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Long Beach Loses Battleship Missouri in 'Brilliant' Sneak Attack in Congress

November 02, 1989|FAYE FIORE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH — It was nearly 8 p.m. on the floor of the House in Washington. The congressmen were hungry. They were tired. They wanted to go home for the weekend, but two of their own were dragging out something about a military construction bill.

Usually refined lawmakers began to scream at each other. Some yelped for a vote to put an end to all the suffering. There were planes to catch. Steaks to broil. They howled all the louder. There was no holding them. The vote was cast. They didn't even bother to count it. No need to. The roar said "Aye!"

And the next morning, Long Beach woke up without a battleship.

Now it is all but certain that the battleship Missouri is going to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, ending Long Beach's years-long fight to give home port to the distinguished warrior upon whose decks the Japanese surrendered in World War II.

"Trying to perform work in Congress after 8 at night is like trying to teach a kindergarten class before nap time," congressional aide David Eisner said later.

The defeat represents not only a multimillion-dollar blow to the Long Beach economy, but a certain loss of stature for a city that has hosted both the Missouri and the battleship New Jersey, all that are left of the Navy's prestigious World War II Pacific Fleet.

"It is a political plum to have a battleship home-ported in your community. They are prestige. They look fast and deadly. They have a commanding presence," said Laurie Hunter, Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce vice president. "And they provide $60 million to the economy in Southern California, and Long Beach gets a big chunk of that."

The Missouri first came to Long Beach in 1984 after 29 years in mothballs, its engines rusty and its guns outmoded. The Long Beach Naval Shipyard gave the ship a $450-million, federally funded face lift. State-of-the-art weaponry and computer systems were installed and dignity was restored to a ship that once survived a kamikaze attack scarcely dented.

Recommissioned in 1986, the vessel was one of four World War II battleships spruced up and sent back to sea. When a congressional advisory commission recommended that the Missouri be based in Honolulu, Long Beach decided not to give up without a fight.

But through a combination of bad timing and power politics, the Missouri slipped through the city's fingers last week, cloaked in an innocuous-looking $8.5-million military construction bill that local lawmakers and city officials say they never saw coming. In fact, the bill appeared to have so little to do with "Big Mo" that it never even mentioned the Missouri's name.

Put together by Hawaii's Democratic Sen. Daniel Inouye, the bill offered to give 108 acres of valuable federal land in Honolulu to the state of Hawaii. In return, Hawaii would build a causeway to the middle of Pearl Harbor. It would allow construction of military housing and maintenance facilities needed to host the battleship and crew.

As it turned out, the causeway would pave the way for the Missouri to make Pearl Harbor home, a detail California Reps. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican, and Glenn Anderson, a Democrat, learned only hours before the House was scheduled to vote last week.

"It was a sneak attack," said Eisner, one of Rohrabacher's staff members. "It was brilliant," he later conceded.

Aides to both congressmen stayed up half the night typing letters and lobbying fiercely to block Inouye's bill and anchor the Missouri and her crew of 1,500 in Long Beach. They argued that it was a waste of tax dollars to build maintenance facilities and Navy housing in Pearl Harbor when Long Beach already had them. They said giving Hawaii federal land, by some estimates worth $100 million, in exchange for a road and a boat was a "raid on the U.S. Treasury."

When word of their mounting opposition spread, counter-threats poured in. Some congressmen warned that, unless the Missouri went quietly, Long Beach would lose millions of dollars in defense funds and thousands of jobs in the process.

One unnamed member warned: "If you mess with Inouye, it will be like sticking a lighted stick of dynamite under your desk," according to Eisner.

"It was a bluff," Eisner said. "But they were playing hardball."

The Navy contends it is national security policy never to put two battleships in one port. Local lawmakers laugh in response. The battleships are hardly ever at home anyway, they say, always in the Pacific on some maneuver or sailing through the Mediterranean when the United States feels the need to flex its military muscle.

Up against the Navy, several hungry congressmen and Inouye--the powerful chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee--Rohrabacher and Anderson decided to put up a fight anyway.

"It was David and Goliath, and nobody was betting on David," Rohrabacher said.

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