U.S. Navy Battleships - USS Utah (BB 31)
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Displacement: 21,825 tons
Speed: 20.75 knots
Armament: Ten 12" guns; sixteen 5" guns; two 21" torpedo tubes
Text from The Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships published by the Naval Historical Center
and by Journalist 2nd Class Greg Cleghorne, Editor, Hawaii Navy News.
Utah (Battleship No. 31) was laid down on 9 March 1909 at
Camden, N.J., by the New York Shipbuilding Co.; launched on 23
December 1909; sponsored by Miss Mary Alice Spry, daughter of
Governor William Spry of Utah; and commissioned at the
Philadelphia Navy Yard on 31 August 1911, Capt. William S.
Benson in command.
After her shakedown cruise, a voyage that took her to Hampton
Roads, Va.; Santa Rosa Island and Pensacola, Fla.; Galveston,
Tex.; Kingston and Portland Bight, Jamaica; and Guantanamo Bay,
Cuba, Utah was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet in March 1912. She
operated with the Fleet early that spring, conducting exercises
in gunnery and torpedo defense, before she entered the New York
Navy Yard on 18 April for an overhaul.
Departing New York on 1 June, Utah briefly visited Hampton Roads
and then steamed to Annapolis, Md., where she arrived on the
5th. There, she embarked Naval Academy midshipmen and got
underway on the 10th for the Virginia capes and the open
Atlantic. She conducted a midshipmen training cruise off the New
England seaboard well into the summer before disembarking her
contingent of officers-to-be back at Annapolis on 24 and 25
August. Soon thereafter, the battleship headed for the Southern
Drill Grounds to conduct gunnery exercises.
For a little over two years, the dreadnought maintained that
schedule of operations off the eastern seaboard, ranging from
the New England coast to Cuban waters. During that time, she
made one cruise to European waters, visiting Villefranche,
France, from 8 to 30 November 1913.
Utah began the year 1914 at the New York Navy Yard and sailed
south on 5 January. After stopping at Hampton Roads, she reached
Cuban waters later in the month for torpedo and small arms
exercises. However, due to tension in Mexico, Utah sailed for
Mexican waters in early February and reached Vera Cruz on the
16th. She operated off that port until getting underway for
Tampico on 9 April with several hundred refugees embarked.
Soon thereafter, it was learned that a German steamship, SS
Ypiranga, was bound for Vera Cruz with a shipment of arms and
munitions earmarked for the dictator Victoriano Huerta. Utah
received orders to search for the ship and put to sea and
reached Vera Cruz on the 16th. When it appeared that the
shipment might be landed, the Navy took steps to take the
customs house at Vera Cruz and stop the delivery. Accordingly,
plans were drawn up for a landing at Vera Cruz, to commence on
21 April 1914.
Utah consequently landed her "battalion" 17 officers and 367
sailors under the command of Lt. Guy W. S. Castle as well as
her Marine detachment, which formed part of the improvised
"First Marine Brigade," made up of detachments of Marines from
the other ships that had arrived to show American determination.
In the ensuing fighting the men of Utah's bluejacket battalion
distinguished themselves. Seven won Medals of Honor. Those seven
included Lt. Castle, the battalion commander; company commanders
Ens. Oscar C. Badger and Ens. Paul F. Foster; section leaders,
Chief Turret Captains Niels Drustrup and Abraham Desomer; Chief
Gunner George Bradley; and Boatswain's Mate Henry N. Nickerson.
Utah remained at Vera Cruz for almost two months before
returning north to the New York Navy Yard in late June for an
overhaul. Over the next three years, the battleship operated on
a regular routine of battle practices and exercises from off the eastern seaboard into the Caribbean, as the United States
readied its forces for the possible entry of the United States
into the worldwide war that broke out in July 1914.
After the United States finally declared war on 6 April 1917,
Utah operated in the waters of the Chesapeake Bay as an
engineering and gunnery training ship and continued that duty
until 30 August 1918, when she sailed for the British Isles with
Vice Admiral Henry T. Mayo, Commander in Chief, United States
Atlantic Fleet, embarked.
Fears of possible attacks by German heavy units upon the large
convoys crossing the Atlantic with troops and munitions for the
western front prompted the dispatch, to European waters, of a
powerful force of American dreadnoughts to Irish waters: Utah
as part of that movement reached Brerehaven, Bantry Bay,
Ireland, on 10 September 1917. There, she became the flagship of
Rear Admiral Thomas S. Rodgers, Commander, Battleship Division
6. Until the signing of the armistice on 11 November 1918, Utah,
along with the sister ships USS Oklahoma (Battleship No. 37) and
USS Nevada (Battleship No. 36), operated from Bantry Bay, covering
the Allied convoys approaching the British Isles, ready to deal
with any surface threat that the German Navy could hurl at the
valuable transports and supply ships.
After the cessation of hostilities, Utah visited Portland,
England, and later served as part of the honor escort for the
transport George Washington (Id. No. 3018), as that ship bore
President Woodrow Wilson into the harbor of Brest, France, on 13
December 1918. The following day, Utah tuned homeward and
reached New York on Christmas Day 1918.
Utah remained at anchor in the North River, off New York City,
until 30 January 1919. During that time, she half-masted her
colors at 1440 on 7 January due to the death of former President
Theodore Roosevelt and, on the 8th, fired salutes at half-hour
intervals throughout the day in memory of the great American
Utah carried out a regular routine of battle practices and
maneuvers, ranging from the New England coast to the Caribbean,
into mid-1921. During that time, she was classified as BB-31 on
17 July 1920, during the Navy-wide assignment of hull numbers.
Ultimately departing Boston on 9 July 1921, Utah proceeded via
Lisbon, Portugal, and reached Cherbourg, France, soon
thereafter. There, Utah became the flagship for the United
States naval forces in European waters. She "showed the flag" at
the principal Atlantic coast ports of Europe and in the
Mediterranean until relieved by USS Pittsburgh (CA-4) in October
Returning to the United States on 21 October 1922, Utah then
became the flagship of Battleship Division (BatDiv) 5, United
States Scouting Fleet and operated with the Scouting Fleet over
the next three and one-half years.
Late in 1924, Utah was chosen to carry the United States
diplomatic mission to the centennial celebration of the Battle
of Ayacucho (9 December 1824), the decisive action in the
Peruvian struggle for independence. Designated as flagship for
the special squadron assigned to represent the United States at
the festivities, Utah departed New York City on 22 November 1924
with General of the Armies John J. Pershing, USA, and former
congressman, the Honorable F. C. Hicks, embarked, and arrived at
Callao on 9 December.
Utah disembarked General Pershing and the other members of the
mission on Christmas 1924, so that the general and his mission
could visit other South American cities inland on their goodwill
tour. Meanwhile, Utah, in the weeks that followed, called at the
Chilean ports of Punta Arenas and Valparaiso before she rounded
Cape Horn and met General Pershing at Montevideo, Uruguay.
Reembarking the general and his party there, the battleship then
visited in succession: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; La Guaira,
Venezuela; and Havana, Cuba, before ending her diplomatic voyage
at New York City on 13 March 1925.
Utah spent subsequent summers of 1925 and 1926 with the
Midshipman Practice Squadron and, after disembarking her
midshipmen at the conclusion of the 1925 cruise, entered the
Boston Navy Yard and was decommissioned on 31 October 1925 for
modernization. During that period of alterations and repairs,
the ship's "cage" mainmast was replaced by a lighter pole mast;
she was fitted to burn oil instead of coal as fuel; and her
armament was modified to reflect the increased concern over
antiaircraft defense. Interestingly, Utah and her sister ship
USS Florida (BB-30) never received the more modern "tripod" masts
fitted to other classes.
Utah was placed back in commission on 1 December 1925 and, after
local operations with the Scouting Fleet, departed Hampton Roads
on 21 November 1928, bound for South America. Reaching
Montevideo on 18 December, she there embarked President-elect
and Mrs. Herbert C. Hoover; the Honorable Henry T. Fletcher,
Ambassador to Italy; and members of the press. Utah transported
the President-elect's party to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, between
21 and 23 December, and then continued her homeward voyage with
Mr. Hoover embarked. En route, the President-elect inspected the
battleship's crew while at sea, before the ship reached Hampton
Roads on 6 January 1929.
However, Utah's days as a battleship were numbered. Under the
terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, Utah was selected for
conversion to a mobile target, in place of the former battleship
North Dakota; and, on 1 July 1931, Utah's classification was
changed to AG-16. Her conversion carried out at the Norfolk
Navy Yard included the installation of a radio-control
apparatus. After having been decommissioned for the duration of
the conversion, Utah was recommissioned at Norfolk on 1 April
1932, Cmdr. Randall Jacobs in command.
Utah departed Norfolk on 7 April to train her engineers in using
the new installations and for trials of her radio gear by which
the ship could be controlled at varying rates of speed and
changes of course, maneuvers that a ship would conduct in
battle. Her electric motors, operated by signals from the
controlling ship, opened and closed throttle valves, moved her
steering gear, and regulated the supply of oil to her boilers.
In addition, a Sperry gyro pilot kept the ship on course.
Returning to port on 21 April, Utah passed her radio control
trials off the Virginia capes on 5 May. On 1 June 1932, Utah ran
three hours under radio control, with all engineering stations
manned; over the next two days, she made two successful runs,
each of four hours duration, during which no machinery was
touched by human hands. Observers, however two in each fire
room and two in each boiler room kept telephone information
and recorded data.
Her trials completed, Utah departed Norfolk on 9 June. After
transiting the Panama Canal, she reached San Pedro, Calif., on
30 June, reporting for duty with Training Squadron 1, Base
Force, United States Fleet. She conducted her first target duty,
for cruisers of the Fleet, on 25 July 1932, and later, on 2
August, conducted rehearsal runs for USS Nevada (BB-36), Utah being
controlled from USS Hovey (DD-208) and USS Talbot (DD-114).
Over the next nine years, the erstwhile battleship performed a
vital service to the fleet as a mobile target, contributing
realism to the training of naval aviators in dive, torpedo, and
high level bombing. Thus, she greatly aided the development of
tactics in those areas. On one occasion, she even served as a
troop transport, embarking 223 officers and men of the Fleet
Marine Force at Sand Island, Midway, for amphibious operations
at Hilo Bay, Hawaii, as part of Fleet Problem XVI in the early
summer of 1935. She then transported the Marines from Hawaii to
San Diego, Calif., disembarking them there on 12 June 1935.
That same month, June 1935, saw the establishment of a fleet
machine gun school on board Utah while she continued her mission
as a mobile target. The former dreadnought received her first
instructors on board in August 1935, and the first students
drawn from the ships' companies of USS Raleigh (CL-7), USS Concord (CL-
10), USS Omaha (CL-4), USS Memphis (CL-13), USS Milwaukee (CL-S), and USS Ranger
(CV-4) reported aboard for training on 20 September.
Subsequently, during the 1936 and 1937 gunnery year, Utah was
fitted with a new quadruple 1.1-inch machine gun mount for
experimental test and development by the machine gun school.
Some of the first tests of that type of weapon were conducted on
Utah, besides serving as a realistic target for exercises
involving carrier-based planes, also towed targets during battle
practices conducted by the Fleet's battleships and took part in
the yearly "fleet problems." She transited the Panama Canal on 9
January 1939 to participate in Fleet Problem XX, part of the
maneuvers observed personally by President Franklin D. Roosevelt
from the heavy cruiser USS Houston (CA-30).
After providing mobile target services for the submarines of
Submarine Squadron 6 in the late autumn and early winter of
1939, Utah devoted the eight months that followed to special
machine gun practices. The following summer, Utah sailed for the
Hawaiian Islands reaching Pearl Harbor on 1 August 1940, and
fired advanced antiaircraft gunnery practice in the Hawaiian
operating area until 14 December 1940, when she sailed for the
west coast, returning to Long Beach four days before Christmas.
For the next two months, Utah operated as a mobile bombing
target off San Clemente Island, Calif., for planes from Patrol
Wing 1, and from the carriers USS Lexington (CV-2), USS Saratoga (CV-3),
and USS Enterprise (CV-6). Utah returned to Hawaiian waters on 1
April 1941, embarking gunners for the Advanced Antiaircraft Gun
School, men drawn from USS West Virginia (BB-48), USS Oklahoma(BB-37),
USS Colorado (BB-45), USS Phoenix (CL- 46), USS Nashville (CL-43),
USS Philadelphia (CL-41), and USS New Orleans (CA-32).
Over the weeks that followed, she trained her embarked gunnery
students in control and loading drills for the 5-inch batteries,
firing runs on radio-controlled drone targets as well as .50-
caliber and 1.1-inch firing on drones and balloons. Utah put
into Los Angeles harbor on 20 May and there embarked Fleet
Marine Force passengers for transportation to Bremerton, Wash.
Putting the Marines ashore a week later, the ship entered the
Puget Sound Navy Yard on 31 May 1941.
During the ensuing overhaul, Utah received repairs and
alterations designed to make her a more effective gunnery
training ship. The alterations included the addition of 5-
inch/38-caliber guns in single mounts with gunshields, similar
to those fitted on the more modern types of destroyers then in
service. She also lost her prewar colors, being repainted in
overall measure one camouflage-dark gray with pale gray tops.
With war paint thus donned, Utah sailed for Hawaiian waters on
14 September, after visits to Port Townsend, Wash., and San
Francisco and San Pedro, Calif. She arrived at Pearl Harbor soon
thereafter and carried out antiaircraft training and target
duties through the late autumn.
Utah completed an advanced antiaircraft gunnery cruise in
Hawaiian waters shortly before she returned to Pearl Harbor in
early December 1941, mooring off Ford Island in berth F-11. On
the morning of 7 December 1941, the senior officer on board
the captain and executive officer were ashore on leave was
Lt. Cmdr. Solomon S. Isquith, the engineer officer.
Shortly before 0800, men topside noted three planes taken for
American planes on maneuvers heading in a northerly direction
from the harbor entrance. They made a low dive at the southern
end of Ford Island, where the seaplane hangers were situated,
and began dropping bombs.
The attack on the fleet at Pearl Harbor lasted a little under
two hours, but for Utah, it was over in a few minutes. At 0801,
soon after sailors had begun raising the colors at the ship's
fantail, the erstwhile battleship took a torpedo hit forward,
and immediately started to list to port.
As the ship began to roll ponderously over on her beam ends, 6-
by-12-inch timbers, placed on the decks to cushion them against
the impact of the bombs used during the ship's latest stint as a
mobile target, began to shift, hampering the efforts of the crew
to abandon ship. Below, men headed topside while they could.
One, however, Chief Watertender Peter Tomich, remained below,
making sure that the boilers were secured and that all men had
gotten out of the engineering spaces. Another man, Fireman John
B. Vaessen, USNR, remained at his post in the dynamo room,
making sure that the ship had enough power to keep her lights
going as long as possible.
Cmdr. Isquith made an inspection to make sure men were out and
nearly became trapped himself. As the ship began to turn over,
he found an escape hatch blocked. While he was attempting to
escape through a porthole, a table upon which he was standing,
impelled by the ever-increasing list of the ship, slipped out
from beneath him. Fortunately, a man outside grabbed Isquith's
arm and pulled him through at the last instant.
At 0812, the mooring lines snapped, and Utah rolled over on her
beam ends; her survivors struck out for shore, some taking
shelter on the mooring quays since Japanese strafers were
Shortly after most of the men had reached shore, Cmdr. Isquith,
and others, heard a knocking from within the overturned ship's
hull. Although Japanese planes were still strafing the area,
Isquith called for volunteers to return to the hull and
investigate the tapping. Obtaining a cutting torch from the
nearby USS Raleigh (CL-7) herself fighting for survival after
taking early torpedo hits the men went to work.
As a result of the persistence shown by Machinist
S. A. Szymanski; Chief Machinist's Mate Terrance MacSelwiney,
USNR; and two others whose names were unrecorded, 10 men
clambered from a would-be tomb. The last man out was Fireman
Vaessen, who had made his way to the bottom of the ship when she
capsized, bearing a flashlight and wrench.
Utah was declared "in ordinary" on 29 December 1941 and was
placed under the control of the Pearl Harbor Base Force.
Partially righted to clear an adjacent berth, she was then
declared "out of commission, not in service," on 5 September
1944. Utah's name was struck from the Navy list on 13 November
1944. Her partially submerged hulk still remains, rusting, at
Pearl Harbor with the remains of 58 Sailors trapped inside. Where Arizona receives more than 1 million visitors every year, Utahs remains lie silent in an active
military area on Ford Island, where only a handful of active duty service members and former
crew members pay their respects to the fallen Sailors and former shipmates.
An elegant, white pier extending into the waters in front of Utahs partially exposed hull marks the site
where she was struck and sunk in the surprise attack on that December morning. A polished brass plaque
commemorating the ship and crews service stands watch at the base of a flagpole. An American flag
proudly flies over the site where Utah came to rest.
Of Utah's complement, 30 officers and 431 enlisted men survived
the ship's loss; 6 officers and 58 men died, four of the latter
being recovered and interred ashore. Chief Watertender Tomich
received the Medal of Honor posthumously for his selfless act in
ensuring the safety of others.
Utah (AG-16) received one battle star for her World War II
Updated: 30 July 2009