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‘Mighty Mo’ Takes Final Float Before Retirement

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Led by a sturdy tugboat and tailed by a flotilla of sailboats, the hulking battleship Missouri took a last, stately waltz in the waters of Waikiki on Sunday before heading to its retirement home at Pearl Harbor.

Residents and tourists lined up along the beach promenade to get a glimpse of the “Mighty Mo” on the open sea for the final time in its half-century career. As the 887-foot behemoth rounded Diamond Head and came into view, some onlookers broke into applause.

“This is a little bit of history passing by that we’re never going to see again,” said Lynnette Sanchez, perched on a beach chair with camera and binoculars. “My husband had his choice of what he wanted to do on Father’s Day, and this was it.”

America’s most famous battleship docks early today at a Navy pier at Pearl Harbor, where it will be turned into a floating museum not far from the battered, sunken hulk of the battleship Arizona.

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Together, the two battleships will provide bookends to a history lesson stretching from Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, on Dec. 7, 1941, in which the Arizona was torpedoed, to the formal Japanese surrender aboard the Missouri in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.

“They belong together,” said Henry A. Walker Jr., who served aboard the Missouri during World War II and witnessed the surrender from his perch atop the navigation bridge. “They’re connected by the threads of history.”

The ship’s significance was not lost on Hiro Ota, a 28-year-old tourist from Tokyo who jogged from his Waikiki hotel room to Diamond Head on Sunday to get a good look.

“It’s hard to think about how the war ended, and about what happened at Pearl Harbor,” he said in Japanese. “It was so long ago. But when you think about the peace that the United States and Japan now enjoy, it’s a wonderful thing. I’m really moved to be here.”

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After three weeks of pulling the 45,000-ton battleship from its hometown of Bremerton, Wash., the tug Sea Victory took the Mighty Mo on a loop from Diamond Head to Honolulu’s waterfront and back to give as many people as possible a view. A traditional Hawaiian voyaging canoe approached to offer greetings to the Missouri, which won’t be open to the public until January.

At Ala Moana Park in Honolulu, the mayor and governor threw a boisterous beach party to welcome the ship. Chinese lion dancers set off 100,000 firecrackers, F-15s roared overhead and a fireboat spouted water. Despite intermittent showers, close to 20,000 people converged for the spectacle, with entertainers ranging from bagpipers to ukulele players.

“You can see how the people feel about it,” said Tony Del Piano, who served in the Navy during World War II.

The battleship is considered a national icon and is expected to be a tourism magnet. The Honolulu-based USS Missouri Memorial Assn., officially designated last month as the Missouri’s owner, predicts the vessel will attract up to 800,000 visitors a year.

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U.S. Navy Secretary John H. Dalton noted the emotional impact of pairing the two ships when he chose Honolulu as the Missouri’s home over three competing cities: Bremerton, San Francisco and Long Beach.

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The Navy’s selection of the Honolulu group, however, provoked a bitter dispute, and a Bremerton-based organization known as the Missouri on the Mainland Committee is pursuing the case in court. The group objects to the fact that the Navy altered its selection criteria late in the game and contends it had no legal right to donate the battleship to Honolulu.

The Missouri taps a deep well of emotion, especially among veterans. The ship was mobbed by well-wishers during a weeklong stay in Astoria, Ore., its last continental port of call before setting off across the Pacific. About 100,000 people converged on the town, clogging traffic for miles, and more than half of them boarded the ship, according to Roy Yee, president of the memorial association.

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Despite all the hoopla here over the Missouri’s arrival, the decision to place it just 900 feet from the Arizona Memorial has raised concerns locally.

Some observers fear that the huge battleship will overwhelm the subdued memorial and detract from its mission to honor those who died there. The Arizona Memorial, a low-slung white platform above the sunken ship, rises just 21 feet from the water at its highest points; the Missouri reaches 170 feet above the water. The Arizona Memorial has a church-like atmosphere; the Missouri is envisioned as an interactive museum, complete with a simulated “combat engagement center.”

“I think it’s going to be a very different experience in the memorial, with the Missouri sitting right next to it,” said Kathy Billings, superintendent of the Arizona Memorial. “Trying to isolate this part of the story is going to be our challenge. The Arizona Memorial is more like a cemetery than other types of museums.”

The memorial association and the Navy have agreed to minimize noise and other distractions. And in three years, the battleship will be moved to a new pier just over half a mile from--and nearly out of sight of--the Arizona.

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The memorial association is launching a $25-million fund-raising campaign to cover costs of restoring and maintaining the ship. It has lined up $6.5 million in bridge loans and pledges for another $1.6 million in donations.

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The last of four Iowa Class battleships built during World War II, the Missouri and its crew won decorations for action in Iwo Jima, Okinawa and Japan, and later during the Korean War. The venerable ship’s most famous moment in history, the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay, will be commemorated with a shipboard ceremony Sept. 2 at Pearl Harbor.

But there have been less-than-heroic times as well. In January 1950, the Missouri ran aground on a Chesapeake Bay mud bank and had to be dug out. On Independence Day weekend in 1989, a scantily clad Cher cavorted on its deck during the filming of the music video “If I Could Turn Back Time.”

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After retiring once, the Mighty Mo was recalled to action during the Persian Gulf War. It fired Tomahawk missiles at Iraqi-held targets and used its trademark 16-inch guns to support shore-based units. Still an object of fascination, those guns are capable of firing shells weighing up to 2,700 pounds--roughly the weight of an older-model Volkswagen Beetle--more than 20 miles.

“The No. 1 question asked is: ‘What did it feel like when the 16-inch guns were fired?’ ” said Yee, who will oversee the Missouri’s transformation into a museum. “We need to find a way to simulate that. I’m not sure how we’re going to do it.”

For Walker, the ship communications officer, the Missouri’s thunderous guns are indelibly etched in his memory.

“When the ship fired all nine of her 16-inch guns, it was a mighty blast indeed,” recalled Walker, now 76. “The shock wave was immense, and the noise deafening. At every salvo, my pot-steel helmet would be blown off, my shirt unbuttoned and my shoes unlaced.”

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