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A Brief History
of
United States Battleships

In 1876, the year of our nation's centennial, the United States Navy was in a terrible state of readiness. When a study was published in Great Britain listing the top fifteen navies in the world, the United States failed to make the cut. On the list were many countries that would seem surprising by today's standards. These included Brazil, Peru, Austria and Turkey. A few years later, our navy would be challenged by Chile and be forced to back down.

At the close of the 19th century, a change in thinking was taking place, and the United States Navy was being transformed. The battleship Maine joined the fleet in 1895 as a "second class battleship," for during the nine years that it took for her to be completed, she was already obsolete. However, the Maine is perhaps one of the most famous battleships in United States history, for it is her explosion in Havana, Cuba, that led to the Spanish American War. In that war, other newer battleships were engaged, including the Oregon, which sailed from San Francisco around Cape Horn to engage the Spanish Fleet in Cuba. A few years later the Panama Canal was completed, which would greatly reduce the duration of the same trip. But, amazingly, these two events would play a great part in the evolution of the United States battleships.

For the Spanish-American War would result in the acquisition of the Philippine Islands for the United States. And once the islands were a United States Territory, a sufficient fleet had to be developed to protect them from aggressors, notably Japan. As for the Panama Canal, its width of 110 feet meant that all American Battleships would require a beam of 108 feet or less if they were to traverse the canal.

After the Maine and the Texas, "First Class Battleships" were assigned hull numbers, with the Indiana being BB1 and the Wisconsin, the last American battleship hull number completed being BB64. The earliest battleships usually had four big guns (12 inch or so) mounted on the center line, and a battery of side mounted medium and smaller guns. But all this was to change in 1905.

There is much talk in the history books about the HMS Dreadnought being a revolutionary ship, and this is undoubtedly true. By standardizing on a single large caliber armament, maximum firepower at maximum range could be deployed. In fact, the Dreadnought was so revolutionary that she lent her name to all new battleships to follow, which were known as "Post-Dreadnought Battleships" or simply "Dreadnoughts." However, less well known is the fact that the Dreadnought was built in response to an all big gun battleship project in the United States, which would result in the South Carolina and the Michigan. For although these ships were designed first, the leisurely construction pace in the United States was outpaced by the British who were involved in a naval arms race with the Germans, resulting in the Dreadnought being completed before either of her American counterparts. Otherwise, we might today be calling all new battleships "Michigans."

American battleship construction progressed steadily throughout the following two decades with each class of ship being more powerful than the last. But in 1922, the Washington naval reduction treaty was signed to halt the battleship arms race. When the United States signed the treaty, they agreed to halt construction of thirteen new battleships and battlecruisers under construction. Ten of these were scrapped, one was sunk as a target ship, and two (the Lexington and Saratoga) became the largest aircraft carriers in the world. Also at this time, the United States Navy disposed of all of the Pre-Dreadnought battleships, and several of the older Post-Dreadnought ships. The United States would not see such a large scrapping of ships until just after the Second World War.

As part of the Washington Treaty, a ten year holiday was declared that would prohibit all new battleship construction. This was later extended until 1936. At that time, the United States began what were to become known as the "fast battleships." For the United States had always favored firepower and staying power over speed. Most of the early battleships had a maximum speed of about 22 knots, when most other major navies had 24 knot battleships and 30 knot battlecruisers. The North Carolina class and South Dakota class battleships would be capable of 28 knots, and the outstanding Iowa Class ships would be capable of speeds in excess of 33 knots. These speeds were deemed critical to keep up with fast carrier attack groups. A final battleship class, the Montanas, called for maximum firepower and protection. They were to be nearly half again as big as the Iowa class, have a maximum speed of 28 knots, and be the first American battleships incapable of transiting the Panama Canal. Although authorized and designed, none of this class ever entered construction, as an emphasis was placed on the construction of aircraft carriers during the Second World War.

During our history, the United States authorized construction of 85 battleships and battlecruisers. Of these, eight were canceled before construction, and sixteen were canceled before they were completed. Of the remaining 61 ships, their histories vary greatly. The Maine, our first battleship, exploded most likely due to an internal fire. Six were sunk at Pearl Harbor, although only the old Utah, and the Arizona and Oklahoma would not be raised to fight again. Two old battleships were sold to Greece in 1914, but these were sunk by the Germans in 1941. Four battleships are now preserved as museums, the Texas, Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Alabama, all of which are located in their name states. With the exception of the four Iowa class battleships, whose fate remains unknown, all of the other American battleships were either sunk as target ships or cut up for scrap.

The Iowa class ships were the best balanced battleships ever produced, and have served our country over five decades. No enemy could destroy them -- will they be cut up for scrap and lost forever due to a lack of action on the part of Americans?

     


1999 The Battleship USS North Carolina Commission
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Last updated: May 28, 1999.