A Short History

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Prior to New Year’s Day 1906, the Navy had what was then known as the Atlantic Station, which made up most of the United States Navy. On Jan. 1, 1906, the Navy’s Atlantic Fleet was established, consisting of: the Battleship Force, Cruiser Force, and the Destroyer Force. None of these forces, however, were organized in the manner of the type commands of later years.

Photo: USS Ohio with the 1st and 2nd Squadrons of the 'Great White Fleet' The most renowned operation of those early years was the formation of the "Great White Fleet," which departed Norfolk, Va., on Dec. 16, 1907, to become the first fleet of warships to circumnavigate the globe. They returned to President Theodore Roosevelt’s welcome on Feb. 22, 1909.

Early in December of 1922, General Order 94 abolished the Atlantic Fleet, renaming it as the U.S. Fleet. The U.S. Fleet was organized into the Battle Fleet, the Scouting Fleet, the Control Fleet and the Fleet Base Force. These four elements were defined as "the principal naval force of the United States."

Eight years later, on Dec. 10, 1930, another reorganization was made when the U.S. Fleet’s subordinate fleets were renamed “forces” creating the Battle Force, U.S. Fleet; the Scouting Force, U.S. Fleet; and the Base Force, U.S. Fleet. Ships assigned to these forces were assigned on the basis of mission and not as to the type of ship involved. Also, the Navy subdivided into squadrons, with those units operating off the east coast of the United States coming within the Atlantic Squadron. This subdivision can be seen as the seeds of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet as we know it today.

World War II began in Europe in 1939. The United States was trying to remain neutral, while protecting her shipping. It was in this atmosphere that the Atlantic Squadron was renamed on Nov. 1, 1940, to more accurately describe the mission given it by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Atlantic Squadron became the Patrol Force, U.S. Fleet, which was further reorganized into type commands: Battleships, Patrol Force; Cruisers, Patrol Force; Destroyers, Patrol Force; and, Train, Patrol Force (the logistics arms).The Patrol Force organization was short lived.

With war clouds darkening now on both the east and west horizons, the Patrol Force was reorganized into the Atlantic Fleet on Feb. 3, 1941. The first Commander-in-Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, was Admiral Ernest J. King, who set up the structure of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet in a similar manner to that of today.

Rolling Thunder

Some say that the battleship began with USS Monitor, the famous ironclad whose battle with the CSS Virginia in Hampton Roads on Mar. 9, 1862, drew the attention of the world. Monitor had a centerline, rotating iron gun turret, armored sides and deck, and steam propulsion. She was ill-equipped for sailing on the high seas, however, and foundered off Cape Hatteras, N.C., in December 1862.

Others may say, however, that the genesis of the battleship began with USS Michigan, a side wheel steamer commissioned on Sept. 29, 1844. Michigan was the Navy’s first iron-hulled warship and was built for the defense of Lake Erie.

Whichever ship is considered to be the forerunner of the battleship, there were some developments which spurred the origin of the lethal leviathan of the sea. One was the writings of Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, USN, who published several books on naval strategy that became the bibles of many navies throughout the world. Capt. Mahan’s works pointed out the importance of having a capital ship for the control of the sea.

The second event was the Russian-Japanese War of 1894-95. Here, the "battleship" was put to the test, and the results showed that the new ship class was supreme at sea.

Photo: USS Texas, probably photographed prior to the Spanish American War The United States commissioned her first battleship, USS Texas, on Apr. 15, 1895. This coal-burning ship, had an overall length of 309 feet and an extreme beam of 64 feet, displaced 6,315 tons, and had a complement of 30 officers and 362 enlisted men. She carried two 12-inch and six 6-inch guns and was equipped with four 14-inch torpedo tubes. For protection she carried 12-inches of steel armor, and while not the titan of later years, for her era she was one of the most powerful ships in the world.

Battleships began to grow by 1907. USS Kansas (BB 21) displaced twice the tonnage of Texas, was more heavily armed, and had 42 officers and 838 enlisted men.

While Kansas was under construction, an event took place that touched off the greatest naval arms race in history. In 1905, King Edward VII of England christened a new ship designed by British Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher. This ship was unquestionably the most powerful afloat. Her name, HMS Dreadnought, was derived from "Fear God and dread nought." Few ships have captured the world’s imagination like Dreadnought. Her name became synonymous with "battleship."

In late 1912, the United States commissioned its most heavily-armed battleship, USS Wyoming (BB 32). Wyoming was 562 feet in overall length, with an extreme beam of 93 feet. She displaced 26,000 tons and carried 58 officers and more than 1,000 enlisted men. Her armor plate was a foot thick. Her main battery was a dozen 12-inch guns, backed by 21 5-inch guns and two 21-inch torpedo tubes.

By the end of World War I, the U.S. Navy had grown in strength to being second only to Great Britain’s Navy. During the Washington Disarmament Conference of 1921, the U.S. agreed to dismantle part of the Navy, and seven out of nine battleships under construction were broken up. No new battleships were commissioned from 1923 to 1941.

BB TyCom

The first battleship Type Command (TyCom) was established on Nov. 1, 1940, with the formation of Battleships, Patrol Force, U.S. Fleet. With the Navy reorganization in February 1941, the TyCom became Battleships, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

Photo: USS Arizona burns furiously following the attack on Pearl Harbor The opening of hostilities in Europe in September 1939 spurred the rebuilding of the Navy’s battleship forces. Two years later, on Dec. 7, 1941, eight of the Navy’s battleships were sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor. Six of these were subsequently repaired and returned to service.

The nature of the war in the Pacific altered the battleship’s role forever. The Battle of Midway showed that it was no longer necessary for battlewagons to stand toe-to-toe and slug it out in the contest for supremacy at sea. But battleships performed a number of vital tasks during World War II: from escorting convoys to providing anti-air defense to providing necessary gunfire support to troops ashore.

On Nov. 15, 1945, two months and a day after the Japanese announced they would accept the terms of surrender, the battleships were combined with the cruisers in a new TyCom, the Battleship-Cruiser Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

During this time many of the battleships were mothballed or sold as memorials to the various states whose names they carried. Only a few of these majestic ships remained in service until 1948 when the last active battleship was redesignated a training ship and the Battleship-Cruiser Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet, was renamed Cruiser Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

The battleships returned during the Korean Conflict (1950-1953) for use in shore bombardment. The Battleship-Cruiser Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet as a TyCom was resurrected on Oct. 15, 1952. With the Korean armistice and by 1957, the battleships began being decommissioned again. By Mar. 8, 1958, there were no active battleships and the type command reverted to Cruiser Force, U.S. Atlantic Fleet.

A Final Hurrah

USS New Jersey fires a salvo from her guns USS New Jersey (BB 62) was brought back into service in 1968 and served as a gun platform off the coast of Vietnam. Her nine 16-inch guns could throw a 2,700-pound projectile more than 20 miles. The ship was again decommissioned in 1969, but was recommissioned in 1982. She was modernized, receiving an installation of 16 Harpoon missiles, with a range of about 60 miles, and 32 Tomahawk missiles, with a range of about 500 miles.

In May 1984, the United States Navy began recalling the remaining Iowa-class battleships for active duty, following modernization and updating. These weapons platforms were needed for an expanded 600-ship Navy to lead battle groups and help establish the U.S. naval presence around the globe. The 600-ship Navy was never realized and, instead, defense budgets continued to shrink. For this and other like reasons, USS Iowa (BB 61) and USS New Jersey (BB 62) were decommissioned for a final time by early 1991.

The invasion of neighboring Kuwait by Iraqi dictator Sadam Hussein in February 1991 postponed the fate of USS Missouri (BB 63) and USS Wisconsin (BB 64). The big guns of the two battleships hammered at land targets in Kuwait in support of the Allied ground offensive. Iraq agreed to a cease fire agreement on Feb. 28, 1991.

But the cost of operating these ships, the labor-intensive manning, and the more modern, more powerful cruisers and destroyers of today's Navy led to their final decommissioning as well. The last battleship on active duty was USS Missouri (BB 63) decommissioned Mar. 31, 1992. In the 21st century, there are no battleships in the United States Navy.

For a complete list of all the battleships that served with the Navy, see the "List of Battleships." This list gives the ships' names, their dates of commissioning(s) and decommissioning(s), and the eventual fate each one met. There are also links from the ships' name to an up-to-date, illustrated history of each ship.

Updated: 20 May 2000