Battleship Centennial

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The traditional bottle of champagne that smashed against the bow of the USS Maine in 1890 christened our first modern capital warship and inaugurated the only battleship tradition that would last a century.

Great Britain pioneered the vessels’ evolution from ironclads of the late 1860s, but her tradition ended when the Vanguard was scrapped in 1960. France, the last nation other than America to keep battleships, discarded the Jean Bart eighty-five years after launching the Redoubtable in 1876. To be sure, the exact beginning of America’s tradition is debatable, but the Maine , originally designated an armored cruiser, was the first American warship launched that gained fame as a battleship.

The Maine ’s operational life lasted two years and five months, but her history spans almost every stage of battleship development. The 6,500-ton second-class battleships Maine and Texas heralded a line of twenty-five predreadnoughts that ranged from 10,000 to 16,000 tons and mounted four 12- or 13-inch main battery guns. As the Maine lay rusting in Havana, the all-big-gun HMS Dreadnought of 1906 so altered the type that she became the battleship’s B.C.-A.D. divide. Six years later, when the Maine was ceremonially scuttled, the first generation of dreadnoughts was giving way to the second, of 27,000 tons and ten 14-inch guns. Disarmament treaties after World War I imposed an artificial decade-long gap before the super dreadnoughts of World War II fame culminated with the 45,000-ton Iowa -class ships, armed with nine 16-inch guns and guided missiles, that are still in operation.

The first battleship in combat, Iowa , opened fire at 5:16 A.M. on May 12, 1898, at the forts guarding San Juan, Puerto Rico. Ever since, U.S. battleships have most often fought enemies ashore, not at sea.

In fact, our battleships engaged enemy warships only five times: at Santiago in July 1898 (against four Spanish armored cruisers); at Casablanca in November 1942 (against French light forces and the battleship Jean Bart ); at Guadalcanal in November 1942 (against the Japanese battleship Kirishiima ); at Truk in February 1944 (against Japanese light forces); and—in America’s only battle-line action—at Surigao Strait in October 1944 (against two Japanese battleships).

Oddly, more U.S. battleship sailors have been killed by their own guns than those of enemy ships. In five surface actions, only 38 men died, all of them aboard the South Dakota off Guadalcanal. In contrast more than 200 men have died in eight accidental powder explosions like the one aboard the Iowa in April 1989. Attacking aircraft account for more than 2,000 of the 2,300 men killed in action aboard battleships.

During World War I no American battleship fired on the enemy, and duty differed little from gunboat diplomacy. Battleships were often deployed to quiet unstable situations, such as Japanese expansionism from 1905 to 1907, Mexico from 1914 to 1917, the Neutrality Patrol of 1941, the Balkans in 1946, and Lebanon in 1983 and 1984.

Congress stipulated that battleships bear the names of states, but of the 61 ships completed (2 second-class, 25 pre-dreadnoughts, 10 first-, 12 second-, and 12 thirdgeneration dreadnoughts), none was christened Montana. The name was assigned twice, but both ships were canceled long before launch. Hawaii and Alaska were represented by World War II battle cruisers, but both were struck from the list before those territories became states. A special dispensation from Congress allowed a battleship launched in 1898 to carry on the name of the Civil War’s famous Kearsarge .

The Maine proved to be an anomaly among American battleships: small, slow, weakly armed, and, above all, short-lived. But if ships, like people, attain a lasting heritage through their progeny, the past hundred years have shown that America indeed remembered the Maine .