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H-016-5: Spanish-American War—USS Oregon's Dash to Glory

H-Gram 016, Attachment 5
Samuel J. Cox, Director NHHC
March 2018 

USS Oregon (Battleship No. 3) was one of three Indiana-class battleships authorized by the Battleship Act of 1890 and the first battleship built on West Coast of the United States. She was launched in 1893 and commissioned on 15 July 1896. In H-Gram 015, I described many of the design flaws of the battleship USS Maine (which also afflicted her near-sister, USS Texas). However, much was learned from those designs and the Indiana class represented a major improvement. Oregon, along with her sisters Indiana (Battleship No. 1) and Massachusetts (Battleship No. 2), were comparable to battleships in the larger navies of the world, and their engineering plants were the equal of any. Each was armed with two twin 13-inch centerline gun turrets, one forward and one aft (the failed echelon turret placement used on Maine and Texas was abandoned). In keeping with world-wide pre-Dreadnought battleship design, she carried secondary armament of four twin 8-inch gun turrets, tertiary armament of four 6-inch guns, and several kinds of smaller weapons. The wide range of calibers made it practically impossible to accurately spot the fall of shell from the different guns. As a result, pre-Dreadnought battleships were prone to expend huge amounts of ammunition for very few hits.

The Indiana class was initially classified as “sea-going coastal battleships,” an oxymoron intended to get the votes from both “expansionist” and “isolationist” members of Congress that apparently worked. The debate in Congress, and to some degree in the U.S. Navy, was still unresolved over whether the U.S. Navy should have a “battle line” that could fight it out with an enemy battle line, or whether the Navy should stick to a much cheaper strategy of commerce raiding coupled with coastal defense, hence the “sea-going” versus “coastal” distinction. Although well-armed and armored for their day (like other sea-going navies), the Indiana class had a relatively low freeboard (a “coastal” feature), which affected their sea-keeping ability (and made Oregon’s transit of the Horn all that much more sporty). When the Indiana class rotated their main battery turrets to broadside, it created a significant list in the direction of fire, an issue with her low freeboard, which was fixed by retro-fitting counterweights in the turrets. Oregon was also almost a knot faster than her east coast sisters due to a unique power plant design (and when top speeds of battleships were 15 to 17 knots, an extra knot was a big deal, and would be demonstrated at the Battle of Santiago). Of note, at the time, Oregon was “Battleship No. 3” not BB-3; the two/three-letter designations came in effect in 1920.

Oregon was in dry dock in Bremerton, Washington, when the Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, Cuba, on 15 February 1898. On 7 March, the Secretary of the Navy cabled Captain Alexander H. McCormick, commanding officer of Oregon, that the situation was getting worse and that he should get underway to load ammunition at San Francisco. McCormick had anticipated the order and was already at sea. Unfortunately, he fell seriously ill in San Francisco. Captain Charles E. Clark, in command of the cruiser USS Monterey, then in San Diego, proceeded to San Francisco to assume command of Oregon.

Oregon departed San Francisco on 19 March. Her first stop for coal was Callao, Peru. Captain Clark elected to skip a coal stop in Valparaiso, Chile. When entering the Straits of Magellan on 16 April, Oregon encountered a severe gale that prevented visibility of the shore, and the ship came dangerously close to being driven aground. She was forced to anchor, which fortunately held, and she survived a rough night. Arriving at Punta Arenas, Chile, she joined up with the gunboat USS Marietta, which had been travelling ahead to arrange for coal stops. The two ships then steamed together due to rumors of a Spanish torpedo boat (the Temerario) in the area, which actually slowed Oregon down. Both ships transited with guns manned and hatches sealed, which, made for a pretty miserable transit for the crews once the ships hit the tropics. Oregon departed Rio de Janeiro on 4 May after learning that war with Spain had been declared. She made further brief stops in Bahia, Brazil, and Barbados, before completing her voyage at Jupiter Inlet, Florida on 24 May, reporting ready for battle (and she was). On 26 May, she departed Jupiter Inlet via Key West and joined the blockade off Santiago, Cuba, on 1 June. I will cover Oregon’s war record in a future H-gram on the Battle of Santiago in July 1898. Among the crew of Oregon was Midshipman (and future five-star admiral) William Leahy, and then–Assistant Engineer Joseph M. Reeves, who as a rear admiral would become chief of naval aviation.

Following the end of the Spanish-American War, Oregon returned to her home port in San Francisco. She deployed to the Philippines beginning in March 1899 for a year at the onset of the Philippine Insurrection (or War for Independence from their perspective) supporting U.S. Army operations. She then served a year in China during the Boxer Rebellion, nearly sinking after hitting an uncharted rock on 28 May 1900. Following an overhaul, Oregon returned to the Far East in 1903, serving until she was decommissioned in 1906, after just eight years of service. The revolutionary new British battleship Dreadnought had made ships like the Oregon obsolete practically overnight. Oregon was briefly recommissioned in 1911 for no obvious reason and then went in and out of reserve status several times.

Recommissioned again at the onset of World War I, Oregon served as an escort for transport ships engaged in the Allied and U.S. intervention in Siberia in 1918 on the side of the “White Russians” during the Russian Civil War that followed the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. (I will cover the Philippine Insurrection—during which then–Ensign Nimitz ran his destroyer aground—the Boxer Rebellion, and the Siberian intervention in future H-grams.) After being decommissioned again in October 1919, the Navy declared Oregon “incapable of further warlike service” so as to avoid scrapping her under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty. In response to strong public demand, the Navy then loaned her to the State of Oregon as a monument and museum—and an extremely popular one at that—and her status as a historic icon appeared secure as she received thousands of visitors every year. However, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the governor of Oregon offered to turn her back to the Navy due to the shortage of scrap iron for the war effort. The Navy quickly obliged and, despite President Roosevelt’s reservations (but eventual approval), sold her for scrap. As it turned out, steel from Oregon was not really needed, but this was not realized until most of her superstructure, turrets, and fittings had been scrapped or scavenged. What was left of her was returned to the Navy. Her derelict hull (designated IX-22) was used as a towed dynamite storage barge during the invasion of Guam in June 1944 (my grandfather used some of this dynamite as a Seabee on Guam). IX-22 remained at Guam until 1948, when a typhoon ripped her from her moorings. She was found three weeks later, still afloat, over 500 miles from the island. After being towed back to Guam, she was subsequently sold off in 1956 to a Japanese company, towed to Japan, and scrapped at the Kawasaki Yard—a very sad end for such a historic ship. The mast and the shield from the prow are still preserved in a waterfront park in Portland, Oregon.

(Primarily based on NHHC Dictionary of American Fighting Ships entry for USS Oregon; however, a very thorough and interesting account can be found on the web at www.militarymuseum.org, “California’s Battleship: The Story of USS Oregon,” by Major Norman S. Marshall, Robert Tucker, and Margaret A. Owens, Esq.)

Published: Tue Mar 20 10:29:28 EDT 2018