Iwo Jima was laid down on 2 April 1959 by Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Washington; launched on 17 September 1960, sponsored by Mrs. Harry Schmidt; and commissioned on 26 August 1961, Captain T. D. Harris in command.
Following shakedown training, she spent the rest of 1961 off the California coast in amphibious exercises. In April 1962, the ship joined Joint Task Force 8 in the Johnston Island-Hawaii area for an important series of nuclear tests. Iwo Jima evacuated several islands and took part in the test evaluation. On 26 July, she sailed from the test area to Pearl Harbor, and continued on to San Diego, where she arrived on 10 August 1962.
In September, the ship took part in full-scale amphibious exercises in California, departing from San Diego on 17 October for her first deployment to the western Pacific. However, as the crisis flared up on 19 October over the introduction of offensive missiles into Cuba, Iwo Jima returned to San Diego, embarked Marines 22 October to 27 October, and departed quickly for the Caribbean. As part of America’s powerful and mobile force afloat, she cruised in a “ready” status until December brought an easing of the Cuban situation. She arrived in San Diego on 13 December.
May 1965 through July 1967 saw Iwo Jima working primarily in Viet Nam, spending time in such places as Chu Lai, Phu Bai Combat Base, Qui Nhon, Mekong Delta, and other areas. During that time, she onloaded and offloaded troops and equipment. For a month she protected Seabees and Marines as they established an air field on the sandy shore. In addition, she provided laundry, showers, fresh provisions, store, and mail service for troops ashore.
Iwo Jima remained off Qui Nhon for defensive support until 20 July 1965, then steamed for Pratas Reef about 240 miles southwest of Taiwan. Arriving the morning of the 22nd, her helicopters were immediately pressed into service to aid the salvage of destroyer USS Frank Knox). The close approach of typhoon “Gilda” pounded the grounded destroyer so badly that it was impossible for small boats to get alongside her. Extra men were heli-lifted off the destroyer while surf rose 12 feet high to break completely over the stern of Frank Knox. Support given by Iwo Jima included such items as hot food, clothes, water, pumps, hose, gasoline, air compressors, welding machines, damage control equipment, and technicians. Feed water was heli-lifted in special tanks constructed by the destroyer tender USS Prairie, which had faint hope of keeping the destroyer’s boiler alive. Detached from this duty on 1 August 1965, Iwo Jima made a brief call at Hong Kong, then proceeded to the Philippines.
On 17 April 1970, Iwo Jima was the flagship of Task Force 130 that waited for the Apollo 13 spaceship’s astronauts after their memorable “successful failure” mission and splashdown near American Samoa. In the 1995 film Apollo 13, Iwo Jima was played by her sister ship, New Orleans (LPH-11). Iwo Jima‘s skipper, Captain Leland E. Kirkemo, is portrayed by the film’s central protagonist, Captain Jim Lovell.
From 10 May 1983 to 8 December 1983, Iwo Jima operated off the Lebanese coast as part of Mediterranean Amphibious Ready Group 2-83 (Marg 2-83). The ships hosted the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit (24th MAU), the main body of which disembarked on 29 May to take position in and around Beirut International Airport, relieving the 22nd MAU as the principal US component of the Multinational Force in Lebanon. On 23 October 1983, an attack on the Marine’s barracks caused the death of 241 US servicemen and wounded a further 60. The ship’s commanding officer at the time was Arden W. Jones, CAPT USN. During the deployment, it served as the flagship for Amphibious Squadron Eight (PHIBRON-8), with Morgan France, CAPT USN serving as squadron commander (AKA Commodore”).
On 11 October 1989, El Paso (LKA-117) was conducting a live fire exercise off the east coast of the United States using the Phalanx against a target drone. The drone was successfully engaged, but as the drone fell to the sea, the CIWS re-engaged it as a continued threat to El Paso. Rounds from the Phalanx struck the bridge of Iwo Jima, killing one officer and injuring a petty officer.
Iwo Jima was decommissioned on 14 July 1993, and struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 24 September. She was sold for scrap on 18 December 1995. The ship’s island was at the Museum of The American GI in College Station, Texas for several years but due to no funding for maintenance it was scrapped.
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Blog of J Lenni Dorner: https://jlennidorner.blogspot.com/
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