Oct 3

Whatever Happened to the Battleship Oregon?

Thursday, October 3, 2019 12:01 AM

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The battleship Oregon fought in three wars–though only in two of them as a battleship. An emblem of the New Steel Navy during the Spanish American War, a special flagship during World War I, and finally a symbol of American resourcefulness during World War II, the old Oregon’s storied history was well-captured by John D. Alden in a 1968 Proceedings article, excerpted here.

Back in 1898, the country was electrified by news that the mighty battleship Oregon was racing against time from her home port on the West Coast, around Cape Horn and up the Atlantic Coast of South America to join the main body of the Fleet in its conflict with the Spanish over the troubled island of Cuba. The dramatic exploit of the “bulldog Oregon” was a veritable embodiment of the naval spirit identified with Teddy Roosevelt. As such, it so stimulated popular support of the Navy and so crystallized the urgency for building canal through the Isthmus of Panama that the most obtuse reactionary could not hold out against the groundswell of public demand.

Battleship Oregon shortly after the Battle of Santiago

The battleship Oregon, showing signs of nearly for months at sea, was photographed shortly after burning the “Bulldog of the Fleet” at the Battle of Santiago. (Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Against such a dramatic background and significant role, the Oregon’s later duties were somewhat anticlimactic. Too old to be of first-line fighting value in World War I, she was nevertheless held in such veneration that she was specially placed in commission in August 1919 to serve as President Woodrow Wilson’s flagship for the great review of the Pacific Fleet held that year. Overtures were already being made to have her designated a historical relic and kept as a permanent memorial to the days of her glory.

Laid down as Coastal Battleship No. 3 in the Oregon was briefly classified as battleship BB-3 on the Navy list when the current numbering system was adopted in 1920, but the next year she was transferred to the unclassified list and later designated IX-22. In 1924, she was rendered incapable of further warlike service and on 15 June 1925 was turned over on loan to the State of Oregon. Thereafter, she was berthed at Portland as a floating waterfront monument and civic center. Her spacious berthing quarters were used as meeting halls for Boy Scouts and other patriotic organizations.

Shortly after U. S. entry into World War II, Governor Charles A. Sprague of Oregon offered to return her to the Navy for “coastal or other defense use.” This patriotic offer was Politely declined for the time being, it being the Navy’s official position that the ship’s historical importance outweighed any operational value she might have. Indeed, as a practical matter, her usefulness as a combat ship, if she could have been restored to operating condition at all, would have been nil. Rumors that her scrapping was under consideration soon became so prevalent, however, that patriotic organizations and individual citizens flooded the Navy Department with petitions protesting such action. These actions impelled the Navy to release a nationwide statement to the press on 15 September 1942 headlined “Navy Knows of No Plan to Scrap USS Oregon” and stating that “the maintenance of this historic shrine remindful of the resourcefulness, perseverance and loyalty of the old Navy remains an inspiration to our fighting forces.”

Pressures were even then being exerted behind the scenes, subsequently identified as originating with the War Production Board, to scrap the ship and add her steel to the country’s critically depleted stockpile. In anticipation of an imminent reversal of the Navy’s recently announced policy, Under Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal wrote privately to Governor Sprague that because of the “great necessity for scrap metal and the pressure exerted upon us to make every possible contribution toward the building up of an adequate stockpile, this decision will probably have to be reconsidered.” The final decision was made by Franklin D. Roosevelt himself, a President who was uncommonly sensitive toward the ghosts of naval history, and whose heart must have been sorely wrenched by the necessities which compelled him to put his name to the death warrant of a glorious warship.

The inevitability of the President’s decision is eloquently testified to in a letter written two days in advance by Secretary Knox to the Battleship Oregon Naval Post No. 1478, Veterans of Foreign Wars, which concludes:

. . . despite the fact that I, like yourselves, would like to preserve the Oregon, the necessity for utilizing all available strategic material makes it imperative that the metals of the Oregon be utilized. Far from being scrapped, the strategic materials of the Oregon will be reclaimed and converted into war material, and thereby again join in battle, a choice I am sure the good ship would make, were it within her power to do so.

As a result of all this, the ship was stricken from the Navy list on 2 November 1942 and put up for sale. Even the manner of her disposal was unique. Special invitations to bid for her scrapping were sent out to interested parties, pointing out that “Due to the fact that this ship is of inestimable sentimental value, bidding and award of this ship for scrapping will not be handled under the usual circumstances. . . . award will be predicated not only upon the highest bid, but also upon other factors which will be discussed with the bidders at the opening of bids on board the vessel.” Whatever these factors may have been (the only unusual proviso seems to have been that her mast must be saved), they did nothing to boost the price obtained for the battleship, because on 7 December 1942, a year to the day after Pearl Harbor, she was knocked down for $35,000 to a pair of Portland businessmen, Edwin M. Ricker and William O. McKay.

Dismantling started shortly thereafter. After the ship’s military mast was removed to be mounted on the Portland sea wall as a final memento, the hulk was towed to Kalama, Washington, where scrapping continued. Despite all the high-sounding phrases which had attended the announcement of her demise, the dismantling of the Oregon proceeded at a snail’s pace. Some negotiations were conducted with the Navy Yard at Mare Island, California, which expressed an interest in buying several items of machinery. But by early 1944, historical-minded individuals who had observed the wretched state of the old ship were becoming indignant. The West Coast press began to seethe with a hue and cry that she was in the hands of speculators and war profiteers, and it was obvious to all that many of her strategic materials were as far from the war as they had been two years earlier. At this point, the Navy stepped back into the picture and called a halt to the scrapping operation.

In planning for the reconquest of Guam, it was proposed that the remains of the Oregon be used as a storage hulk or perhaps as a breakwater. Consequently, when her topside superstructure and armor had been shorn off and her interior thoroughly gutted, the hull was requisitioned from its owners and returned to the Navy in April 1944. Although never officially restored to the Navy list, she was listed and referred to under her old number IX-22 in other correspondence. By July, she was finally ready to take part in her third major war. Ballasted below decks with gravel and loaded with dynamite for the SeaBees, she was towed to Guam where, at a safe distance from other ships, she was anchored at Port Merizo with her stern chained to a mooring buoy.

Old U.S.S. Oregon (IX-22, ex-BB-3) hull, Achang Bay, off Port Merizo, Guam, M.I.

Old U.S.S. Oregon (IX-22, ex-BB-3) hull, Achang Bay, off Port Merizo, Guam. (Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Through the heat of the tropical summer, she lay there, tended by the little landing craft LCI(G)-474. By day, her decks were too hot for work, but the explosives below were kept reasonably cool by wind scoops rigged to circulate air through her seven hatches. At night, labor crews swarmed aboard and hoisted out loads of dynamite to be hauled away to the construction sites where new bases were being prepared for the great push against Japan. At one time, it was recorded that machine gun shots were fired at the old hulk by Japanese guerrillas on the beach, but other than this, her only fighting was against the ocean waves. Several times the sea cause her moorings to part, but she was quickly secured again. It became customary friendly Guamanians to visit the Oregon and her tender, renewing the ties of allegiance to the United States now that they had been freed from the Japanese yoke. Gradually, activity diminished as the war moved forward. Finally, one last storm again broke her lines and she swung aground on a coral reef close in toward shore. Here she lay when the ended, abandoned, useless, and seemingly forgotten. But there was plenty of spirit in the old lady yet.

On 14–15 November 1948, a typhoon named Agnes swept the Marianas Islands. The Oregon stirred once more to the rising seas, and when the storm was over, the hulk was nowhere to be seen. Unseaworthy as she was, she might have been expected to founder in short order, but on 8 December, search planes located the derelict a good 500 miles southeast of Guam, almost halfway to the Philippines. Reclaimed by a rescue tug and towed back to Apra harbor, she was officially reported to have suffered “no apparent damage during unscheduled voyage.”

Back at home, the Oregon had become something of a political hot potato as sentimentalists remembered the fine words which had accompanied her sacrifice to the furnaces of war. Senator Wayne Morse of Oregon naturally took the lead in efforts to restore her to her former glory. It must be realized that few people could visualize the true state of the old wreck and the impossibility of saving her. The cost of rebuilding her would have been prohibitive, the task of even towing her home was formidable. Nevertheless, under the political pressure, messages flew between Washington and the Pacific. Schemes were even proposed of erecting a wooden superstructure and mock guns on her barren deck. The Navy, which would have had to pay for this refurbishing out of its severely curtailed funds, opposed the idea and was backed by higher authority. Still, final action required a Congressional decision, pending which the Navy could do nothing with the ship. In the end, everyone was convinced that the Oregon was too far gone—like Humpty Dumpty, there just wasn’t enough left to be put back together again—and a reluctant 83rd Congress passed Public Law 523 authorizing the Secretary of the Navy to dispose of her remains. So, on 15 March 1956, the hulk of the Oregon was sold to the Massey Supply Corporation for $208,000. This company in turn resold her to a Japanese scrap firm, the Iwai Sanggo Company, which towed her off to Kawasaki.

USS Oregon being scrapped at Kawasaki, Japan, in September 1956

Ex-Oregon being scrapped at Kawasaki, Japan, in September 1956 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

There, in a port far distant from the state of her naming, her tough old plates were at last broken up and melted down, 65 years after they had been riveted together at the Union Iron Works in San Francisco.