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.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you, I always wondered about the fate of the first USS Indiana, and her early BB sister ships.
    BZ /// Well Done!