This issue of Naval History focuses on a tried-and-true war-at-sea topic-battleships. But instead of studying the behemoths' exploits in combat, our package examines the often-overlooked evolutionary period when the U.S. Navy's biggest ships began carrying as many of its biggest guns as possible.
One hundred years ago this winter, the Navy commissioned the USS South Carolina and her sister, the Michigan, the service's first "all-big-gun" battleships. In other words, except for light 3-inchers, all their guns were of a uniform, big caliber-12 inches. Previous Navy battleships carried an assortment of heavy- and medium-caliber weapons.
Commissioned in 1906, HMS Dreadnought had been the first all-big-gun battleship, and her imposing name came to identify all similarly armed battlewagons. Congress, however, had restricted the South Carolinas to a size that was 2,000 tons less than the British ship's. The Navy's chief constructor, who wanted the battleships he was designing to pack as powerful a punch as possible, was therefore left with a difficult task.
His revolutionary solution is revealed in Norman Friedman's article, "The South Carolina Sisters: America's First Dreadnoughts." While Dr. Friedman's piece takes a look at the design history of the South Carolina and Michigan, Naval History Contributing Editor Paul Stillwell's feature, "Battleship Sailors of the Dreadnought Era," recounts what it was like to serve in the period's most powerful vessels.
Although the South Carolinas served through what had been history's greatest conflagration, World War I, neither ever fired her main battery in anger. The sister ships spent most of the war serving as training platforms, participating in battle exercises, and escorting convoys. Probably the closest the South Carolina came to battle was when her lookouts spotted a periscope on 9 June 1918 off Cape Henry and the ship's 3-inch guns cut loose. (It was later determined that no U-boats had been in the area.) The Michigan, on the other hand, suffered a moment of terror during the war, although Mother Nature was the culprit, not the German Navy.
While cruising in rough seas off Cape Hatteras on 15 January 1918, the battleship rolled heavily in a trough and her nearly 125-foot-high forward cage mast buckled, toppling over to port. The accident claimed the lives of six Sailors and injured 13 others. The lightweight masts, which supported spotting platforms, had not been part of the South Carolinas' original design, but they became the most visible feature of U.S. dreadnoughts.
The iconic tubular towers were supposed to be stronger and better able to withstand shell fire than traditional masts. But after those claims were disproved, dreadnoughts began to be refitted with tripod masts in the mid-1920s. The change came too late for many of the all-big-gun ships, which were scrapped in accordance with terms of the Washington Naval Treaty. Included were the South Carolina and Michigan. And so only 14 years after the pioneering sisters had been commissioned, they were broken up and their remains auctioned off.