Most people are familiar with the carnage wrought from the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor; USS Arizona being struck by bombs and torpedoes with well over a thousand of her crew perishing. Several other battleships and war vessels being heavily damaged and taken out of the war for years or outright sunk. Hundreds of planes and other valuable warfighting equipment reduced to smoldering wrecks, and scores of people killed. Generally forgotten is the USS Utah, an ancient leftover from prior to even America’s entry into WWI that was present simply as a target ship, but nonetheless had personnel onboard outfitting the hulk for use who perished during the attack not expecting real incoming fire from Japanese planes. There is yet another battleship that fell victim to the Pearl Harbor attack, one that despite sitting safely on the West Coast still faced certain destruction from the ramifications of America’s entry into a second global conflict.
USS Oregon outfitting in drydock in 1898, representing the state-of-the-art in battleship technology of the time
USS Oregon was an Indiana-class battleship, often considered to be the first serious battleship class in U.S. Naval inventory conforming to a common standard. Oregon was fairly representative of the battleship of the last decade of the 19th century, with four 13-inch diameter rifles in charmingly archaic “hatbox” turrets fundamentally similar to what made the Civil War’s USS Monitor revolutionary. Eight more smaller but faster-firing 8-inch diameter rifles rounded out the main armament in slightly shrunken-down turrets, with the idea that the larger and smaller rifles would work in concert, volume of fire verses sheer shell size, to demolish targets as the ship closed the range in-between. Rounding out the armament would be numerous smaller guns, down to Gatling guns and machine guns as used by the Army, freely swinging on pedistals or with minimal shielding for maximum flexibility in use against small torpedo boats.
The interior of one of Oregon’s main 13-inch gun “hatbox” turrets
With the mysterious destruction of the battleship USS Maine in Havana Harbor, Cuba, tensions between the United States and Spain (the occupying power in Cuba) reached a flashpoint. Oregon was ordered to transfer from the Pacific Squadron to the Atlantic in order to possibly engage Spanish naval assets in the Caribbean. This required Oregon to sail around Cape Horn - the very tip of South America - through the Strait of Magellan. This journel ultimately took 66 days - which turned out to be a record - yet the length of the journey is often credited with inspiring future President Teddy Roosevelt to invest in the Panama Canal.
USS Oregon celebrates with other U.S. Navy ships upon victory in the Spanish-American War circa late 1898
In the meantime, Oregon and her Indiana sisters along with her “half-sister,” the first USS Iowa, delt a devistating blow to the Spanish Armada during the Spanish-American War, generally proving to be superior to the European battleships in a variety of criteria including protection and firepower. In a few short years however, Oregon would go from cutting-edge to an obsolete chunk of floating steel. Hopelessly outclassed during WWI, Oregon was upgraded to her limits (which still wasn’t much) and provided mostly symbolic protection and glorified training cruises to young sailors and reservists while assigned to secondary convoys and up and down the East Coast while ships of actual fighting relevance hunted down German ships and subs. After the war, given the historical significance of the vessel, Oregon was designated a memorial and preserved as a museum in Portland, the largest city of her namesake state.
Oregon as preserved as a museum in Portland
Her tenure as a museum ship would be rather short-lived, however; with America declaring war against Germany and Japan, the Governor of Oregon pledged the ex-Oregon for use in the war effort, which meant recycling the ship into raw materials. And thus one of America’s first battleship memorials was no more.
The hulk of ex-Oregon being towed after much of the ship had been scrapped for the war effort
The ship had been raized down to the bare hull and what was left served as a floating storage bunker until after the war, where as a gesture of goodwill it was sold to the Japanese to be completely recycled.
The largest piece of Oregon remaining is her mast, now the centerpiece of a park in Portland. Image from The Mail Tribune of Portland.
Today only one American warfighting vessel of that era remains, the armored cruiser USS Olympia preserved in Philadelphia, PA. Olympia was Admiral George Dewey’s flagship during the Spanish-American war and participated in the defeat of the Spanish Armada in the Philippines, an action that would have ramifications into WWII as it lead to those islands being administered under U.S. control (and consequently a prime target for the Japanese immediately after Pearl Harbor). Presently, Olympia’s condition is so badly deteriorated that there is serious question towards the vessel’s viability as a museum. You can visit http://www.phillyseaport.org/olympia for more information if you’re interested in helping Olympia avoid the same fate as Oregon.