The first Utah (Battleship No. 31) was laid down on 15 March 1909 at Camden, N.J., by the New York Shipbuilding Co.; launched on 23 December 1909; sponsored by Miss Mary Alice Spry, daughter of Governor William Spry of Utah; and commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on 31 August 1911, Capt. William S. Benson in command.
After her shakedown cruise, a voyage that took her to Hampton Roads, Va.; Santa Rosa Island and Pensacola, Fla.; Galveston, Tex.; Kingston and Portland Bight, Jamaica; and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Utah was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet in March 1912. She operated with the Fleet early that spring, conducting exercises in gunnery and torpedo defense, before she entered the New York Navy Yard on 16 April for an overhaul.
Departing New York on 1 June 1912, Utah briefly visited Hampton Roads and then steamed to Annapolis, Md., where she arrived on the 5th. There, she embarked Naval Academy midshipmen and got underway on the 10th for the Virginia capes and the open Atlantic. She conducted a midshipmen training cruise off the New England seaboard well into the summer before disembarking her contingent of officers-to-be back at Annapolis on 24 and 25 August. Soon thereafter, the battleship headed for the Southern Drill Grounds to conduct gunnery exercises.
For a little over two years, the dreadnought maintained that schedule of operations off the eastern seaboard, ranging from the New England coast to Cuban waters. During that time, she made one cruise to European waters, visiting Villefranche, France, from 8 to 30 November 1913.
Utah began the year 1914 at the New York Navy Yard, Brooklyn, N.Y., and sailed south on 5 January. After stopping at Hampton Roads, she reached Cuban waters later in the month for torpedo and small arms exercises. However, due to tension in Mexico, Utah sailed for Mexican waters in early February and reached Veracruz on the 16th. She operated off that port until getting underway for Tampico on 9 April with several hundred refugees embarked.
Soon thereafter, it was learned that a German steamship,Ypiranga, was bound for Veracruz with a shipment of arms and munitions earmarked for the dictator Victoriano Huerta. Utah received orders to search for the ship and put to sea and reached Veracruz on the 16th. When it appeared that the shipment might be landed, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Navy to take steps to take the customs house at Vera Cruz and stop the delivery. Accordingly, plans were drawn up for a landing at Veracruz, to commence on 21 April 1914.
Utah consequently landed her battalion, 17 officers and 367 sailors under the command of Lt. Guy W. S. Castle, as well as her marine guard, which formed part of the improvised First Marine Brigade, made up of detachments of marines from the other ships that had arrived to show American determination. In the ensuing fighting, in which the men of Utah's bluejacket battalion distinguished themselves, seven were awarded Medals of Honor. Those seven included Lt. Castle, the battalion commander; company commanders Ens. Oscar C. Badger and Ens. Paul F. Foster; Chief Turret Captains Niels Drustrup and Abraham Desomer, section leaders; Chief Gunner George Bradley; and Boatswain's Mate Henry N. Nickerson.
Utah remained at Veracruz for almost two months before returning north to the New York Navy Yard in late June for an overhaul. Over the next three years, the battleship operated on a regular routine of battle practices and exercises from off the eastern seaboard into the Caribbean, as the United States readied its forces for the possible entry into hostilities that broke out in July 1914.
After the U.S. finally declared war on 6 April 1917, Utah operated in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay as an engineering and gunnery training ship and continued that duty until 30 August 1918, when she sailed for the British Isles with Vice Adm. Henry T. Mayo, Commander in Chief, United States Atlantic Fleet, embarked.
Fears of possible attacks by German heavy units upon the large convoys crossing the Atlantic with troops and munitions for the western front prompted the dispatch to European waters, of a powerful force of American dreadnoughts to Irish waters. Utah, as part of that movement, reached Berehaven, Bantry Bay, Ireland, on 10 September 1918. There, she became the flagship of Rear Adm. Thomas S. Rodgers, Commander, Battleship Division 6. Until the signing of the armistice on 11 November 1918, Utah, along with the sisterships Oklahoma (Battleship No. 37) and Nevada (Battleship No. 36), operated from Bantry Bay, covering the Allied convoys approaching the British Isles, ready to deal with any surface threat that the German Navy could hurl at the valuable transports and supply ships.
After the cessation of hostilities, Utah visited Portland, England, and later served as part of the honor escort for the transport George Washington (Id. No. 3018), as that ship bore President Woodrow Wilson into the harbor of Brest, France, on 13 December 1918. The following day, Utah turned homeward and reached New York on Christmas Day 1918.
Utah remained at anchor in the North River, off New York City, until 30 January 1919. During that time, she half-masted her colors at 1440 on 7 January at the death of former President Theodore Roosevelt and, on the 8th, fired salutes at half-hour intervals throughout the day in memory of the great American statesman.
Utah carried out a regular routine of battle practices and maneuvers, ranging from the New England coast to the Caribbean, into mid-1921. During that time, she was classified as BB-31 on 17 July 1920, during the Navy-wide assignment of hull numbers.
Ultimately departing Boston on 9 July 1921, Utah proceeded via Lisbon, Portugal, and reached Cherbourg, France, soon thereafter. There, Utah became the flagship for the United States Naval Forces in European Waters. She "showed the flag" at the principal Atlantic coast ports of Europe and in the Mediterranean until relieved by the heavy cruiser Pittsburgh (CA-4) in October 1922.
Returning to the United States on 21 October 1922, Utah then became the flagship of Battleship Division (BatDiv) 5, United States Scouting Fleet and operated with the Scouting Fleet over the next three and one-half years.
Late in 1924, Utah was chosen to carry the U.S. diplomatic mission to the centennial celebration of the Battle of Ayacucho (9 December 1824), the decisive action in the Peruvian struggle for independence. Designated as flagship for the special squadron assigned to represent the United States at the festivities, Utah departed New York City on 22 November 1924 with General of the Armies John J. Pershing USA, and former congressman, the Honorable F. C. Hicks, embarked, and arrived at Callao on 9 December.
Utah disembarked General Pershing and the other members of the mission on Christmas 1924, so that the general and his mission could visit other South American cities inland on their goodwill tour. Meanwhile, Utah, in the weeks that followed, called at the Chilean ports of Punta Arenas and Valparaiso before she rounded Cape Horn and met General Pershing at Montevideo, Uruguay. Reembarking the general and his party there, the battleship then visited in succession: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; La Guaira, Venezuela; and Havana, Cuba, before ending her diplomatic voyage at New York City on 13 March 1925.
Utah spent subsequent summers of 1925 and 1926 with the Midshipman Practice Squadron and, after disembarking her midshipmen at the conclusion of the 1925 cruise, entered the Boston Navy Yard and was decommissioned on 31 October 1925 for modernization. During that period of alterations and repairs, the ship's "cage" mainmast was replaced by a lighter pole mast; she was fitted to burn oil instead of coal as fuel; and her armament was modified to reflect the increased concern over antiaircraft defense. Utah and her sistership Florida (BB-30) never received the more modern tripod masts fitted to other classes.
Utah was placed back in commission on 1 December 1925 and, after local operations with the Scouting Fleet, departed Hampton Roads on 21 November 1928, bound for South America. Reaching Montevideo on 18 December, she there embarked President-elect and Mrs. Herbert C. Hoover; the Honorable Henry T. Fletcher, Ambassador to Italy; and members of the press. Utah transported the President-elect's party to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, between 21 and 23 December, and then continued her homeward voyage with Mr. Hoover embarked. En route, the President-elect inspected the battleship's crew while at sea, before the ship reached Hampton Roads on 6 January 1929.
However, Utah's days as a battleship were numbered. Under the terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, Utah was selected for conversion to a mobile target, in place of the former battleship North Dakota; and, on 1 July 1931, Utah's classification was changed to AG-16. Her conversion (carried out at the Norfolk Navy Yard) included the installation of a radio-control apparatus. After having been decommissioned for the duration of the conversion, Utah was recommissioned at Norfolk on 1 April 1932, Cmdr. Randall Jacobs in command.
Utah departed Norfolk on 7 April 1932 to train her engineers in using the new installations and for trials of her radio gear by which the ship could be controlled at varying rates of speed and changes of course: maneuvers that a ship would conduct in battle. Her electric motors, operated by signals from the controlling ship, opened and closed throttle valves, moved her steering gear, and regulated the supply of oil to her boilers. In addition, a Sperry gyro pilot kept the ship on course.
Returning to port on 21 April 1932, Utah passed her radio control trials off the Virginia capes on 5 May. On 1 June, Utah ran three hours under radio control, with all engineering stations manned; over the next two days, she made two successful runs, each of four hours duration, during which no machinery was touched by human hands. Observers, however, two in each fire room and two in each boiler room, kept telephone information and recorded data.
Her trials completed, Utah departed Norfolk on 9 June 1932. After transiting the Panama Canal, she reached San Pedro, Calif., on 30 June, reporting for duty with Training Squadron 1, Base Force, United States Fleet. She conducted her first target duty, for cruisers of the Fleet, on 25 July, and later, on 2 August, conducted rehearsal runs for Nevada (BB-36), Utah being controlled from destroyers Stoddert (DD-208) and Talbot (DD-114).
Over the next nine years, the former battleship performed a vital service to the fleet as a mobile target, contributing realism to the training of naval aviators in dive, torpedo, and high level bombing. Thus, she greatly aided the development of tactics in those areas. On one occasion, she even served as a troop transport, embarking 223 officers and men of the Fleet Marine Force at Sand Island, Midway, for amphibious operations at Hilo Bay, Hawaii, as part of Fleet Problem XVI in the early summer of 1935. She then transported the marines from Hawaii to San Diego, Calif., disembarking them there on 12 June 1935.
That same month, June 1935, saw the establishment of a fleet machine gun school on board Utah while she continued her mission as a mobile target. The former dreadnought received her first instructors on board in August 1935, and the first students, drawn from the ships' companies from light cruisers Raleigh (CL-7), Concord (CL-10), Omaha (CL-4), Memphis (CL-13), and Milwaukee (CL-5), and the aircraft carrier Ranger (CV-4), reported aboard for training on 20 September. Subsequently, during the 1936 and 1937 gunnery year, Utah was fitted with a new quadruple 1.1-inch machine gun mount for experimental test and development by the machine gun school. Some of the first tests of that type of weapon were conducted on board.
Utah, besides serving as a realistic target for exercises involving carrier-based planes, also towed targets during battle practices conducted by the Fleet's battleships and took part in the yearly "fleet problems." She transited the Panama Canal on 9 January 1939 to participate in Fleet Problem XX-part of the maneuvers observed personally by President Franklin D. Roosevelt from the heavy cruiser Houston (CA-30).
After providing mobile target services for the submarines of Submarine Squadron 6 in the late autumn and early winter of 1939, Utah devoted the eight months that followed to special machine gun practices. The following summer, Utah sailed for the Hawaiian Islands, reaching Pearl Harbor on 1 August 1940, and fired advanced antiaircraft gunnery practice in the Hawaiian operating area until 14 December 1940, when she sailed for the west coast, returning to Long Beach four days before Christmas.
For the next two months, Utah operated as a mobile bombing target off San Clemente Island, Calif., for planes from Patrol Wing 1, and from the carriers Lexington (CV-2), Saratoga (CV-3), and Enterprise (CV-6). Utah returned to Hawaiian waters on 1 April 1941, embarking gunners for the Advanced Antiaircraft Gun School, men drawn from West Virginia (BB-48), Oklahoma (BB-37), Colorado (BB-45), Phoenix (CL-46), Nashville (CL-43), Philadelphia (CL-41), and New Orleans (CA-32).
Over the weeks that followed, she trained her embarked gunnery students in control and loading drills for the 5-inch batteries, firing runs on radio-controlled drone targets as well as .50-caliber and 1.1-inch firing on drones and balloons. Utah put into Los Angeles harbor on 20 May and there embarked Fleet Marine Force passengers for transportation to Bremerton, Wash. Putting the marines ashore a week later, the ship entered the Puget Sound Navy Yard on 31 May 1941.
During the ensuing overhaul, Utah received repairs and alterations designed to make her a more effective gunnery training ship. The alterations included the addition of 5-inch/38-caliber guns in single mounts with gunshields, similar to those fitted on the more modern types of destroyers then in service. She also lost her prewar colors, being repainted in overall measure one camouflage, dark gray with pale gray tops. With war paint thus donned, Utah sailed for Hawaiian waters on 14 September, after visits to Port Townsend, Wash., and San Francisco and San Pedro, Calif. She arrived at Pearl Harbor soon thereafter and carried out antiaircraft training and target duties through the late autumn.
Utah completed an advanced antiaircraft gunnery cruise in Hawaiian waters shortly before she returned to Pearl Harbor in early December 1941, mooring off Ford Island in berth F-11. On the morning of 7 December 1941, the senior officer on board, the captain and executive officer ashore on leave, was Lt. Cmdr. Solomon S. Isquith, the engineer officer.
Shortly before 0800, men topside noted three planes, taken for U.S. aircraft on maneuvers, heading in a northerly direction from the harbor entrance. They made a low dive at the southern end of Ford Island, where the seaplane hangers were, and began dropping bombs.
The attack on the fleet at Pearl Harbor lasted a little under two hours, but for Utah, it was over in a few minutes. At 0801, soon after sailors had begun raising the colors at the ship's fantail, the erstwhile battleship took a torpedo hit forward, and immediately started to list to port.
As the ship began to roll ponderously over on her beam ends, 6-by-12-inch timbers, placed on the decks to cushion them against the impact of the bombs used during the ship's latest stint as a mobile target, began to shift, hampering the efforts of the crew to abandon ship. Below, men headed topside while they could. One, however, Chief Watertender (Permanent Appointment) Peter Tomich, remained below, making sure that the boilers were secured and that all men had gotten out of the engineering spaces. Another man, Fireman 2nd Class John B. Vaessen, V-6, USNR, remained at his post in the dynamo room, making sure that the ship had enough power to keep her lights going as long as possible.
Cmdr. Isquith made an inspection to make sure men were out and nearly became trapped himself. As the ship began to turn over, he found an escape hatch blocked. While he was attempting to escape through a porthole, a table upon which he was standing, impelled by the ever-increasing list of the ship, slipped out from beneath him. Fortunately, Lt. Cmdr. Lindley Winser, C-V(S), USNR , the ship's radio officer, grabbed Isquith's arm and pulled him through at the last instant.
At 0812, the mooring lines snapped, and Utah rolled over; her survivors struck out for shore, some taking shelter on the mooring quays since Japanese strafers were active.
Shortly after most of the men had reached shore, Cmdr. Isquith, and others, heard a knocking from within the overturned ship's hull. Although Japanese planes were still strafing the area, Isquith called for volunteers to return to the hull and investigate the tapping. Obtaining a cutting torch from the nearby Raleigh, herself fighting for survival after taking early torpedo hits, the men went to work.
As a result of the persistence shown by Machinist Stanley A. Szymanski; Chief Machinist's Mate Terrance MacSelwiney, USNR; and two others whose names were unrecorded, 10 men clambered from a would-be tomb. The last man out was Fireman 2nd Class Vaessen, who had made his way to the botton of the ship when she capsized, bearing a flashlight and wrench.
Utah was declared "in ordinary" on 29 December 1941 and was placed under the control of the Base Force. Partially righted to clear an adjacent berth, she was then declared "out of commission, not in service," on 5 September 1944. Utah's name was stricken from the Naval Register on 13 November 1944. Her partially submerged hulk still remains at Pearl Harbor.
Of Utah's complement, 30 officers and 431 enlisted men survived the ship's loss; 6 officers and 52 men died, remains of four of the latter being recovered and interred ashore. Chief Watertender Tomich received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his selfless act in ensuring the safety of others; Fireman 2nd Class Vaessen received the Navy Cross.
Utah received one battle star for her World War II service.
Robert J. Cressman
Updated 3 February 2021