From Big to Enormous: Evolution of the U.S. Battleship
For nearly a hundred years, U.S. battleships commanded respect on the oceans while also earning the love of the brash breed of Sailors who served in them.
During the latter part of the 19th century and nearly all of the 20th, battleships were important weapons in the U.S. Navy's arsenal. For the first several decades of that time, battleships were considered the foremost warships of the fleet—a force that embodied the nation's strength. Their big guns made them the center of attention wherever they went. Even after battleships were supplanted in primacy during World War II, they continued to be potent in new roles and demonstrated remarkable longevity. Throughout their service lives, even as technology advanced and the ships became ever larger and more sophisticated, there was a constant: They were operated and loved by a breed of men with a special swagger—battleship Sailors.
The first real action for U.S. battleships came in the 1898 Spanish-American War. Part of the war was fought in the Philippines, but the bulk of it was on and around the island of Cuba. The conflict's most notable battleship was the USS Oregon (BB-3), which was on the West Coast when the war started. To get to the action, she had to steam from San Francisco, around South America's Cape Horn, and on to Florida before heading to Cuba. The inconvenience of the voyage demonstrated the need for the construction of the Panama Canal in succeeding years.
The key naval engagement in the conflict was the Battle of Santiago, off the south coast of Cuba, on 3 July 1898, and the participating U.S. battleships were the Indiana (BB-1), Iowa (BB-4), Oregon, and Texas (a second-class battleship). They chased and fired on a succession of Spanish cruisers, eventually disabling them and driving them to shore. Midshipman Daniel Mannix had a battle station in the conning tower of the Indiana that gave him a great spot to observe the action. He watched as Sailors took off their hats, neckerchiefs, jumpers, and undershirts while they ran to man the guns. To him the bare-chested gun crews resembled Roman gladiators.
Mannix also saw some of the misadventures that occur in the heat of combat. He had the job of relaying information from a shipmate named McDowell, who was operating a range finder. At one point a Spanish projectile sent up a spout of water near the Indiana. Soon afterward Mannix saw that McDowell had bright red holes on both sides of one calf. With the battle in progress, McDowell had been so excited that he dropped his pistol, which fell to the deck, went off, and shot him through the lower leg.
A different kind of mishap befell another Indiana midshipman. A Spanish mortar shell hit his room and destroyed most of his uniforms, leaving him with only one pair of trousers, which were worn through in the seat. When the victorious fleet later hosted visitors in New York City, the midshipman found it necessary to be seated or else stand against a bulkhead if ladies were present. So go the fortunes of war.
U.S. Battleships Steam onto the World Stage
In 1901 Theodore Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency and began pursuing an aggressive naval policy that concentrated on building up the U.S. Fleet's battleships. He also called for a palpable demonstration of his nation's naval power. In late 1907 he dispatched a group of 16 battleships, dubbed the "Great White Fleet," on a trip around the world that would last until just before he left office in 1909. Critics jumped on it as a jingoistic venture, but the voyage had the benefit of giving the fleet seagoing experience at long distances, and it spoke of America's will to be a world power.
One of the ships on the cruise was the USS Kearsarge (BB-5), and her crew included Apprentice Harry Morris. He had enlisted in the Navy in 1903, soon after he turned 14. Morris had an amazing career on active duty; he did not retire until 1958, after more than a half-century of service. During the course of the voyage he acquired a sea bag full of experience. The ships started from Norfolk, went around the bottom of South America, then to California, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, China, Japan, the Indian Ocean, the Mediterranean, and back to Norfolk.
In China, the American fleet honored the dowager empress of the country. She reciprocated by giving presents of cloisonné china to the ships' crews. Each officer received a vase, and each enlisted man got a teacup. Harry Morris carefully protected his cup on the journey home and then held on to it for more than 60 years afterward. It was a tangible souvenir from an exciting adventure during his teenage years.
In Australia the American Navy men found themselves quite popular with the local lasses, who seemed to prefer them to the Aussie men with whom they were more familiar. Hundreds of relationships blossomed in short order. Given such diversions, the visiting Sailors found it difficult to return to their ships on time. In fact, the Kansas (BB-21) stayed behind to round up latecomers after the rest of the fleet had sailed off to its next destination. Even that wasn't sufficient to bring in everybody; more than 100 of the Americans deserted and stayed behind with their newfound companions. They had indeed found pleasure in the traditional recruiting pledge, "Join the Navy and see the world."
In the years that followed, the battleship force continued to modernize as newer and bigger ships joined the fleet. When the European nations plunged into World War I in 1914, the United States stayed on the sidelines for a few years before joining the conflict in April 1917. The U.S. ships that had the biggest part of the action were the troop transports that ferried Soldiers and Marines to the war zone and the antisubmarine vessels that coped with Germany's U-boats. In late 1917 the United States finally sent over a division of older battleships to support Britain's Grand Fleet. The newer ones, which burned oil, were kept back on the East Coast as training ships because the supply of coal in the British Isles was more plentiful than oil.
As it happened, even though the U-boats remained active, the German surface fleet didn't venture out for battle after engaging the British in the huge Battle of Jutland in 1916. The American battleships were on hand and available but not needed. Captain Edward L. Beach was commanding officer of the U.S. flagship New York (BB-34) when hostilities ended in November 1918. On 21 November, ten days after the armistice that ended the fighting, Germany's capital ships steamed to the Firth of Forth in Scotland to surrender. Captain Beach observed that the peaceful outcome was a letdown for the officers of Britain's Royal Navy, who had hoped for a victory at sea. As he put it, "This was not the way they had hoped to destroy the German High Seas Fleet."
The Dirty Side of Sailor Life
Even after the war ended, most of the U.S. battleships still had coal-fired boilers, and many of them remained in the fleet for a number of years. Coaling a ship was tedious and physically demanding. The battleship either moored next to a coaling pier or had a collier or barge alongside. Winches then dumped coal on the decks of the ships. Just about everybody participated in the process of shoveling the coal down chutes and into the storage bunkers below. Coal dust filled the air and coated the bodies of the sailors.
Midshipman Fred Edwards, who made a cruise on board the Michigan (BB-27) around 1920, joked years afterward that his face was so black when he went into the head that he was unrecognizable in the mirror. Even showering didn't completely solve the problem. In the mid-1920s, Midshipman Jimmy Thach was at a dance ashore not long after helping move the coal. The exertion of dancing led him to sweat, and coal dust began bleeding down from his eyebrows. It gave him the effect of wearing mascara—perhaps not the best way to make a favorable impression on a date.
Once the coal was on board, there was an art to seeing that it was used properly in firing the boilers that made steam to turn a battleship's engines. Sailors piled up the coal on the floor plates and used a certain technique to spread a pattern of lumps evenly across the roaring fire. The sweating sailors used slice bars to break up the clinkers that developed from the burned coal. In the early 1920s, Fireman Charles Herget reported to the Delaware (BB-28) after receiving training ashore. He was among those who transferred coal from the bunkers to the floor plates. After taking part in the arduous labor, he decided, "hell can't be any worse than this."
It wasn't always so bad, though, especially when his ship was steaming at a relatively slow speed and the demand for coal was reduced. On those occasions he and his shipmates put together night rations. They got meat, onions, and potatoes from galley stores and cooked their own stew by thrusting a coal scoop full of ingredients into a boiler firebox until it was ready.
A Good Job During Tough Times
The Navy was able to skim the cream of the crop in recruiting and retaining quality enlisted men during the Depression years of the 1930s. Ships provided steady employment, which often was not available in the civilian economy. Many of those enlisted men became officers during World War II. One was Radioman Al Pelletier, who was in the communications gang of the fleet flagship Pennsylvania (BB-38). He was on board in 1933 when the ship hosted the change of command as Admiral David Sellers took over as commander-in-chief U.S. Fleet. In 1934 the fleet's battleships journeyed to the East Coast for review by President Franklin D. Roosevelt outside New York City. Pelletier and his shipmates were then unleashed for liberty in the city, which he termed "a sailor's dream." Included was a trip to Yankee Stadium to see Babe Ruth play—quite a contrast to the plight of those in bread lines.
Another for whom the Navy provided salvation was Doug Merritt, who rode many a freight train in search of work during the 1930s. He enlisted as an apprentice seaman in 1940 as a step toward earning an officer's commission. That autumn he rode the Arkansas (BB-33), which had been commissioned in 1912 and was the oldest battleship in the fleet, during a training cruise to Panama and Cuba. His berthing compartment was a casemate for one of the ship's 5-inch broadside guns. He abandoned attempts at sleeping in a hammock and settled for a berth on the steel deck instead. He also learned how to polish bright work and scrub a deck, that privacy was at a minimum in the primitive head facilities on board, and that loud-mouthed boatswain's mates meant what they said. One day each week he could count on breakfast being baked beans, cornbread, and coffee.
Still another lesson came in observing civilization beyond the shores of his native land. In Panama he saw poverty even worse than he had experienced in his hobo days. It was a formative experience for the 20-year-old Merritt. He went from the Arkansas to midshipman school, became an officer, and served with distinction as a submariner in World War II.
Under Fire at Pearl Harbor
Battleships were the main targets for the Japanese on the day that the war started for the United States. The objective of their 7 December 1941 Pearl Harbor attack was to knock the big ships there out of commission. On board the Arizona (BB-39), 1,177 men perished, about 80 percent of the crew. Machinist's Mate Ardenne "Bill" Woodward was 20 years old at the time and recently married. He was due to get out of the Navy in the summer of 1942 when his enlistment expired. In the summer and fall of 1941 he wrote a series of letters to his wife, Virginia. Their daughter, Karen, was born in July of that year, shortly after the Arizona left California for the last time. In the letters he expressed feelings of longing, a desire to be with his wife and child. He never saw his daughter because he was at his battle station when the Arizona exploded that December morning.
A shipmate of his was Gunner's Mate Jack McCarron, who was at his post on one of the ship's 5-inch antiaircraft guns soon after Japanese planes appeared overhead. Just as he was about to load a projectile into the gun, the explosion that engulfed the ship blew him overboard and into the harbor, where he drifted in and out of consciousness. The crew of a motor launch rescued him and took him to Ford Island. He regained consciousness about three days later and discovered he had been badly burned and his head was swathed in bandages. When the bandages eventually came off, he was horrified by his appearance and wrote to his recent bride, Roberta, that she should forget about him because he was no longer the man she had married. Fortunately, she was not that easily dismissed, and the couple enjoyed more than 60 years of marriage together.
Wilbur Wright's retelling of events at Pearl Harbor
in the Naval Institute's Americans at War Series
For Ensign Paul Backus of the Oklahoma (BB-37), Honolulu had proved to be a bachelor's paradise. There were plenty of places to take dates, particularly the schoolteachers who came out from the mainland on board cruise ships. As he remembered years afterward: "The dance floor of the Royal Hawaiian . . . was hard to beat. . . . There, with Diamond Head in the background and the breaking surf luminous in the moonlight, all resistance was said to dissolve." But that halcyon way of life abruptly came to an end with the arrival of the Japanese aircraft. On that fateful Sunday morning Backus was on board the Oklahoma as she took a bevy of torpedoes, listed to port, and then capsized completely. As she did so, Backus slid down the side of the ship and into the water. After his rescue, he moved on to other duty and a full career in the Navy.
More than 30 years after his ship sank, Backus returned to Oahu and visited the Punch Bowl Memorial Cemetery. As he toured the grave markers, he found the names of many of his shipmates, some of whom he had known well. During his walk among the graves he plaintively asked himself a question about those lost shipmates: "Why them and not me?"
"Battlewagons'" Role during World War II
Battleships performed a variety of missions in World War II, most notably providing antiaircraft protection in fast-carrier task groups and bombarding enemy-held beaches in connection with amphibious landings. One of the rare exceptions—in which battleships served in their intended mission of trading heavy gunfire with enemy combatants—came in mid-November 1942 during the naval Battle of Guadalcanal. U.S. Marines had captured the island's airfield, and the Japanese relentlessly tried to retake it. Key to their efforts were the nocturnal "Tokyo Express" missions by Japanese warships to reinforce their troops on the island and bombard American positions. On the night of 14-15 November, Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee Jr. commanded a task force built around the Washington (BB-56) and South Dakota (BB-57) as it fought a close-range gunnery duel with Japanese surface combatants.
Lieutenant Al Church was on the flag bridge of the Washington when the battleship's big 16-inch guns began to light up the night sky. The concussion knocked the admiral's glasses to the deck, so he and Church groped around for them as the battle continued. An officer on board a nearby American destroyer watched in awe as the 16-inch projectiles emerged from gun barrels, their tails glowing cherry red; were hidden for a time by low clouds; and then reemerged to conclude their parabolic flights by striking Japanese warships. That battle, which resulted in the sinking of the battleship Kirishima, turned the tide in the campaign for possession of Guadalcanal.
One other such big-gun engagement was at the October 1944 Battle of Surigao Strait, in the Philippines. This was the closest the U.S. and Japanese navies came to fulfilling the plans for a big-ship encounter they had envisioned for many years before World War II. Six U.S. battleships formed a column that capped the T of Japanese ships steaming to engage them. Three of the American ships, the Tennessee (BB-43), California (BB-44), and West Virginia (BB-48), had been rebuilt after being badly damaged at Pearl Harbor. They had modern fire-control systems that put their 14- and 16-inch projectiles on target with great effectiveness. Lieutenant Bob Bamrucker, on board the West Virginia, watched as shells from his ship hit the Japanese battleship Yamashiro, which sank during the fight. On board the Pennsylvania during that engagement was Ensign Ed Snyder. More than 24 years later he took command of the New Jersey (BB-62) when she was preparing to go to Vietnam.
While most of the battleship action during the war was in the Pacific, a few U.S. battleships operated in the European theater. The old Arkansas, Nevada (BB-36), and Texas (BB-35) bombarded shore positions during the 6 June 1944 D-Day landings in Normandy, France. One of the crewmen on board the Arkansas was Corporal Irvin Airey, a member of the ship's Marine detachment. Gunfire from German batteries ashore sent shrapnel onto the battleship's deck. Airey watched with satisfaction as the Arkansas blasted back with her 12-inch guns. Years later he remembered that he was excited rather than scared that day, but he did see lines of worry on the faces of some of the sergeants who had families back home.
The ship next supported the Allied invasion of southern France in August 1944 before heading back to the States en route to the Pacific. While Airey was home on leave in Baltimore, two Army MPs stopped him and demanded to see his leave papers. They also wanted to know why he had a campaign ribbon from Europe. When he told them he had been in D-Day, their reaction was, "The hell you were over there." They expected all Marines to be in the Pacific, but Airey was a battleship man on the other side of the world.
World War II came to a ceremonial end on the deck of the Missouri (BB-63). Even though she was a relative newcomer to the war, the ship got the honor of hosting the 2 September 1945 surrender because she was named for the home state of President Harry S. Truman. Gunner's Mate Walt Yucka was among the hundreds of Missouri crewmen who watched the surrender ceremony in awe. Years later, when his memory of the event once again rekindled the emotions he felt, he said: "That was the greatest thrill of my life. The war was over." Millions of Americans had survived and would be going home. Another Missouri man, Seaman Joe Vella, had longed for his home in Connecticut when the ship was overseas. But when it did come time for him to depart, he did so wistfully. After many months on board, building bonds with his shipmates, the battleship had become a home for him.
The Iowa Class Weathers the Post-War Years
Once the hostilities ceased, the Navy—like the rest of the U.S. armed forces—demobilized rapidly to "bring the boys home." The U.S. Navy ended the war with 23 battleships in commission. By 1949 only one remained—the Missouri—and that was because President Truman decreed that she stay in service. By then her role had essentially been turned into that of a training ship.
The following year, 1950, the Korean War broke out, and the Missouri was sent overseas as a fully combatant ship. Soon the Navy began breaking out her sister ships—class namesake Iowa (BB-61), Wisconsin (BB-64), and New Jersey—from the mothball fleet to send them to Korea as well. The first to go was the New Jersey. Many of her new crew members were World War II veterans who had left active duty and gone into the Naval Reserve. Now they were uprooted from their civilian careers and family lives. One of those was Bob Storm, a gunner's mate who was called back to service to help operate one of the battleship's 16-inch gun turrets. He took a pay cut to return to naval service.
One of his shipmates during the Korean War was Seaman Charles Jacobus. Battleship life was a special pleasure for him. The ship's commanding officer, Captain David Tyree, cared for the crew and demonstrated it by his actions. One night Jacobus carried a fresh pot of coffee while Tyree carried cups. The skipper gave a cupful to each member of the watch section as a tangible way of demonstrating his appreciation for the Sailors' work.
On nights when he wasn't on watch, Jacobus lay in his bunk as the ship's bugler blew the tattoo call five minutes before lights out, and then taps itself. He enjoyed that time as a period of quiet satisfaction to reflect on the events of the day on board ship. Years later, after he had left active duty, Jacobus created a special battleship room in his home in New Jersey. It was decorated with pictures of the ship and examples of fancy knot work he had done as a boatswain's mate and featured a special man-size horizontal niche recessed into one wall. When he wanted to get into a true battleship mood, he'd climb into the opening and imagine himself back in his bunk on board the New Jersey.
Eventually, all four of the Iowa-class battleships took part in the Korean War. One role was to provide antiaircraft protection, but the air threats to the fleet were scant during that period, so they spent most of their time in shore bombardment and fire support of United Nations troops. The Missouri performed yeoman service with her bombardment at the port of Hungnam during a desperate rear-guard evacuation in December 1950 after U.S. Marines had retreated from the Chosin Reservoir. The ships also served in rotation as flagship for commander Seventh Fleet.
Following the lead of other maritime nations that had been designing and building battleships, the U.S. Navy on 20 November 1895 commissioned its first legitimate seagoing battleship, the USS Indiana (BB-1). Earlier that year it had commissioned the Texas and Maine, which were known as second-class battleships but were essentially armored cruisers. They became second-class citizens within a few months when the Indiana arrived. The latter was 350 feet long, displaced 10,288 tons, and had a mixed bag of weaponry that included four 13-inch guns, eight 8-inch guns, four 6-inch guns, and some still-smaller guns. It was if a cook had thrown in a pinch of this and a dash of that to make up the recipe.
The ship-designing cooks kept to that same general formula for the next few years, and the battleships continued to be named for states—except one. The USS Kearsarge (BB-5), commissioned in 1900, honored the name of a wooden-hulled Union screw sloop that sank the Confederate raider Alabama off Cherbourg, France, in 1864.
In 1906, the Royal Navy revolutionized battleship design with HMS Dreadnought, which pioneered the all-big-gun format that became standard from then on. Two comparable U.S. battleships, the South Carolina (BB-26) and Michigan (BB-27), had been on the drawing boards earlier but were not completed until 1910. The main battery of each ship included eight 12-inch guns, and the secondary battery comprised 22 3-inchers. These two and all subsequent battleships were known generically as "dreadnoughts" because of their British predecessor.
A next step up came with the New York (BB-34) and Texas (BB-35), which were commissioned in 1914, on the eve of World War I. They mounted main batteries of twin 14-inch guns. The Nevada (BB-36) class, which entered service in 1916, was the first built with boilers fueled by oil rather than coal. That same year brought the Pennsylvania (BB-38) and Arizona (BB-39), each with four turrets of three 14-inch guns. In the hype of their day, they were known as "super dreadnoughts." In the next few years the trend line continued toward bigger ships with the same basic armament package. Then came the jump to 16-inch guns with the commissioning of the Maryland (BB-46) in 1921.
The bigger-and-better trend was, however, interrupted by the Washington Naval Conference of 1921-22. The world's naval powers had been depleted financially by the recently completed global war and sought a way to stop the spending. Battleships represented the biggest investments in a nation's arsenal and became prime targets. In the naval treaty of 1922, the various nations agreed to a moratorium on battleship construction and a limitation on their size. Work was already in progress for the six ships of the South Dakota (BB-49) class. Each of these behemoths was to displace more than 40,000 tons, stretch nearly 700 feet long, and mount 12 16-inch guns. But the treaty—deadly as a swarm of enemy projectiles—killed all of them, and they were canceled while under construction.
In the mid-1930s, with the world situation heating up and Japan no longer willing to be bound by the treaty restrictions, the naval powers once again resumed battleship building. In the case of the U.S. Navy, this meant the inauguration of a new type: the fast battleship-capable of 27 knots rather than the 21-knot maximum speed that been standard up to then. And the gunnery format became nine 16-inch and 20 5-inch guns for each ship. The North Carolina (BB-55) class hit the fleet in 1941, and the South Dakota (BB-57) class in 1942.
The final U.S. battleships built were the four members of the Iowa (BB-61) class, commissioned in 1943-44. These ships have been widely admired for decades as the acme in their type. They had the same gun battery as their fast-battleship predecessors but added extra shaft horsepower and length to provide a top speed of 33 knots. They came in at a whopping 887 feet, and when they were new, each ship had more than 120 antiaircraft guns. That armament, along with their speed, made them ideal for protecting aircraft carrier task groups of World War II, but the battleships had very little opportunity to use their 16-inch guns for their intended purpose—firing at enemy warships.
For those who dabble in fantasy war games, there are wistful thoughts of what might have been but wasn't: the Montana (BB-67) class. Five ships were planned, and they were to be the ultimate superlatives in U.S. battleships: approximately 70,000 tons at full load (more than six times that of the 1895 Indiana), 921 feet long, and armed with 12 16-inch guns-two triple turrets forward and two aft. By 1943, the experience of combat in World War II dictated that the nation's shipbuilding resources were more needed elsewhere. The United States already had ten fast battleships either in service or nearing completion. The Montana class never got beyond the drawing boards and the imaginations of those who sought to build really huge battleships for the Navy.
The battleship era in the U.S. Navy began when the keel for the Indiana was laid on 7 May 1891. It officially ended just over 100 years later, on 31 March 1992, with the decommissioning of the Missouri (BB-63). The memories remain.
— Paul Stillwell
For a few years after the war ended in 1953, the four ships of the class remained in commission, serving primarily as training ships for midshipmen and Naval Reservists. Typically, they made summer cruises to European ports, an experience that was broadening for both the midshipmen and members of the ships' crews. One notable mishap during the period came on 6 May 1956, when the Wisconsin was operating with a group of ships off the coast of Virginia. She collided with the destroyer Eaton (DD-510), and the result was heavy damage to the bow of the battleship, which looked as if it had a big bite taken out of it. The remedy was akin to an organ transplant. The bow from the never-completed sister ship Kentucky (BB-66) was grafted onto the front of the Wisconsin and remains there to this day. The Wisconsin is now a tourist attraction at Nauticus, the National Maritime Center, in Norfolk, Virginia.
When the Wisconsin was decommissioned and put into mothballs in early 1958, the U.S. Navy was without any active battleships for the first time since 1895. With missile-firing ships joining the fleet in increasing numbers, the battleship era was presumedly over. But then the Vietnam War made its imprint on the armed services and the nation as a whole. As a way to cut down on the number of airplanes being shot down over North Vietnam, the Defense Department directed the reactivation of the New Jersey. Unlike airplanes, her 16-inch projectiles—once they were on their way toward targets more than 20 miles distant—could not be shot down.
The greatest satisfaction for her crew came in providing fire support to American troops ashore. Often the big guns fired at long range, and the men on board learned of the results of their shooting only from reports from airborne spotters. Occasionally, though, the ship had short-range direct-fire missions. One mission in particular impressed Ensign Scott Cheyne. He watched the trajectory of the projectiles during their entire path from the guns to an enemy hillside and saw the shock waves as the shells exploded and then rippled through surrounding trees. Several more seconds elapsed, because light travels faster than sound, and then he heard the noises made by the projectiles when they exploded ashore.
As it happened, the New Jersey made only one deployment to Vietnam. The American public had turned against the overseas conflict, and Congress responded by cutting its monetary support. The battleship returned to the mothball fleet in December 1969.
A dozen years later, the process was reversed as the Reagan administration dramatically increased defense expenditures. Included in the program was reactivation, one at a time, of the four Iowa-class ships.
In May 1986 the Navy recommissioned the "Mighty Mo" in a gala ceremony in San Francisco. During his speech at the event, Captain Lee Kaiss said, "On October 27, 1945, when President Harry S. Truman stepped aboard USS Missouri, he said, 'This is the happiest day of my life.' Ladies and gentleman, I know exactly how he felt."
That night, in a dinner in San Francisco's city hall, President Truman's daughter, Margaret Truman Daniel, addressed the crew. She had a special tie to the warship because she had done the christening honors at the launching in 1944. In concluding, she said: "Captain Kaiss and the men of the Missouri, there's one other thing I want to say to you. Please take care of my baby." The brash battleship Sailors melted on the spot and gave her a standing ovation.
The firepower the battleships added to the fleet was interrupted by a controversial event. On 19 April 1989, while the Iowa was involved in a gunnery exercise in the Caribbean, powder charges in her number two turret exploded. The disaster killed 47 crew members. The four battleships were prohibited for a time from shooting their 16-inch guns until the cause could be found. The initial investigation report determined that an Iowa gunner's mate deliberately caused the explosion. Subsequent tests ascertained that the explosion could have been the result of mechanical problems involving the powder bags and the mechanism that rammed them into the breech of the gun. Once corrective measures were taken, the firing ban was lifted.
All four ships of the class operated into the early 1990s. The Wisconsin and Missouri provided missile and gunfire support during the 1991 Gulf War. The battle was not completely one-sided. One night the Iraqis fired a Silkworm missile toward the Missouri. The skipper, Lee Kaiss, ordered his men to hit the deck. Ship's Serviceman Gregory Green was apprehensive, and thoughts jumbled in his mind. He thought about the possibility of the Missouri being hit, having to abandon ship, being captured, and wondering what the Iraqis might feed prisoners of war. All the fears proved groundless as the British destroyer Gloucester shot down the Silkworm before it could do any harm. Soon the war was over, and the battleships headed back to the States and the end of their active service lives.
In early December 1991, just a few months before she would be decommissioned for the last time, the Missouri made a final voyage. She steamed to Pearl Harbor to take part in the observances of the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack. On board was Yeoman John Lewis, who had been in the ship's recommissioning crew in 1986 and was back again for old times' sake. He explained his reasoning for making this last trip: "There are only two kinds of sailors in the Navy: those who have been on a battleship and those who wish they could."
Mr. Stillwell is a contributing editor to Naval History, as well as the magazine's founding editor. His many books include Battleship New Jersey: An Illustrated History (1987), Battleship Arizona: An Illustrated History (1991), and Battleship Missouri: An Illustrated History (1995), all published by the Naval Institute Press. He has drawn on those books and his 2001 volume Battleships, published by MetroBooks, in compiling this article. For the most part his sources have been personal recollections, some of them in oral histories and published memoirs and many in interviews Mr. Stillwell has conducted.