By Major Norman
S. Marshall, Robert Tucker, and Margaret A. Owens, Esq.
USS OREGON (BB-3) was,
in 1898, the most famous naval ship in America except for Old
Ironsides. She was the third ship of the line to bear the name
and was affectionately referred to as "McKinley's Bulldog".
OREGON, built and homeported
in San Francisco, and over the years crewed by many Californians,
won the nation's affections in a 15,000 mile race around the
Horn, following which she and her sisters soundly defeated a
Spanish Fleet, all within an incredible fourteen weeks.
When only twenty years
old, she became California's first and only Battleship captained
by a California Berkeley graduate and Naval Militiaman who later
became the first Commodore and, later, the first Rear Admiral
in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
This is her story.
Beginning in 1888, Congress encouraged the various states to
sponsor naval militia units which in time of necessity could
either assist civil authorities or defend the nation against
its enemies. Partial funding was prescribed and Federal equipment
and facilities were made available.
Accordingly, California was the third state to create such a
naval militia on September 3, 1891, following Massachusetts and
New York. Ultimately, twenty-four states had such naval militia
units that were organized into engineering, deck and aeronautic
In 1898, California had two battalions scattered from San Diego
to Eureka. They practiced their seamanship at weekly drills in
local armories or aboard the ships loaned by the U.S. Navy to
the state and in the summer months there were cruises on the
state ships or the sailors were integrated into the crews of
regular navy ships.
Our loaned ships were usually antiquated relics cast off the
active cruising service but were sufficient for work in local
waters and drills.
The first California militia ship was the USS MARION, a wooden
sloop of the third class built in 1839 and assigned to the naval
militia on January 20, 1898. She was based in San Francisco.
She had been rebuilt as a screw steamer in 1871 and displaced
1900 tons with a length of 216 feet and a 37-foot beam. She served
until 1907. Preceding her in 1896-97 was the 800 ton "cheesebox
on a raft". The monitor CAMANCHE built in 1863 in New Jersey, disassembled
and shipped to California on board AQUIL which sank at her dock
in San Francisco on November 14, 1863. CAMANCHE was salvaged, reassembled and commissioned in
1864. She mounted two 15 inch guns.
Southern California was served by stationing at San Diego the
USS PINTA, a Civil War steamer being a sloop of the fourth class.
She was iron, schooner rigged, displaced 550 tons and was 137
feet long. She had been built in 1865 and was about the size
of a tug boat. She became part of the naval militia fleet on
March 24, 1898]
Following the Civil War, the navy was downsized until in 1881
the entire U.S. fleet consisted of but twenty-six ships, only
four of which were iron hulled. Our national energies were turned
inward and westward toward the expanding frontier, railroading
and industrialization. The long standing Monroe Doctrine had
become essentially meaningless inasmuch as the nation had little
power to enforce it.
Awakening to its weakness as an emerging nation without adequate
naval resources, Congress in 1888 provided legislation to begin
a modern fleet designated as Second Class Battleships. They were
nine years in building not only because of financial constraints
but because American steel mills struggled with the problems
of producing nickel steel armor plate. English plans were used
to build the first ship, USS TEXAS, but the second, USS MAINE,
was of purely American design. She was destroyed at Havana just
two and a half years after her commissioning, thus creating the
opportunity for OREGON's race around the tip of South America
and Teddy Roosevelt's dream of an Isthmian canal.
In 1890, Congress passed more legislation approving construction
of a series of hybrids to placate both Navy expansionists and
those favoring a defensive strategy. They were accordingly called
Seagoing Coastal Battleships. They were the nucleus of the new
fleet. Two were built in Philadelphia [USS INDIANA and USS MASSACHUSETTS]
and the third contract was awarded to a robust young shipyard
in San Francisco, the Union Ironworks. The shipyard was then
only six years old.
OREGON was to be a 10,300 ton battleship mounting in her main
battery four 13 inch 35 caliber guns; eight inch 30 caliber guns;
four 6 inch guns; two one pounders; four guns of small caliber
and two torpedo tubes.
Her armor belt along the water line was eighteen inches and her
main battery turrets were seventeen inches in thickness. Conventional
wisdom and practical experience had shown that plating should
be at least as thick as the heaviest caliber of incoming shell.
Deck armor was three inches. She was driven by two three cylinder
triple expansion engines which developed 11,000 indicated horsepower.
[In contrast, the W.W. II Iowa class battleships were rated at
The boiler installation is the most important feature in connection
with the great run around South America. There were four main
and two auxiliary boilers. The main boilers were double ended
with four furnaces in each end and fired from eight rooms. Each
boiler contained 4,200 square feet of heating surface. The auxiliary
boilers were single ended and had three furnaces apiece. Although
the heating surface of the two auxiliaries was more than 11 percent
of the main boilers it appears that they were never used at sea,
even when the utmost speed was desired.
The keel was laid down on November 19, 1891, and she was launched
at noon on October 26, 1893, and the misses Daisey Ainsworth
and Eugenia Shelby, both representing the State of OREGON, christened
her while the Presidio Army band played "Hail Columbia".
Irving Scott, one of the yard owners, told the crowd:
"When fitted out the ship will have cost the United States
Government well over $4,000,000. Her displacement loaded will
be 10,288 tons. The OREGON, like her sisters, was designed with
a view of meeting in battle vessels carrying the heaviest guns
and armor. She was designed after a careful study of the vessels
of other powers, and with a view to being operated off the coasts
of America. The OREGON is a vessel of great fighting power united
with adequate protection in the shape of high resisting armor.
Her draft is sufficiently small to enable her to operate in the
shallow waters of the American Coast.
"The following are the principal features of the OREGON:
length on the water line, 348 feet; beam, extreme, 69 1/4 feet;
draft, forward and aft, 24 feet; ...designed speed, 16.2 knots;
sustained sea speed, 15 knots."
Still being fitted out in the year was the USS OLYMPIA which would win great fame two months before OREGON
while under Admiral George Dewey at Manila Bay. [She is today
a maritime museum in Philadelphia.]
OREGON's pre-commissioning sea trials went splendidly with the
ship clocking 16.791 knots over a sixty-two mile course thus
earning her builders a bonus of $175,000. She was commissioned
into the service under Captain Henry L. Howison, USN, on July
15, 1896. Her designed complement was 32 officers and 441 men.
In Cuba, repressive measures
by Spain led to rebellion by Cubans and American opportunists
attempted to smuggle munitions into the colony aboard the U.S.
registered steamer VIRGINIUS. The ship was seized on the high
seas by a Spanish gunboat and fifty officers and crew, some American,
were taken ashore and summarily shot.
Propaganda campaigns followed, fueled by the yellow journalism
of Pulitzer and Hearst, attacking Spain's General Valeriano Weyler
who had a reputation for repressive cruelty and corruption. He
herded people into concentration camps where they existed in
miserable conditions. Newspapers across the country demanded
war and the country rang with the cry "Remember the Maine
and to hell with Spain" all to the tune of "There'll
be a Hot time in the Old Town Tonight".
This encouraged President McKinley to send the new Battleship
MAINE to Havana harbor on a friendly visit which was reciprocated
by Spain sending the cruiser VIZCAYA to New York.
Main was in port for three weeks, swinging on a buoy, when on
the evening of February 15th, 1898, at 9:40 there was a terrific
blast forward followed by another. Two hundred sixty-six men
were lost and about one hundred crewmen were rescued by boats
from an American passenger liner and a Spanish cruiser. According
to the Americans, the MAINE was destroyed by a submarine mine
and the New York Journal offered $50,000 for information leading
to the arrest and conviction of the persons responsible. The
reward was never claimed.
During the first months of 1898, OREGON had been in Bremerton,
Washington undergoing overhaul. On March 7th, Secretary of the
Navy John F. Long wired the commanding officer: "The situation
is getting worse. You should go to San Francisco as soon as possible
and get ammunition."
Her skipper had foresightedly already left for Mare Island on
Sunday, March 6th. She arrived three days later at an average
speed of 11 knots and began coaling, receiving 1127 tons which
with the on-board fuel loaded her to within 5 tons of her utmost
capacity of 1594 tons.
A sudden illness of her captain, Alexander H. McCormick, USN,
caused Captain Charles Edward Clark, USN, to be immediately detached
from USS MONTEREY, then in San Diego, and speed northward to
take immediate command. He arrived on March 17th and was ready
The administration made some efforts to avoid the conflict but
a peaceful resolution was not possible. An Ultimatum sent to
Spain on March 27th demanded the end of Weyler's concentration
policies and amnesty for insurgents and the right of the Untied
States to act as an arbitrator between the Spanish Government
and the insurgents. Spain seemed ready to agree to such terms,
provided a way could be found to do so without bringing down
the monarchy. All this required time and patience on the part
of the American public and their representatives in Congress
but both had run out.
By prearrangement, USS MARIETTA had left Panama earlier and acted
as an advance courier to arrange for coaling at ports enroute.
She kept company with OREGON for much of the voyage and was a
Upon departure on March 18, OREGON carried 1600 tons of coal,
500 tons of ammunition and stores for six months, She was short
twenty-seven men from the engine and fire rooms and sixty-seven
Here began her epic journey of 15,000 miles in 66 days averaging
250 nautical miles a day.
Battle, gunnery and damage control drills commenced immediately
and continued daily up to the date of the momentous battle off
Santiago, Cuba on July 4, 1898.
Near the equator, fireroom and engine room temperatures ranged
between 110 and 150 degrees in high humidity. Fresh water was
extremely limited and rationed. The small amounts of ice that
were produced on board were reserved for the firemen and coal
passers. Discomfort was compounded by the filthy work of repositioning
bunker coal and hauling ash residue overboard, a backbreaking
Upon arrival on April 5, re-coaling at Callao, Peru took 50 hours
of non-stop all hands effort and the ship sailed on April 7,
1898 having learned that a Navy Board of Inquiry fixed blame
on Spain for the MAINE incident; she left at night silently.
Enroute to her rendezvous point with the Atlantic fleet, diplomatic
relations with Spain were broken off, international mediation
failed and Congress declared war on April 21, 1898.
As she entered the Straits of Magellan on April 16, she encountered
a terrific storm which Captain Clark described as "having
some of the most violent wind gusts I have ever experienced."
Rain was so dense that the great cliffs bordering the narrow
and tortuous channel could not be seen. [Of course, there was
The lateness of the hour made a night approach into Punta Arenas
impractical and she anchored for the night at Tamar Island, Chile,
amid gusts and heavy seas, leaving after only twelve hours. By
6:00 a.m. she was again underway and moving at close to her designed
maximum speed of 15 knots.
Arriving at Punta Arenas at 6:00 p.m., on April 20, loading of
coal commenced immediately. Five hundred tons were loaded by
hand in 48 hours and she left on April 21 without knowledge that
war had been declared that morning.
Reports of a very fast torpedo gunboat TEMERARIO [600 tons/20
knots] lying across her path caused both OREGON and the MARIETTA
to steam together in war conditions with sealed hatches and compartments
thus increasing the misery of her crew. No lights were shown,
guns were loaded and searchlights were at the ready.
The leg to Rio was at a slower speed so as to conform to MARIETTA's
slowness and it took ten days at 10 knots. Upon arrival at Rio
on April 30 there was news aplenty. War had been declared and
there were reports that Admiral Cervera was at sea with a powerful
cruiser squadron. TEMERARIO was also reported to have left Montevideo
and was headed for Rio. Accordingly, the crew busied itself tearing
out woodwork and painting the ship a dull gray color which tended
to diminish her visibility as much as possible under varying
conditions of light and atmosphere.
While in port, OREGON kept her two steam launches on picket duty
at night assisted by MARIETTA'S single launch.
The Brazilian navy sent
out warships in the event TEMERARIO entered Brazilian waters.
It took three days and two nights to take aboard 1000 tons of
coal and finish the other work necessary for combat, but this
time there was some shore-based labor to assist the weary bluejackets.
Joining OREGON at Rio was the auxiliary NICTHEROY, a dynamic
cruiser purchased from the Brazilians but a poor steamer with
frequent breakdowns. She slowed OREGON, being incapable of making
more than seven knots.
The run to Bahia, Brazil was 850 miles but on May 7 and 8 there
was a stubborn coal bunker fire requiring work parties to redistribute
coal and extinguish the blaze. No coal was taken onboard at Bahia
but there were communications from Washington urging haste. On
May 9th she headed for Bridgetown, Barbados, 2250 miles distant
under four boilers at 11.5 knots. The British, following the
neutrality rules, allowed her to take aboard only 240 tones and
she left the evening of May 18th having spent only twelve hours
in port. The last long run to Jupiter Inlet, Florida took six
days at 12 knots thence to Key West with only 200 tons remaining
aboard. At Jupiter Inlet, Clark cabled Washington announcing
his arrival and OREGON was ordered to Key West there to join
Admiral Sampson on the blockade of Cuba.
She had circumnavigated a continent and passed through two oceans
and in her two days at Key West she took on coal, additional
crew and was again ready for sea.
The circumstances of the battle with the Spanish Fleet at Santiago
are brilliantly described by Professor Sternlicht in his book
and among other sources also but it is sufficient to say that
the Spaniards made a tactical blunder by going into the protected
harbor at Santiago to either wait the conclusion of the land
war or make a desperate dash for the open sea against a greatly
superior blockading force. They lost the gamble in the course
of one morning thus suffering the defeat of both their Atlantic
and Pacific squadrons in only two months.
Impact of the Cruise
The "long and reasonably
successful voyage" of OREGON, though less spectacular than
the running fight of July 3rd, is of real significance to naval and national historians.
First, it swept away all opposition to the construction of the
Panama Canal for it was clear that the country could not afford
to take two months to send warships from one coast to the other
each time an emergency arose. One hundred years later, America
is again faced with the same dilemma since ownership of the canal
has been transferred. There was an additional reason also. America
now had an overseas presence. A naval base had been established
in Cuba. Hawaii had been annexed. Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines
has been acquired, and the Canal had become an enormously popular
Second, there was superb labor, care, engine maintenance, judgment
and leadership put forth by the whole engineering department.
The record breaking transit was completed without any breakdowns.
During the battle, OREGON led the fleet in the chase despite
an additional 600 tons of coal and in doing so she exceeded 17
knots which was above her designed speed. Chief Engineer R. W.
Milligan and several of his assistants together with her Captain
all attained high rank including J. M. Reeves who as a Rear Admiral
became Chief of Naval Aviation and young cadet William Leahey
who was later an Admiral and a hero of the Pacific War.
Third, the Secretary of the Navy's admonition to constantly practice
at the great guns proved again that continuous drill creates
expertise which makes success seem deceptively simple. During
the battle, OREGON's gunnery was superb and helped to end the
naval war in one morning.
Fourth, American engineering and maintenance was superior and
OREGON's readiness for continuous and sustained sea duty was
unprecedented. She arrived in Cuban waters in a thoroughly efficient
condition and was able to take her place in Admiral Sampson's
fleet upon recoaling and with no necessity for overhaul.
in Ship Design
The turn of the century
was one of great international tensions as world powers tested
their strength. There was the Japan-China War over Korea; the
Russo-Japanese War; European powers quarreled over the division
of Africa; and demands and financial concessions were extracted
from China through the Open Door Policy. In 1901 and again in
1902, U.S. Naval forces were sent to the Isthmus of Panama to
protect transit and communications. In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt
backed Panama's successful revolution and then negotiated canal
rights with the new government.
In the ten years between the end of Japan's war against China
and the beginning of its war with Russia, typical U.S. battleships
carried four large guns [10 to 13 inches] and a large number
of lesser caliber guns. Such ships were the backbone of the U.S.
Navy and all other important fighting fleets.
Great Britain, feeling her imperial base threatened by France,
Japan and Germany, seized upon a concept first espoused by Italian
strategists and in great secrecy and incredible haste constructed
a revolutionary new weapon. HMS DREADNOUGHT was laid down in
February 1906 and competed by December. This was an unheard of
DREADNOUGHT was 17,900 tons, was driven by steam turbines and
instead of mixed batteries she mounted ten 12 inch rifles. Theoreticians
had worked out, and the Russo-Japanese War had conclusively demonstrated
that mixing large and small batteries wasted weight and space.
The big guns could fire before the smaller ones were within range
and the smaller ones took up precious space which could be filled
with more big guns. Additionally, manual local control by gunnery
crews for range, train and elevation was erratic and a unified
main battery fire director was shown to result in a greater percentage
of hits. In sum, big guns delivered more bang for the buck.
DREADNOUGHT was larger, wider, faster, heavier and of higher
freeboard than any previous battleship. Everything else became
immediately obsolete. Sir John Fisher the First Sea Lord and
promoter of her creation joked that she should be called the
"hard boiled egg": "Why, because she can't be
The message to maritime strategists was not missed. The new Delaware
class of U.S. battleship was authorized by the Appropriations
Act of 1907. In his annual message to Congress, Roosevelt said
in the plainest of terms:
"To build one
battleship of the best and most advanced type would barely keep
our fleet up to its present force. This is not enough. In my
judgment, this year we should provide for four battleships."
Teddy Roosevelt capped
this comment thirteen days later by reviewing the Great White
Fleet at Chesapeake Bay as it started its fourteen month 46,000
mile cruise around the world. [OREGON, then out of commission,
did not participate].
At the beginning of the century, the U.S. Navy had been the sixth
largest in the world; by 1909 it was second only to the Royal
Navy. By then, many battleships including USS KANSAS, USS VERMONT
and USS NEW HAMPSHIRE, all less than ten years old and being
of the pre-Dreadnought type were obsolete at an early age and
were being replaced with the new Delaware class [USS DELAWARE,
USS WYOMING, USS NEW YORK and USS TEXAS] each having main batteries
of twelve in guns.
War broke out in Europe in August 1914 and as the world was sucked
into the conflict, America began building up its strength industrially
and militarily. We were drawn nearer and nearer to active partnership
in the conflict and when Germany tested the temper of the country
on May 17, 1915, with the sinking of the Lusitania with a loss
of 1198 lives, including 128 Americans, all neutral and all non-combatants,
the nation was outraged.
Public sentiment for an interminable neutrality, or peace at
any price, visibly declined. Nothing that Germany could do by
way of official apology, moderation of policy or offers of compensation
could stem the tide of bitter resentment.
Winston Churchill, in his book, The World Crisis, attributed
German defeat directly to the ravaging of Belgium and the sinking
of the LUSITANIA. "Only to these two grand crimes and blunders
of history, were her undoing and our salvation due."
By 1916, only a little more than seven years since the sixteen
battleships of the Great While Fleet had completed their voyage,
nearly all of them had left active service. Only USS CONNECTICUT
remained and she was also slated for the reserve fleet.
California had agitated for a larger ship for her naval militia.
Even her most recent loaner, USS
in 1894 and assigned to the State of California on March 31,
1910 was not sufficient in size for training and cruising and
when OREGON became immediately available, though redundant and
obsolete, she was the ideal candidate. She was homeported in
San Francisco. She was transferred to the state on February 17,
1916 under the command of Captain George W. Bauer, C.N.M.
George Bauer had served the state continuously since 1903 as
its senior naval officer, was a licensed master mariner, a superb
administrator and oversaw the growth of the naval militia from
400 sailors at the turn of the century to over 1200 by 1917.
It was he who led the long campaign for greater appropriations
and readiness and led the entire naval brigade down the streets
of San Francisco to their respective ships when the naval militia
was placed in Federal service. He continued to pursue his naval
duties and became the Navy's first Reserve Rear Admiral, passing
away on December 25, 1950 in San Francisco. OREGON was assigned
to California as a reserve Commission ship meaning she was assigned
to duty with the Naval Militia but regularly in command of a
naval officer having a crew of about thirty-five men for the
proper care and preservation of the ship. She was used as a floating
armory and school ship for cruising at which time the naval militia
officers assumed command and the militia crew operated the ship.
As such, she made local cruises off the California coast drilling
sailors in the states nine divisions in the arts and science
of seamanship. Such training and hands-on experience made the
1200 who marched to join the squadron in San Francisco Bay immediately
worthy of joining the regular ship's companies and they rendered
distinguished service during the war.
When the U.S. entered the war, OREGON was placed in full commission
on April 7, 1917 and was assigned to the Pacific Fleet as Flagship.
Her mission was to assist in training officers and men for ships
leaving the west coast for the war zone. According to one of
her officers she was also a important factor in increasing and
sustaining the war enthusiasm of the people who had a particular
affection for OREGON which had for long been a fixture in the
Bay. The entire state militia had been distributed initially
to USS OREGON, USS SAN DIEGO and USS HUNTINGTON where some stayed
as permanent ship's companies and others were assigned to other
ships of the line and auxiliary ships in the Pacific and the
California Got The Oregon
This is now speculation,
but the most probable reasons for California getting the loan
of a battleship were these:
1. The U.S. was gearing up for war. Congress ordered an increase
in the size of the National Guard and the Militia units guard
and the naval militia units remembering that militiamen had greatly
increased the size of the Navy in 1898 from 12,000 to 16,000
sailors and that was in a war of only four month's duration.
In 1898, California had an authorized strength of 414 sailors
but 1200 marched down San Francisco's streets to join the fleet
in 1917. Accordingly, the State required a more modern and larger
training ship to fill the role. OREGON could handle twice the
number as MARBLEHEAD which was needed by OREGON as a training
ship. The southern California divisions were serviced by the
small torpedo boat Farragut built in 1898 at the Union Iron Works
in San Francisco and based at San Pedro beginning on January
2. She was immediately available but had years of useful life
3. Doubtless there was sentiment involved. She had been built
here and commissioned here. Since April 26, 1911, she had served
as a training ship here for navigation, gunnery, and seamanship;
many of her crew lived in the bay area and she was a prominent
part of the popular 1915 Pan American Exposition in San Francisco
making herself available for public tours.
4. Finally, there was the entire forgettable but poignant argument
advanced which went as follows:
"The splendid availability of the state naval militia
in formal functions of the governor, the adjutant general or
their respective staff, goes without saying.
"At the launching of any great ship from the shipyards of
the state when governors of other states are to be entertained
what can be more impressive than for the governor to entertain
the visiting party on board a vessel of his own State's navy
and to render the man-of-war honors to which a governor is entitled?
Is this not a more dignified manner for the state executive to
attend a launching than a hack?
"When foreign men-of-war are in any of the harbors of the
state and the governor desires to extend the courtesy of this
great state, with a naval reserve at his call is he not entitled
to go on board ship with all the ceremony incident to his high
rank and to feel that his state has been properly represented?"
Transactions of the Naval Militia Association of the United States
Navy Department; February 20, 1919, p. 102
the Great War
Following the war, OREGON
served as an escort for U.S. Troops moving to Siberia and in
an assistance role to the White Russian counter-revolutionaries.
She was saved from the ignominious end of being a practice target
for the fleet in 1920 and then under the Washington Conference
on Limitations of Armaments of 1920 she was to be scrapped but
public sentiments were such that she was to be demilitarized
and turned over to the state of OREGON as a popular maritime
exhibit and museum on July 14, 1925 [Plate 6]. There she remained
for sixteen years until the outbreak of World War II.
There were then divisive forces; some wanted her broken up for
scrap to aid the war effort and President Franklin D. Roosevelt
concurred in a letter dated October 26, 1942. She was sold for
scrap on December 7, 1942 and taken to Washington for wrecking
but as the steel shortage became less acute the scrapping process
slowed. By September, 1943, all her armaments, superstructure
and internal machinery was gone but there was still a role for
her to play.
Her armored hull made her a perfect dynamite barge and she was
towed to the South Pacific so Seabees could use her as a depot
ship in constructing airfields. She was moored in Guam at war's
end and stayed there until Hurricane Agnes tore her from her
moorings in November 1948 ans she drifted 500 miles toward the
Philippines before being found and recovered. She was sold for
scrap on March 15, 1956 and was broken up in Kawasaki, Japan.
Today, only her mast remains, mounted in the seawall of Portland,
OREGON as the beacon and fitting memorial for Battleship Park.
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