Sunday, July 28, 2013

The National Naval Museum - FDR's Unrealized Dream

Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1913 as Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
Few American presidents loved the US Navy as much as Franklin Delano Roosevelt. In 1913 Roosevelt was appointed Assistant Secretary of the Navy by Woodrow Wilson, and he retained his affection for the navy throughout his life. But one of his great efforts, the establishment of the Naval Historical Museum, failed due to a confluence of events. Had his dream come to fruition, it would have been one of the finest naval museums in the world.

Over the years US Navy ships served until they became obsolete or were no longer needed. Most were sent to the scrapyard, but others managed to hang on in reserve fleets or were re-purposed for other uses. Some of these ships were historically significant, while others reflected a technology that had long faded into obsolescence. For instance during the Spanish-American War, the navy reactivated several Civil War-era monitors that managed to survive for nearly forty years in reserve, then sent them to the scrapyard shortly thereafter.
The Civil War-era monitor Montauk, reactivated for the Spanish-American War.
While there is a Naval History & Heritage Command to oversee naval records and artifacts, the US Navy felt (and still feels) their obligation was to defend the United States, not to preserve naval vessels as museum pieces. As such, the navy had no qualms about discarding historic ships, on ground that they did not want to spend money and resources maintaining vessels that had no military value.

But public sentiment for naval relics can be strong, and this was particularly so in the forty years after the Spanish-American War. The rise of American naval power at the Battle of Manila Bay and the Battle of Santiago captured the public's imagination, and a 'Dewey Club' emerged: politically connected people who wished to commemorate those events. Among the members of the Dewey Club was Franklin D. Roosevelt.
USS Oregon loaned to her name state as a memorial in the 1920s.
The early 1920s saw a catharsis in the navy. Post-World War One downsizing and the Washington Naval Treaty meant that many prewar ships, which may have otherwise languished for years in reserve fleets, were sent to the scrapyard. The navy wished to discard historically significant ships as well, but were blocked by politicians. The cruiser Olympia was kept in reserve, and the battleship Oregon was loaned to her name state for use as a memorial. Constitution was in grave material condition, but was restored by raising over $600,000 in private funds. However, Congress still needed to allocate an additional $300,000 to complete the work.

The advent of the Great Depression plunged the country into economic chaos, and although funds became scarce, the desire to preserve the historic relics still remained strong. A week prior to the Election of 1932, the National Capital Planning Commission, a government agency that oversaw urban planning for the capital, proposed creating a naval museum to showcase significant relics still in the fleet. The commission was led by Frederic Adrian Roosevelt, President Roosevelt's uncle. This proposed museum would evolve to become the Naval Historical Museum and FDR enthusiastically embraced the concept.
Artist concept of the Naval Historical Museum, Washington D.C.

Throughout the 1930s President Roosevelt worked with several groups and individuals, to bring the Naval Historical Museum to reality. The economy restricted available funds for the construction of the museum, but efforts continued. In 1939 Admiral William Rodgers met with Roosevelt to discuss preserving historic relics still in the navy's inventory. Proposals for a museum site were made, including Hains Point (across the Potomac from today's Reagan National Airport). One plan had Olympia preserved in concrete, and USS Hartford was moved from Charleston to Washington D.C. in 1938, in preparation for her inclusion to the museum.

By the late 1930s, the indisputably historic ships Constitution, Constellation, Hartford, Olympia, and Oregon were still on the navy rolls. Several other Steel Navy ships also existed. Among them were:
  • Rochester (formerly Saratoga, formerly New York). Admiral Sampson's flagship during the Battle of Santiago.
  • Baltimore. One of the first steel ships of the New Navy. Converted to a receiving ship.
  • Alton (formerly Chicago). One of the first steel ships of the New Navy. Converted to a receiving ship.
  • Boston (later renamed Despatch). One of the first steel ships of the New Navy. Converted to a receiving ship.
  • Illinois (later renamed Prairie State). Predreadnought battleship. Converted to a floating armory.
  • Kearsarge (later renamed Crane Ship No. 1). Predreadnought battleship. Converted to floating crane ship.

Ex-Boston at Mare Island. She was scuttled off San Francisco in 1946.
With the outbreak of World War Two, priorities shifted but Roosevelt was still committed to the museum. When a call was made to sacrifice older warships to the war effort, Roosevelt realized he had to compromise. The famed battleship Oregon was handed over to the breakers (but was only partially dismantled) while Olympia was retained in Philadelphia Navy Yard for future inclusion in the museum.

As the war began to shift in favor of the Allies, the need for a museum became more urgent. The Naval Historical Foundation wrote a letter to Roosevelt in June 1944 stating that the war was going to produce a flood of historically significant artifacts that needed to be preserved in the museum. The following month, Admiral Wilson Brown sent a letter and sketches of the museum to the Chief Bureau of Yards and Docks. By this time the plan was to construct the museum on the Potomac, just east of Theodore Roosevelt Island, which would house Olympia, Hartford, Constellation, and a World War One-era four-stack destroyer. An Annapolis graduate was selected to run the museum and the Chiefs of the Bureaus at the Navy Department were designated to be museum trustees.

In April 1945 Olympia was put in a drydock for an overhaul and preparation for inclusion in the museum. It looked as if all of the things were falling into place for the museum to come to fruition. Then on 12 April, President Roosevelt died. The shock to the nation was severe, especially as the Allies were on the cusp of victory. And as Roosevelt died, so did the reality of bringing the Naval Historical Museum to fruition. Without his endorsement and support, the idea of the museum faded away.
Constellation undergoing evaluation in 1946, to determine the feasibility of preservation.
The new president, Harry Truman, was no fan of the navy and he had different priorities as hostilities came to an end. During and just after the war, scores of obsolete ships were disposed of, including most of the remaining New Navy steel warships and all of the four-stack destroyers. After the war the navy conducted feasibility studies on some of the remaining relic ships, to determine the cost to restore them, and issued a memorandum in 1949. The ships identified were:
  • IX-13 Hartford
  • IX-15 Prairie State (formerly  the battleship Illinois)
  • IX-20 Constellation
  • IX-21 Constitution
  • IX-22 Oregon
  • IX-25 Reina Mercedes
  • IX-40 Olympia
Of these the Chief of Naval Operations did not consider Prairie State and Reina Mercedes to be historically significant. Costs to restore Hartford, Constellation, and Oregon were well over one million dollars each. Constitution, having benefitted from her restoration in the 1930s would cost far less. 

By the late 1950s the navy finally managed to discard their remaining relic ships. Prairie State and Reina Mercedes were scrapped in 1956 and 1957 respectively. Hartford sank at her berth in 1956 due to a lack of maintenance, and dismantled the following year. Oregon, stripped to her weather deck during the war, went to a scrapyard in Japan in 1956. 
Hulk of Hartford in 1957, after sinking at her moorings
Constellation was handed over to an organization in 1955 for display in Baltimore. After nearly sinking in the 1990s, she was restored. And it was conclusively determined that she was actually an 1854 sloop, rather than the 1797 frigate. Olympia was handed over to a preservation group in 1957 for display in Philadelphia. She is presently in poor condition and is looking for a new steward or may be scrapped. Only Constitution was retained by the navy, and Congress mandated through legislation in 1954 that the Secretary of the Navy was responsible for her upkeep.

The successor of the National Naval Museum, the National Museum of the United States Navy, was established in 1961 and eventually saw the creation of branch museums across the United States. In addition to a wide collection of artifacts, the National Museum of the U.S. Navy does have one ship, USS Barry, available for visitors. One can only wonder what might have been, had FDR's dream of a grand and glorious naval museum come to fruition.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

SMS Regensburg

In 1912, the Imperial German Navy began construction of two light cruisers to supplement their growing naval force. The Graudenz and the Regensburg were fairly typical of the day; 468 feet (143 meters) in length and carrying twelve 10.5 centimeter (4 inch) guns. Regensburg was launched a mere two months prior to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which triggered the sequence of events that would plunge Europe into the First World War. 
Wreck of SMS Regensburg.

Regensburg was commissioned on 3 January 1915 and was almost immediately sent into action. Regensburg participated in a number of engagements against the Russians throughout the Baltic Sea. She shelled Russian positions in Livonia and later participated in minelaying operations off the Dutch coast. At one point, a proposal was made to send Regensburg into the Atlantic as a commerce raider, but it was decided she was of more value as a naval unit rather than being hunted down like many of the German cruiser/raiders early in the war.
 
Postcard depicting a drawing of SMS Regensburg.


In early 1916 she joined Admiral Franz von Hipper's squadron and shelled the British towns of Yarmouth and Lowestoft, along the North Sea coast. In May she led a flotilla of torpedo boats, serving as a screen for German battlecruisers at the Battle of Jutland. She was in the mist of key fighting during the battle, disabling the British cruiser Shark and damaging Canterbury. Miraculously, Regensburg managed to avoid serious damage in that epic conflict. 

After the Battle of Jutland, Regensburg returned to operations in the Baltic, and then ended up with the bulk of German naval forces at Wilhelmshaven. In October 1918, the German High Command ordered the German fleet to sortie for a final, epic battle between the High Seas Fleet and the British Grand fleet. But sailors scoffed at what they felt was a suicide mission, seeing how the end of the war was in sight. The mutiny compelled the navy to cancel the operation, but the revolutionary sentiment would spread, accelerating Germany to accept an armistice. On 7 November Regensburg moved to Swinem├╝nde, where she was when the war ended. She was not with the main German fleet that went to Scapa Flow, and was the likely reason why she escaped scuttling. She served as escort for the British battleship carrying the Allied Armistice Commission.

She joined the post-war Reichmarine, the navy of Weimar Germany until 1920, when she was handed over to the French as war reparations. France renamed her Strasbourg, possibly as a dig against Germany. Strasbourg was the capital of the province of Alsace, which had been under German control from 1870 up to the end of World War One. For the next fifteen years, she had an active career with the French Navy. Strasbourg participated in the Rif War in North Africa, and later participated in a relief expedition to assist in the rescue of the crew of the Italian airship Italia, which attempted to reach the North Pole. 
Ex-German cruiser Regensburg in service as the French cruiser Strasbourg.

In 1936 Strasbourg was placed in reserve, and her name given to a new battleship. She was later converted into a barracks ship, and served in that role at the French naval base in Lorient. In 1939 the Second World War broke out, and France fell the following year. The Germans decided to use Lorient as a major base of operations for u-boats. But proximity of Lorient to British airfields meant the naval base was the target of frequent air attacks. Starting in 1941 the Germans began construction of three massive concrete submarine pens of Keroman Submarine Base, to protect the u-boats against aerial attack. 
Keroman Submarine Base.
The Allies made repeated attempts to put these pens out of action, but the massive concrete structures were practically impervious to horizontal bombing. However, the Germans identified a vulnerability. The entrance to the pens, facing to the south-west, were open and vulnerable to attack by small torpedo aircraft. As such, the Germans confiscated the ex-Strasbourg for use as a breakwater, to prevent potential torpedo attacks against the entrance of the pens. In 1944 the ex-Regensburg/ex-Strasbourg was scuttled near the entrance of the submarine pens, both of which are still visible today. She is in poor condition, but her hull is still easily distinguishable.
Wreck of SMS Regensburg at Lorient, France.


Corroded bow of Regensburg.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Ship of many names: Russian Cruiser Pamiat Merkuria/Komintern

The Khobi River is a moderate-sized body of water that winds its way through the rustic countryside of the nation of Georgia. The river ends its journey at the eastern end of the Black Sea. Sitting on the south side of river mouth is an unattractive oil depot, constructed around 2006. Otherwise, the coast is pretty sparse and empty. Lying in shallow water, not far from the oil depot is the rusted hulk of a ship. Unbeknownst to perhaps most visitors, this ship was witness to some critical events in the history of Imperial Russia and the Soviet Union. 
The wreck of the cruiser Pamiat Merkuria/Komintern at the mouth of the Khobi River.
In the early 1900s, the Russian Navy began construction of four protected cruisers of the Bogatyr-class. The ships were pretty typical of the times, 439 feet/134 meters in length, and carrying twelve six-inch guns. One of the ships was the Pamiat Merkuria, which translated to 'Memory of Mercury'. She is not to be mistaken for an earlier, unprotected cruiser by the same name. But her actual naming requires a bit of explanation.

Komintern sometime between 1924 and 1935.
She was laid down as Kagul in 1900 at Nikolayev Shipyard, in the Black Sea city of Mikolayev. She had a  sister ship named Ochakov. But both of their names were changed during construction that has led to some confusion. Kagul became Pamiat Merkuria, and Ochakov becoming Kagul. There is some conflicting information as to when Pamiat Merkuria entered service. Several online sites state she came into service in 1905, but Conway's states she was completed in 1907. Wikipedia's page on Bogatyr-class cruisers indicates there was a mutiny during the 1905 Revolution that delayed the completion of Pamiat Merkuria. Whether this mutiny was on the ship or at the shipyard is not clear. But the 1905 Revolution was a pivotal event in Russian History, and laid the foundation for future instability in Russia, that would ultimately lead to full scale revolution.

Pamiat Merkuria spent her entire career in the Black Sea. Her career was uneventful until the outbreak of World War One. In November 1914, the Turkish Navy sortied into the Black Sea with their new acquisitions from Germany, the battlecruiser Goeben and the cruiser Breslau. Pamiat Merkuria was escorting a fleet of Russian battleships and they clashed with the Turkish ships on 18 November. Pamiat Merkuria would have additional encounters with Breslau during the early years of the war. She later shelled Turkish forts in the Bosporus and German-held oil facilities in Romania. 
Wreck of Komintern, taken in 1973. (citation)
 In 1917 Russia slipped into revolution. Pamiat Merkuria was taken by Bolshevik forces. She was hulked and then captured by German forces in May 1918. She later was taken over by White forces during the Russian Revolution, before finally being recaptured by Soviet forces, damaged and in poor condition. The Soviets refurbished the ship and recommissioned her as a training ship with the new name Komintern.
The wreck of Pamiat Merkuria/Komintern is still visible to left.
With the outbreak of World War Two, Komintern was pressed into service to provide naval gunfire support and troop transport. She was also converted to a minelayer. Komintern was involved in the epic battles for Odessa, Sevastopol, and Kerch. On 16 July 1942 she was lying at the eastern Black Sea port of Poti, when she was attacked by German aircraft. She was damaged beyond repair and was then stripped and used as a hulk. She was towed north of Poti to the mouth of the Khobi river, where on 10 October 1942 she was scuttled as a breakwater. Her wreck is still visible, lying just off shore.


Monday, May 27, 2013

Last of the Four Stackers - USS Corry (DD-334)

Lying on a mudflat about a mile north of the old Mare Island Naval Shipyard is a rusting hulk. Although the superstructure has been removed and the forecastle is missing, the ship's clean hull lines can easily be discerned. The narrow beam and the cutaway stern betrays the rusting hulk as the last remaining World War One-era US Navy destroyer, referred to as a 'Four-stacker' or a 'Flush-decker'.
Hulk of the Clemson-class destroyer Corry.

When the United States entered World War One, a crash program to construct destroyers was implemented, to combat Imperial Germany's large submarine fleet. The navy was also developing a fleet of extremely fast ships that consisted of the Lexington-class battlecruisers and the Omaha-class scout cruisers. This new series of destroyers would serve as high-speed scouts, which gave the ships sleek lines and extremely high speed.
Destroyer Corry in the early 1920s.

Ultimately, three versions of the 'Four-stackers' were built: the Caldwell-class, Wickes-class, and Clemson-class. During and after World War One, a total of 273 ships of the three classes would be completed. But Imperial Germany's collapse in November 1918 caught the shipyards by surprise and the United States was stuck with a huge fleet of destroyers with no war to fight. Also, the changed post-war world meant the Lexington-class battlecruisers were no longer needed, so the vision of a fleet built around high speed ships would not come to fruition. Post-war downsizing and treaty obligations meant most of the ships went into mothballs, referred to at the time as 'Red Lead Row".

The navy implemented a unique process for using the large supply of surplus Four-stack destroyers. Some ships would be kept in service until they were due for a major refit. Those ships would then be decommissioned and scrapped, and replaced with a new and relatively unused destroyer from Red Lead Row.
Stern of destroyer Corry during scrapping.

USS Corry (DD-334) was a Clemson-class destroyer, constructed at Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation in San Francisco, California. She was commissioned on 25 May 1921 and was one of the ships kept in service immediately after the war. She spent her entire career along the US west coast and served as an escort for President Warren Harding during his visit to Alaska in 1923. In late 1929 Corry was prepared for decommissioning, to be replaced by a newer Four-stacker from the reserve fleet. Corry went to Mare Island Naval Shipyard where she underwent scrapping starting in 1930. 
Stern of the destroyer Corry. Compare with the same view while she is being scrapped.

For some reason, scrapping was halted after most of Corry's superstructure and parts of her forward hull were removed. Her hulk was then towed to the Napa River and abandoned. Over the years the remaining sections of her superstructure were either removed or deteriorated, and her hulk rusted away. But the ship's hull is still largely intact and is likely the most complete example of a Four-stacker that is above water.

NOTE: Just as I finished writing this up, I found out there is the wreck of a second Four-stack destroyer in the southern end of San Francisco Bay. Referred to as the 'South Bay Wreck' by locals, it is the remains of the USS Thompson (DD-305). As with Corry, Thompson remained in commission after World War One, then was sold for scrapping in the early 1930s. However, Thompson was purchased for use as a floating restaurant until she was sold back to the US Navy during World War Two. She was then used as an aerial target. Her wreck can still be visited today, although she is nearly indistinguishable as a Four-stacker destroyer.
Remains of USS Thompson (DD-305) aka the 'South Bay Wreck'.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Rare Howell Torpedo Recovered

US Navy dolphins recently found a rare Howell Torpedo off the coast of San Diego, California.  


From the local news:
"The dolphins were working off the coast of Coronado on mine-hunting training exercises in March when they recovered a 130-year-old Howell torpedo – one of the first self-propelled torpedoes developed and used by the U.S. Navy.

“There were only 50 Howell torpedoes made, and we discovered one of the two ever found,” said Braden Duryee, operations supervisor for the SSC Pacific Biosciences Division.

Within two weeks, two dolphins marked the object on the sea floor doing their regular daily training exercises.

The dolphins, named Ten and Spetz, followed procedure when an object of interest is discovered by surfacing and touching the side of a trailing boat in a certain manner.

Navy divers then went in and recovered it.

“It was puzzling and exciting,” said Chris Harris, Operations Supervisor for Navy Marine Mammals Program.

It’s so old, the divers actually Google'd information to identify it."
USS Stiletto firing a Howell Torpedo.

The Howell Automobile Torpedo was the first self-propelled torpedo used by the navy, from 1870 to 1889. The torpedo was propelled by a flywheel and was intended to be a cheaper alternative to the Whitehead torpedo. It had a top speed of 25 knots, a range of 400 yards, and carried a warhead filled with 100 pounds of wet guncotton.

One one example was known to exist, located on display at the navy's Naval Undersea Museum. This newly recovered torpedo will be restored and put on display at the Naval History and Heritage Command, in Washington D.C.


Monday, May 6, 2013

The Overlooked Sister - USS Pennsylvania

The untimely end of the battleship Arizona solidified her place in American naval history. Countless generations of visitors still make the pilgrimage to her final resting place at Pearl Harbor. But while Arizona was destroyed in the first battle for the US in World War Two  her overlooked sister, USS Pennsylvania, was not only at Pearl Harbor as well, but was the last major American ship to be damaged in that conflict. 

Pennsylvania managed to escape the dubious honor of having been on Battleship Row during the attack on Pearl Harbor, but this fortunate set of circumstances also did not give her as much visibility in the public eye. For the older battleships present during the attack, Oklahoma and Arizona were destroyed and Nevada gained fame attempting to escape out of the harbor. And the newer "Big Five" battleships would be resurrected and some would be completely transformed to the point they were almost unrecognizable. But Pennsylvania, stuck in drydock, became best known for being in the background. In this case, the background for the wrecks of the destroyers Cassin and Downes.

Pennsylvania at Pearl Harbor. The marked guns would later be used in a memorial.

Pennsylvania
was the older of the two Pennsylvania-class battleships, laid down at Newport News on 27 October 1913. She escorted President Wilson to France just after World War One and then operated primarily in the Atlantic until 1931 when she was transferred to the Pacific.


She sustained relatively minor damage during the Pearl Harbor attack, then spent much of 1942 training and conducting patrols of the United States west coast. In early 1943 she was sent to the Aleutians to help force out the Japanese forces on Attu and Kiska. A crater from one of her 14" main guns can still be seen on Kiska.

Pennsylvania then went on to slug her way through numerous landings throughout the South and Central Pacific. Her closest opportunity to fame (excluding perhaps, her presence at Pearl Harbor) came at Surigao Strait in the early morning of 26 October 1944, when the Japanese attempted to force their way through into Leyte Gulf. In the last engagement between battleships, Pennsylvania was unable to get a fix on the Japanese fleet due to her older older fire control systems and her geometric position vis-a-vis the Japanese battle line. Her moment of glory had come and gone.

But like always, Pennsylvania continued to plug along, providing naval gunfire support for countless amphibious operations. In March 1945 Pennsylvania returned to Hunters Point Navy Yard for an overhaul. Her main guns which had been installed in the mid-1930s, were worn out. Replacement guns salvaged from USS Oklahoma were installed and Pennsylvania then returned to the war front. In early August Pennsylvania dropped anchor in Nakagusku Bay (renamed Buckner Bay by the victorious Americans) on the east coast of Okinawa. 
New 14" inch guns salvaged from Oklahoma, being installed on Pennsylvania.

A few days later a lone plane dropped one bomb on the city of Hiroshima, completely obliterating it. When Japan did not respond to demands for surrender, a second bomb was dropped on 9 August. The United States reiterated the request for surrender and then awaited a response. Three days later, a solo Japanese plane flew in low over Buckner Bay and dropped a torpedo into the water. The torpedo struck the very stern of Pennsylvania, killed 20 men and ripped a massive 30 foot hole (9.1 meters) in her. Flooding was so severe that she nearly sank, but damage control parties managed to save the battleship. Japan would announce her surrender just three days later.


Pennsylvania after her near fatal torpedo hit. Note main deck nearly awash.

While the main US fleet headed to Tokyo bay for the official surrender ceremonies, Pennsylvania limped to Guam for repairs; her hard earned victory celebration stolen. A patch was placed over the torpedo hole and other basic repairs were made. But the war was over and Pennsylvania was worn out. The navy had no interest in making any sort of substantial repairs to her. On her way back to the United States, her Number 3 shaft failed due in part to the damage she sustained from the torpedo. While wallowing in the middle of the ocean, a diver went over the side and cut away the broken shaft and propeller, which vanished into depths. Subsequently, her propulsion began to fail and she managed to reach Puget Sound Navy Yard with only one functioning screw.

Pennsylvania's ultimate fate was sealed when she was selected to be used as a target for Operation Crossroads, the nuclear bomb tests at Bikini. She was repaired just enough to make one last trip to the South Pacific. When she left the States, she still shipped water in compartments that had been damaged from the torpedo strike. 


Pennsylvania as a target ship at Bikini.

Pennsylvania was positioned nearly due south of target area and was the farthest away of the four battleships present. As such she managed to escape some of the damage inflicted by the bomb, but she was heavily irradiated. The navy's radioactive management plan for Crossroads turned out to be a failure. After Test Baker the waters in Bikini lagoon became heavily contaminated. Radioactive seawater not only contaminated the target ships, but also began to get into the piping of the support ships. Surviving target ships were then towed to Kwajalein Lagoon where they could be studied in uncontaminated water. Although she survived the blasts, Pennsylvania was so radioactive that she was kept at Kwajalein to undergo radiological studies. She would never return to American soil.

The location of her old torpedo wound constantly leaked as it had never been fully repaired. When the radiological testing was complete, Pennsylvania was finally allowed to go to her grave. Flooding from the unrepaired damage pulled her down, stern first, into the sea on 10 February 1948. But even that was sort of a half-measure. The two other surviving target battleships, New York and Nevada, were allowed to return to Hawaii before they were expended as targets in surface attacks in July 1948.

Pennsylvania sinking at Kwajalein.

Pennsylvania never quite seemed to get the respect or fame she deserved. Yet several significant artifacts exist. One of her ship's bells was permanently loaned to Penn State by the navy. Another is at the Erie Maritime Museum, in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Guns from Pennsylvania at Dahlgren, Virginia.


In the 1990s, an inventory conducted at the Naval Support Facility, in Dahlgren, Virgina, revealed several of Pennsylvania's main guns still existed at the base. The guns, removed during Pennsylvania's refit in early 1945, were moved to Virginia where they sat largely forgotten. The navy then decided to scrap the barrels, but the Pennsylvania Military Museum stepped forward and asked for the guns. In 2009 two of the guns were moved to the museum near State College, Pennsylvania. At last Pennsylvania, long overlooked, finally received the recognition she deserved.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Their Final Service - US Navy Predreadnought Target Ships

It is likely when you think of American battleships used as targets, the four expended in Operation Crossroads first comes to mind (although only one of those was actually sunk directly by the nuclear blast). The next thing that comes to mind is likely the spectacle put on by General Billy Mitchell in the early 1920s, when he sent some old predreadnoughts to the bottom with aerial bombardment. But the story of the old battleships expended as targets prior to and just after World War One is a pretty interesting, if generally overlooked history.

Between 1911 and 1923, the US Navy used seven predreadnought battleships in a series of gunnery and aerial bombing tests. Most occurred in the United States, although one ship was expended in Panama. Of the seven, only two were salvaged and scrapped. The other five remain in various stages of completeness where they sank.

Texas (1892)

Battleship Texas
Texas was one of the first two battleships constructed by the US Navy, along with Maine which met a tragic end in Havana harbor in 1898. Texas was constructed as a Second Class Battleship - a term applied for a ship intended primarily for coastal defense. When she was designed in the late 1880s, there was quite a bit of debate around whether the United States should construct ocean going battleships (viewed as offensive weapons) versus coastal defense vessels. The end result was that both Texas and Maine were coastal defense ships, and both were largely obsolete by the time they were commissioned in the early to mid-1890s.

Texas' defining moment occurred on 3 July 1898 when she played a pivotal role in the destruction of the Spanish cruisers Vizcaya and Cristobal Colon, during the Battle of Santiago. This significant contribution helped shed Texas' reputation as a bad luck ship, that gave her the nickname "Old Hoodoo".

USS San Marcos (ex-Texas).
After the Spanish-American War, she went through a modernization but was considered completely obsolete within a decade. In 1911 she was renamed San Marcos (to free her name for a new battleship), and was allocated as a target ship. 

In March 1911 she was anchored in the shallow waters of Chesapeake Bay, near Tangier Island, Virgina. She was shelled by the battleship New Hampshire and sank on 22 March. An study of the effects of the shelling showed that modern gunnery was devastating, with massive holes punched through the ship. The damage was so great that seawater flowed freely in and out of the hull. This information helped the navy improve the armor configuration on the Nevada-class battleships then under design.

Damage aboard San Marcos (ex-Texas)
 Later that year, the wreck of San Marcos was fitted with a cage mast that was shelled by the monitor Tallahassee to evaluate the strength of the mast design. The ship continued to be used as a static target for years afterwards, all the way through the end of World War Two. By the 1950s the navy finally decided she was a threat to navigation and in 1959 the wreck was blasted with explosives. Her remaining upperworks were destroyed and what was left of her was driven into the mud of Chesapeake Bay, where she remains today.

Indiana (BB-1)

Battleship Indiana
Indiana was the lead ship of the first class of battleship designed by the United States. She was a significant improvement over the preceding Texas and Maine, although she had significant design flaws that did not become apparent until she was put into service.

Indiana was at the Battle of Santiago on 3 July 1898, but because she was positioned to the east of the harbor, she did not play a significant role when the Spanish ships attempted to escape to the west. After the Spansh-American war, Indiana spent most of her years in reserve or as a training ship. She did go through a modernization starting in 1903, but she was largely passed by newer and more capable ships.

At the end of World War One, Indiana was selected by the navy to be expended as a target. Army general and air power advocate Billy Mitchell was claiming aircraft could sink battleships, so the navy attempted to preempt his call to bomb a battleship under combat conditions. Many historians claim this evaluation was done strictly to counteract any results coming from Mitchell's plan to sink a surplus warship.

Indiana was renamed Coast Battleship Number 1 to free her name for a new South Dakota-class battleship then under construction. She was taken to Chesapeake Bay and moored near the wreck of the Texas

Wreck of ex-Indiana. Wreck of ex-Texas is to the right.
The test setup was unusual in that the navy's aircraft did not drop actual bombs. The planes dropped dummy bombs on the ship, then explosive charges were placed where the dummy bombs landed and then detonated. So this test was an emulation of an aerial attack rather than an actual attack. The end result was that the superstructure of Indiana was heavily damaged and her funnels knocked askew.

Mitchell claimed that the tests proved aircraft could sink a battleship. But the navy's official report disputed that statement and Captain William Leahy (later first Chariman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) said "The entire experiment pointed to the improbability of a modern battleship being either destroyed or completely put out of action by aerial bombs". In the end the tests on Indiana were inconclusive and it wouldn't be until later tests, that Mitchell was proven to be correct. However it wasn't until the sinking of the British battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser Repulse in 1941, that conclusively proved that aircraft were capable of sinking an operating battleship at sea.

Indiana was subsequently raised and scrapped starting in 1924.

Massachusetts (BB-2)

Massachusetts during the Spanish-American War.
Massachusetts was a sister ship to Indiana. Massachusetts missed her rendezvous with history when she left station off of Santiago, Cuba to coal. During her absence, the Spanish Fleet made its dash out of the harbor that led to the decisive Battle of Santiago, on 3 July 1898. Her subsequent post-war career closely matched that of Indiana, with a modernization starting in 1903 and then being used as a training ship up to the end of World War One.

In 1919 Massachusetts was renamed Coast Battleship Number 2, and she was taken to Pensacola for use as a target. But unlike Indiana, she was subjected to a less controversial series of tests. Massachusetts was scuttled in shallow water, where she became a static target for land-based artillery. The army brought in various rail-based artillery pieces that raked the ship with around one-hundred hits. 

Ex-Massachusetts sinking.
The wreck was returned to the navy in 1925 but no scrapping bid was accepted for the old ship. She continued to be used as a target infrequently up through World War Two. In the mid-1950s, the navy offered the ship for scrap yet again, but the State of Florida intervened and declared the wreck to be state property. In 1993 Massachusetts was declared an underwater archaeology preserve and she was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. 

Her wreck is easily accessible by divers and can be seen during low tides.

Iowa (BB-4)

Iowa sometime after the Spanish-American War.
Iowa was an improved Indiana-class battleship that rectified many of their design defects. She served in Admiral Sampson's blockade of the Spanish Fleet at Santiago, Cuba and played a pivotal role in the battle. Iowa was the first American ship to spot the Spanish ships exiting the harbor and fired the first shot. She was credited for inflicting critical damage to the cruisers Infanta Maria Teresa, Almirante Oquendo, and Vizcaya, as well as the torpedo boats Pluton and Furor.

Ex-Iowa under remote control.
In the years after the war, Iowa underwent a modernization and then served as a training ship, with a brief period in reserve. But like the Indianas, Iowa was considered obsolete and slated for disposal after World War One. In 1919 she was renamed Coast Battleship Number 4.


Ex-Iowa damaged in the Gulf of Panama.
In 1920 Iowa was outfitted with a radio control device that allowed her to be steered without any crew aboard. After trials, she was taken to the Gulf of Panama where she served as a target for naval gunfire. During an exercise on 22 March 1923, she was subjected to 14" gunfire and sustained fatal damage. The ship suffered hull damage, a wrecked superstructure, and a toppled funnel.There is no indication she was salvaged and is likely still resting off the coast of Panama.

Alabama (BB-13)

Battleship Alabama. Note side-by-side stacks.
In the disputed wake of the bomb tests on Indiana  Congress required the Navy to allow additional bombing tests. These joint Army-Navy tests were called Project B, which would see a number of ex-German and American ships expended as targets. The German battleship Ostfriesland was successfully sunk by Mitchell on 21 July 1921 and garnered considerable press coverage. Subsequent tests were planned for surplus American battleships.

Alabama was an Illinois-class battleship launched during the Spanish-American War and was commissioned in 1900. She was part of the Great White Fleet, but had to drop out of the main force while in San Francisco. However she, along with Maine, continued on as an independent unit and completed the circumnavigation of the globe separately. During World War One she was used as a training ship along the Atlantic coast of the United States.

Alabama hit with a white phosphorous bomb.
On 15 September 1921 Alabama was transferred to the War Department for use in Project B and was subsequently taken to a location near Tangier Island, where Texas and Indiana had been expended as targets. The wrecks of both battleships were visible from where Indiana was moored.

Alabama with ex-Texas (far left) and ex-Indiana (2nd from left)
Alabama was subject to a battery of bombing tests, including white phosphorous weapons. She finally sank on 21 September 1921 after sustaining cumulative damage from bomb hits. Although Mitchell had proven the efficacy of aerial bombing, the navy still disputed the bombing results due to the fact that Mitchell pledged to conduct the tests under combat conditions. But the lack of damage control parties to stem progressive flooding left this issue unresolved. But the heavy damage inflicted on Alabama gave considerable strength to Mitchell's claims.
Hulk of USS Alabama being scrapped.


Alabama herself was sold for scrap in 1924. Her hulk was raised and taken to Baltimore, Maryland where she was broken up in the late 1920s.


Virginia (BB-13)

Battleship Virginia sometime after 1900.
Virginia was the lead ship of her class. She operated primarily in the Atlantic, and was selected to participate in the cruise of the Great White Fleet. For the first leg of the voyage, she was in Second Division of the First Squadron. For the second leg, she was in Third Division of Second Squadron. Afterwards she participated in various training exercises in the Caribbean and along the east coast of the United States. She also used the wreck of ex-Texas as a target for gunnery drills.

Her career during World War One was relatively uneventful, with Virgina serving as an escort for one convoy to Europe.

Bow of Virginia or New Jersey. Note collapsed main deck & main guns at top.
At the end of the war Virginia was struck from the naval register and given to the War Department on 6 August 1923. The following month Virginia along with New Jersey were towed to a location near Diamond Shoals, off the coast of North Carolina. Starting 5 September, Virginia was subjected to heavy air attack by Martin MB bombers. 

Sinking of Virginia.
On the third attack run, Virgina was hit by a 1,100 lb bomb that completely demolished her superstructure: masts, funnels, and bridge were completely blown away. Within thirty minutes the shattered battleship rolled over and sank. Virgina sits upside-down in 355 feet of water, with her stern separated from the rest of the wreck. 

Another view of Virginia sinking.
 Of note, divers reported Virginia had her screws, shafts, and rudder removed, while New Jersey still has hers intact. Virginia's bell is at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

New Jersey (BB-16)

Battleship New Jersey in 1909. Note stacked turrets.
New Jersey was a Virginia-class battleship. Her career mirrored that of Virgina, and in the Great White Fleet she remained with Second Division, First Squadron during the entire cruise. During World War One New Jersey served as a training ship and then made four voyages to France as a troop transport.

At the end of the war New Jersey was decommissioned and handed over to the War Department. As with Virginia, she was taken to a location off Diamond Shoals and prepared for use as a target. 

New Jersey sinking at Diamond Shoals.
On 5 September 1923 Army Air Corps bombers subjected New Jersey to a series of bombing runs of 600 lb bombs that left the ship damaged and taking on water. Focus was then shifted to Virginia and, after she was sunk, returned to New Jersey. The ship was subjected to further attacks until she took what is likely a fatal bomb hit just aft her main mast and sank in the afternoon.
Infograph of New Jersey, from the Courier-Post Online
The wreck lies upside down in a section of ocean where currents keep her scoured clean of marine life.