SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Today, the USS Iowa opens its decks to visitors - in San Pedro, California, just south of Los Angeles. The U.S. Navy commissioned the battleship for World War II, where it saw service in the Pacific. Will Stone reports that the decommissioned ship is beginning its second life as a museum.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: On a gray Friday morning, former Iowa crew member Mike McEnteggart is showing off the main deck. It was 1985 when he first arrived on the Iowa, fresh out of boot camp.

MIKE MCENTEGGART: I was 20 years old. I - just barely 20 years old.

STONE: Across McEnteggart's shoulder, there's a tattoo of the battleship and the letters BB-61 - the ship's technical name. He leans back on the barrel of what looks like a giant cannon.

MCENTEGGART: This is a right gun in turret 1. It's 67 feet long, brother. Look at the size of it. You could fit in - I could put you in this.

DAVE WAY: Oh, don't forget to duck - and hang on, if you can.

STONE: The Iowa's curator is Dave Way. Down below, he leads us through the ship's tight passageways to the captain's cabin that once housed a famous passenger.

WAY: So this was President Roosevelt's cabin that he used during the crossing over to North Africa, to attend the Tehran Conference with Churchill and Stalin.

STONE: That's where they planned D-Day. Way stands inside a modest room. Just through the doorway, you can make out the bathtub that was installed for FDR - though it looks a little small for a president.

WAY: Well, the one thing you pick up on, walking around this ship, is the creature comforts are secondary. Everything is built around delivering the ordnance to the target.

STONE: In the early '80s, the Reagan administration used the ship as part of its Cold War-era strategy. In his four years on board, McEnteggart never saw combat. Still, he remembers one particularly uneasy encounter with a Russian battleship in the Atlantic.

MCENTEGGART: They came so close to us once. I don't even - I bet she wasn't even a hundred yards off of us.

STONE: Most of the Iowa crew was on the main deck that day, and the Russian crew was on theirs.

MCENTEGGART: We were looking at them, and they were looking at us. And it was kind of like, we didn't want to fight. You know, nobody wanted - it's like, oh, they're men - just like we are.

STONE: For McEnteggart, returning to the Iowa is primarily about honoring the memory of some former crew mates. In 1989, an accidental explosion in the second turret killed 47 men, and endangered the entire crew.

MCENTEGGART: Yeah, I was on the fire party that day. And yeah, I helped put the fire out. And that's why I'm here today.

STONE: When he heard they were restoring the ship, McEnteggart left his home in New York and moved, to work on the Iowa. He's back on board, and taking his duties as seriously as ever. And even though it won't be leaving port again, McEnteggart plans to stay with the 70-year-old ship for as long as she needs him.

For NPR News, I'm Will Stone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SENTIMENTAL JOURNEY")

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