is, at this stage, "a little bit of a dream." Such additions would cost one-third of a billion dollars per battleship, he says.

"Buying a battleship to launch cruise missiles is like buying a derrick to deliver the mail," grumbled former South Dakota Sen. George McGovern recently, predicting that the cost of refurbishing and reequipping the warships will "skyrocket."

"It is hard to conceive of any weapon more unsuitable for modern warfare," lamented Mr. Greenberg in his Washington newsletter recently. Terming the battleship "as concealable as a whale in a swimming pool," he branded 16-inch naval guns "obsolete."

Today, the Iowa lies alongside the Wisconsin in the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where it was exiled in February 1953 after service in the Korean war.

It appears to be wearing its years well.

Externally, liberal coatings of gray paint seem to have provided protection against 28 years of sun and rain, although some fittings, such as vents, are clearly decaying. "A lot of the decking is starting to go," admits Capt. Thomas Vojtek, commander of the Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Detachment at the yard. The detachment looks after the Iowa and Wisconsin and 28 other elderly surface combatants and submarines that are mothballed here.

To prevent hull corrosion on both the Iowa and Wisconsin, small electric charges are released into the water from some two score cables strung at intervals over their sides. This so-called "cathodic protection" also deters marine growth.

"There are no problems with her hull," asserts Captain Vojtek as he surveys the Iowa with a proprietary air, adding that should water somehow seep into the ship, both audible and visual alarms would signal the fact.

A dehumidification system inside the Iowa appears to have all but eliminated corrosion, though much peeling of paintwork has occurred. In a locker containing welding equipment this reporter found a lamp, last inspected Sept. 28 , 1956, that had rusted badly. Moreover, broken telephones need replacing.

The Navy limits press inspections to certain areas of the Iowa, such as the main battery plot room, where the squeezing of a single trigger on a brass pistol grip can unleash a 12-ton broadside from the ship's 16-inch guns. The Navy has no plans to replace the cumbersome analog computer that lays the warship's main battery. "We'll dust 'em up, oil 'em up, and use them," says Admiral Holcomb of its many moving parts.

The Iowa's 40-year-old oil-fired boilers, which will undergo a thorough overhaul, also need to be converted to burn the lightweight distillate fuel oil the Navy now uses, rather than the thick, black variety they were designed to consume.

There is much to be done on the Iowa, or BB-61 as the Navy knows it. Apart from the replacement of outdated and defective electrical equipment, the warship will need to be fitted with modern quarters for the crew. These at present consist of little more than crude bunks and metal lockers wedged into cramped spaces, affording no privacy whatsoever. In addition, the ship will need to be fitted with sewage holding tanks and an air-conditioning system.

To restore it to fighting trim also requires modern communications and radar gear, along with electronic countermeasures and counter-countermeasures equipment.

Built in the New York (Brooklyn) Navy Yard at a cost of $100 million, the Iowa was launched Aug. 27, 1942. Among other things, it boasts 800 miles of welding and 1.13 million rivets.

Displacing 48,425 tons, the Iowa is 887 feet long and 108 feet wide at the broadest point. Its General Electric turbines once were able to transmit 212, 000 shaft horsepower to four propellers, giving it a maximum speed of 33 knots -- something the Navy hopes it will attain in the future. It is well armored on deck and below the waterline.

Apart from the nine 16-inch guns, which can hurl a 2,700-pound projectile a maximum of 24 miles to pierce 20 inches of steel, 30 feet of concrete, or 100 feet of earth, the Iowa has retained its 10 five-inch gun turrets, whose twin barrels habitually pointed aloft in World War II in anticipation of a Japanese air attack. Gone, though, are the 76 40-mm Bofors in quadruple mounts and 52 20 -mm Oerlikons that gave it the appearance of an angry porcupine as it plowed through the Pacific in 1945.

The Iowa's early career was less than auspicious. Steaming proudly into Casco Bay, Maine, in July 1943, shortly after low water, it gashed its hull on the bottom, holing 16 fuel tanks that had to be repaired at the Boston Navy Yard.

In August she steamed up to Newfoundland in the hope that the German battleship Tirpitz might venture into the Atlantic. But no dramatic clash of heavyweights ensued.

Although the Missouri is the most historic of the Iowa-class battleships by virtue of the fact that Japan formally surrendered aboard it in Tokyo Bay Sept. 2, 1945, the Iowa itself can lay claim to a certain celebrity. In 1943 it bore President Roosevelt to Oran, from where he traveled on by car and plane to the Cairo and Tehran conferences.

On the first day out from Hampton Roads, Va., an escorting destroyer, the William D. Porter, almost torpedoed it. Although details of the incident are still classified, it seems that a spray-borne salt deposit short-circuited an open switch on one of the Porter's torpedo tubes and launched a "fish."

FDR was on deck watching the Iowa's five-inch guns thumping away when the battleship made a sharp, 29-knot turn to avoid the deadly missile, which exploded harmlessly to starboard. The President, a former assistant secretary of the navy, ordered that no disciplinary action be taken against the captain of the Porter.

The Iowa's skipper, Capt. John McCrea, who had been FDR's naval aide, put the President up in his own quarters for the transatlantic voyage. The square bath with chrome handrail and accompanying shower that the President reputedly had installed at his own expense can still be seen in Captain McCrea's quarters.

While aboard the Iowa, FDR huddled with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who were traveling with him, and in the evenings watched movies with his entourage. The weather, which had been squally to begin with, improved enough for the President to sit out on deck in an old pair of trousers, a fishing shirt, and a sweater. He was particularly relieved not to have any newspapers.

When the Iowa returned to the US with the chief executive, it had steamed 16, 161 miles.

The battleship joined the Fifth Fleet in the Pacific Jan. 22, 1944, and was hit by two Japanese 152-mm shells in March while bombarding Mili Atoll in the Marshall Islands. McCrea told William Hassett, a White House secretary and confidant of FDR, that when the Iowa went into action at night it looked "as though the heavens were ablaze." The battleship later provided gunfire support for the invasion of Saipan and Tinian in the Marianas and took part in the battle of the Philippine Sea (the famous "Marianas turkey shoot") and the battle of Leyte Gulf. In 1945 it supported carrier operations off Okinawa and Kyushu, bombarding Hokkaido and Honshu before entering Tokyo Bay Aug. 29.

Recommissioned Aug. 25, 1951, for the Korean war, the Iowa bombarded targets near Wonsan before returning to the United States for refit at the end of the year. On Feb. 24, 1953, it was placed in reserve at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. In 1958 the Bureau of Ships concluded that the Iowa-class battleships could be converted into guided missile ships, but nothing came of the proposed conversion.

The Navy has denied assertions that the Iowa was extensively cannibalized to speed recommissioning of the New Jersey in 1968. "Cannibalization that was approved was not of the magnitude to render the Iowa inoperable or to adversely affect activation," wrote Rear Adm. T. J. Kilcline in a letter to the Washington Post earlier this month.

Captain Vojtek, a former defense and naval attache in the US Embassy in London, says that engine room pumps were among the items taken for the New Jersey. "More parts were taken off the Wisconsin for the New Jersey than the Iowa," he says.

The Navy also denies that the Wisconsin sustained a devastating fire some years ago or that the grounding of the Missouri on thimble shoals in Hampton Roads in early 1950 has impaired its speed.

Critics of the Navy's battleship reactivation plan have made much of the manpower that would be required to make it a reality. "These floating relics are labor-intensive and will require thousands of trained sailors at a time when we lack adequate skilled personnel to keep our new ships sailing," former Senator McGovern warned recently. But Secretary Lehman maintains that battleships are "relatively low-skill intensive" and that there will be no problems manning the four behemoths. Although conceding that it takes between 80 and 100 men to man a single 16-inch gun turret, Admiral Holcomb says that 1, 500 enlisted men and 62 officers will be "adequate" for the New Jersey.

When the reactivation plan was first mooted, supporters predicted that personnel would volunteer to serve on the battleships. "I understand that they've had plenty of applicants already," says Captain Vojtek. "Some of the retirees would like to come back."

By the general agreement of naval historians the four Iowa-class battleships possessed a unique combination of speed, endurance, firepower, and armor protection. To some, they are the best battleships ever built.

After helping frustrate the imperial designs of one country, the Navy feels they now have a role to play in frustrating the imperial designs of another.

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