This U.S. Navy Battleship Sailed 12,000 Miles to Win a War

U.S. Navy battleship, USS Oregon (BB 3) while at Brooklyn Navy Yard, New York City, New York. Published by Detroit Publishing Company, 1904. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
July 1, 2020 Topic: History Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: BattleshipChokepointPanama CanalSpanish-American WarCuba

This U.S. Navy Battleship Sailed 12,000 Miles to Win a War

The journey of the USS Oregon helped make the case for the need for a canal through Panama.

Key Point: The Oregon had to sail all the way around South America to join the action against Spanish forces in the Caribbean—and catch Spain by surprise.

Following the Civil War, the United States saw enormous industrial progress. A sense of nationalism also developed, and public opinion was continually enlisted behind an aggressive foreign policy.

Media Fans The Flames Of Nationalism During Cuban Revolution

During the 1880s the American news media exploited the Cuban revolution to the hilt. Spain was depicted as a decadent nation, and the policies of the Spanish monarchy were pictured as cruel, oppressive, and “too close to American shores.” All the elements of “good copy” were at hand and the rag sheets of Hearst and Pulitzer made the most of it.

The sinking of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898 was the catalyst that brought it all together. Sylvester Scovel of the New York World wrote: “Whether Spanish treachery devised, or Spanish willingness permitted this colossal crime, Spain is responsible for it. No number of millions of mere money could compensate for the cowardly slaughter of these brave men and the treacherous destruction of a noble ship. The only atonement at all adequate for such a deed would be the liberation of Cuba.”

Spain Downplays American Naval Influence

On February 26, Spanish Admiral Pascual Cervera was aboard his flagship at Cartagena, Spain. He wrote a letter to the Spanish marine minister, Segismundo Bermejo, reporting the seriousness of the Cuban situation, and the dim prospects of defending an island three thousand miles from Spain.

Bermejo was angered by Cervera’s assessment of the situation. The minister assured the admiral that American naval strength in the Caribbean had been vastly overestimated, and that the USS Oregon, one of only four first-class battleships in the American fleet, was anchored at San Francisco. Bermejo argued that the Spanish Pacific Squadron constituted a threat to American West Coast ports and shipping. He was certain that the Oregon would remain in California. But, he told Cervera, even if the U.S. Navy Department decided to send the Oregon to the Caribbean, it would mean steaming the battleship 16,000 miles around the southern tip of South America. The voyage would be long and difficult, and before the Oregon completed the trip, Spain would have concentrated her naval forces at Cuba to defend the island.

The Oregon was the last of four Indiana-class battleships authorized by Congress, and the only one built on the West Coast. Her contract was awarded to the Union Iron Works of San Francisco in November 1890, and she was commissioned on July 25, 1896.

Oregon State-Of-the-Art Warship

The Oregon was the newest man-o’-war afloat and incorporated all the latest naval innovations. The battleship was 351 feet in length and 69 feet abeam. Her main battery consisted of four 13-inch guns in double turrets and eight 8-inch guns. The turrets were hydraulically operated, while those on her sister ships were powered by steam.

In addition to her heavy armament, the Oregon carried 20 six-pounders, evenly distributed from bow to stern. She also mounted eight one-pounders and six Whitehead torpedo tubes. She displaced 10,000 tons and had a cruising radius of eight thousand miles. An armored belt, 18 inches thick, ran two-thirds the length of her hull at the waterline.

When the Maine incident occurred, Oregon was based at San Francisco and under the command of Captain Alexander H. McCormick. As the national clamor for war increased, McCormick received orders to take his ship to Callao, Peru and await further instructions.

Oregon Changes Captains At The Last Minute

Secretary of the Navy John D. Long theorized that in case of open hostilities, the Oregon would be in an ideal position to be sent to either the Philippines or the Caribbean.

The battleship was hurriedly coaled and provisioned. The sailing date was scheduled for March 18, but then McCormick fell suddenly ill. The voyage could not be postponed, however; a replacement had to be found—and fast.

Captain Charles E. Clark, commanding officer of the monitor Monterey, was stationed at San Diego, when he received a cable from the Navy Department ordering him to assume command of the Oregon. Clark arrived at San Francisco on March 17, and at 8 o’clock on the morning of the 19th, the battleship hoisted anchor and passed through the Golden Gate.

Spanish Have Sights On Oregon

Oregon carried a crew of 30 officers and 438 men. The battleship rode low in the water—packed with 1,600 tons of coal, 500 tons of ammunition, and enough supplies to last several months.

While Oregon steamed south, Navy Secretary Long made his momentous decision. He would send the battleship to join Admiral Sampson’s Atlantic Fleet. Segismundo Bermejo had made a serious error in judgment.

On March 26, when Oregon was almost halfway to Peru, Long received a report that the Spanish torpedo boat Temerario had left Montevideo, Uruguay—destination unknown.
Long worried that the Spanish vessel might be heading for the Straits of Magellan to intercept the Oregon. He was doubly concerned for the gunboat Marietta. She had left the West Coast several days before the battleship and was also bound for the Caribbean.

Tropics And Hot Water Make For Tough Conditions Onboard

Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, suggested that it might be safer to route Oregoncompletely south of Cape Horn. He felt the battleship would be at a tactical disadvantage in the narrow waters of the straits. The decision, however, would be left up to Captain Clark.

The Oregon continued to plow south at 12 knots. Three of the battleship’s four boilers had a full head of steam. Clark wrote: “Our run from San Francisco to Callao was uneventful. But as we approached the tropics, life below decks became almost intolerable from the weather, plus the heat that was generated by the ship’s boilers.

“When Chief Engineer Milligan informed me that he thought we should never use salt water in the boilers, I felt it was asking too much of the endurance of the crew. It not only meant reducing their drinking supply, but that the quantity served would often be so warm as to be quite unpalatable. However, when I explained to the men that salt water in the boilers created scale, and scale would reduce our speed and might impair our efficiency in battle, the deprivation was borne without a murmur.”

Not Able To Rest Easy, Even In Port

On the afternoon of March 27, someone saw smoke coming from one of Oregon’s coal bunkers. After four hours of digging through the compartment, the burning coal was reached and extinguished. The cause of the fire—spontaneous combustion.

At 5 in the morning of April 4, Oregon dropped anchor in the harbor at Callao, Peru. The battleship had made a continuous run covering 4,112 nautical miles in 16 days and burned 900 tons of coal.

While at Callao, Clark received a dispatch from the Navy Department warning about the Temerario. Clark reportedly said, “I am ready to sink the Spanish ship—war or no war!”

But the captain of the Oregon also had other concerns. Because Peru was a Spanish-speaking country, he was aware there might be sympathetic Spaniards in the area. Clark ordered two steam cutters to patrol the harbor 24 hours a day. A double watch was posted at all times, and sharpshooters were stationed in the fighting tops.

The Next Leg Of The Voyage Begins

Oregon’s crew worked day and night loading coal, water, and provisions. Payday was April 6, but there was no shore leave. Every man was needed to get the ship ready for the next leg of her journey.

At 4 am on April 7, Oregon weighed anchor and set a course for the Straits of Magellan. Over 1,700 tons of coal had been loaded in her bunkers, and a hundred more tons packed in sacks on the deck. A thick layer of coal dust covered the sides of the battleship, but there was no time to wash it off. The Oregon would remain a dingy-looking vessel for a long time.

Captain Clark fired up the fourth boiler on April 9, and speed was increased to 14 knots. He ordered target practice. Empty boxes and barrels were tossed over the side, and all guns were tested for operating efficiency.

Storms Pummel Oregon

As the Oregon continued south, the weather began to change for the worse. The heavily laden warship continually dipped her bow into mountainous waves and struggled against gale- force winds. Oregon pitched and rolled in the raging ocean. At times her deck disappeared completely under solid sheets of water that swept over the vessel. Whenever the battleship’s bow plunged beneath the churning sea, her propellers lifted clear of the water and whirled around at tremendous speed, shaking the ship like a quivering leaf. The strain on both hull and machinery was enormous, but Captain Clark shouldered the responsibility and raced on ahead.