Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Feb.8, 2018: Roll Tide, Vol. 4ish
Here we see the Illinois-class pre-dreadnought type battleship USS Alabama (Battleship No. 8) as she appeared at around 1904, just before her inclusion in the Great White Fleet. Sadly, she would never be this beautiful again.
The Illinois-class battlewagons were under construction during but were not able to fully take advantage of, lessons learned by the U.S. in the Spanish-American War. At 12,250-tons, these ships were very hefty due to the fact they packed a quartet of 13″/35 main guns in twin turrets and 14 smaller 6″/40s in casemates into a hull that was slathered in as much as 16.5-inches of steel armor.
In the end, they weighed three times as much as a frigate of today, though they were arguably shorter in length at just 375-feet. Still, they were capital ships of their time.
Laid down within six weeks of each other (we have a modern Navy to build here, folks!) from three different yards, Illinois (BB-7) was built at Newport News while Alabama was made by the good folks at William Cramp in Philly and the final installment, Wisconsin (BB-9), was built by Union in San Francisco. Though sandwiched in the middle of the three, Alabama was completed first, entering the fleet in October 1900, months (almost a year compared to Illinois) before her two sisters. She was officially the 4th U.S. Navy ship to bear the name.
Alabama proved a popular ship, extensively photographed in her day, and many images of her crew exist today.
These same 13″ guns were used in the Navy’s first nine battlewagons from USS Indiana (BB-1) through USS Wisconsin (BB-9) and were pretty effective, with Navweaps noting “During the Battle of Santiago on 3 July 1898, the battleship Oregon (B-3) engaged in a running shoot with the Spanish cruiser Cristobal Colon. Oregon‘s last shots traveled 9,500 yards (8,700 m) and landed just ahead of the Spanish ship, convincing her to surrender.”
Illinois and Alabama, based on the East Coast, were like peas and carrots. They toured Europe and for 15 months steamed around the world with Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet– joined by Wisconsin halfway through.
However, even before they left on the circumnavigation the entire class was obsolete with the advent of large, fast, all-big-gun battleships such as HMS Dreadnought (21,000-tons, 21-knots. 10×12″ Mk VIII’s).
This led to a three-year modernization, picking up lattice masts and removing such beautiful ornamentation as the bow scrolls and hardwood furnishings. She also ditched the gleaming white and buff scheme for a more utilitarian haze gray.
Returning to the fleet in 1912, Alabama was made part of the doldrums that was the Atlantic Reserve Fleet, where, much like the 1990s-era NRF ships, she was manned by a skeleton crew of primarily NCOs and officers and used to train Naval Militia (the precursor to the Navy Reserve) and midshipmen.
She continued this mission during World War I, transitioning to basic recruit, gunnery and machinist training on the East Coast. She was laid up in November 1919, having served less than two decades in the fleet, with arguably most of that in reserve.
To both shed tonnage to be used to keep modern new dreadnoughts because of limitations in the Washington Naval Treaty and give Army Air Force wonk Brig. Gen. William “Billy” Mitchell, a chance to prove himself, Alabama was decommissioned in May 1920 and subsequently transferred to the War Department’s custody.
There, she joined the old battleship Iowa (BB-4), the slightly more modern but similarly disposed of battleships New Jersey and Virginia, and several captured German ships to include the submarine U-117, destroyer G-102, light cruiser Frankfurt, and battleship Ostfriesland, all to be used by the lumbering Handley Page O/400 and Martin MB-2/NBS-1 bombers of Mitchell’s 1st Provisional Air Brigade operating out of Langley.
The Navy protested vigorously over the Army-organized test, arguing they were borderline rigged to show off a predetermined outcome. The German ships and Iowa went first in July off North Carolina, with Alabama, New Jersey, Texas and Virginia following in September in the Chesapeake.
Alabama took a significant punishment over a three-day period, then remained afloat for several days while she filled with seawater via her shattered hull, finally going to the bottom 27 September 1921. Her bones were sold for scrap in 1924.
Sister Illinois, disarmed in 1924 and converted to a barracks ship (Prairie State), was ultimately sold for scrap in 1956, while Wisconsin was unceremoniously broken up in 1922.
Of course, the Navy went on to commission other Alabamas including the very lucky South Dakota-class battleship (BB-60) which has been preserved in Mobile since 1964…
…and SSBN-731, an Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine commissioned in 1985 and currently in service.
However, the old battleship’s silver service lives on.
Presented by the state to the ship’s officers in 1900, it was retained by the Navy in storage until given to the follow-on SoDak class battlewagon in conjunction with a new platter and punchbowl crafted by the Watson Silver Co. in 1942. In 1967, the Navy returned the set to the state archives of Alabama and it has been on display aboard BB-62 since then, though part of the service has been presented to SSBN 731 and is now on permanent display in the boat’s wardroom.
Displacement: Full load: 12,250 long tons (12,450 t)
Length: 375 ft 4 in (114.40 m)
Beam: 72 ft 3 in (22.02 m)
Draft: 23 ft 6 in (7.16 m)
Installed power: 8 fire-tube boilers
Propulsion: 2 shaft triple expansion engines 10,000 ihp (7,500 kW)
Speed: 16 knots (30 km/h; 18 mph)
4 × 13 in (330 mm)/35 caliber guns
14 × 6 in (152 mm)/40 caliber guns
16 × 6-pounder guns (57 mm (2.2 in))
6 × 1-pounder guns (37 mm (1.5 in))
4 × 18-inch (450 mm) torpedo tubes
Belt: 4 to 16.5 in (100 to 420 mm)
Turrets: 14 in (360 mm)
Barbettes: 15 in (380 mm)
Casemates: 6 in (150 mm)
Conning tower: 10 in (250 mm)
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