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The Race of the USS Oregon

In the spring of 1898, a single U.S. battleship—the USS Oregon (BB-3)—became the pride of the nation as she steamed from San Francisco to Florida in time to take part in one of the two major naval battles of the Spanish-American War. On the way she also proved the necessity of a canal between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.

Beginning in 1893, revolution and independence were becoming rallying cries for the people of Cuba. For nearly 400 years, Spain had ruled the island with an iron fist. By 1898, 6,000 Cubans under General Antonio Maceo had been waging an increasingly successful guerrilla war against 80,000 Spanish troops sent to hold the empire’s most valuable Caribbean colony. Cubans living in the United States pressed for U.S. support in driving out the Spanish. But more was at stake than Cuban rights and lives. In the era of robber barons and powerful trusts, many U.S. businessmen were eager to gain profits from the rich tobacco, sugar, and ore resources of the Caribbean island.

Spain had lost much of its empire in the New World and the Pacific. Only Cuba and Puerto Rico remained island bastions in the Caribbean, while the Philippines and Guam held the line in the Pacific. Spain had a large fleet to protect these last colonial possessions, but the ships mostly were outmoded, worn out, and manned by sailors who were ill-trained and poorly motivated.

Just a decade before Great Britain launched the revolutionary battleship Dreadnought in 1906, the United States was still short of having a navy capable of challenging any European or Asian fleet. U.S. capital ships were not much more advanced than the Monitor of the Civil War. But by 1898, the Navy was at last coming into its own.

The spark that ignited the “splendid little war” happened on the night of 15 February 1898, when the protected cruiser USS Maine (ACR-1), sent to Havana to protect U.S. interests, exploded and sank, with the loss of 253 officers and men. Almost immediately, the yellow press, led by William Randolph Hearst, spread the word that the ship had been sunk by Spanish mines. Although there was strong evidence that the Maine sank from the ignition of a powder magazine caused by a slow-burning fire in an adjacent coal bunker, no one was willing to believe this. The nation raged about Spanish treachery and demanded that President William McKinley declare war on Spain. One of the most outspoken promoters of a war was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy and the man who had ordered the Maine to Havana in the first place, Theodore Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was a close friend and confidant of sea-power theorist Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan and much in favor of a massive naval building program. In 1895, Roosevelt wrote, “If only the people who are ignorant about our navy could see these great warships in all their majesty and beauty, and could realize how well-fitted they are to uphold the honor of America.”

With his finger on the pulse of the country and on that of Wall Street, Roosevelt began to flex the Navy’s muscle in the event of war with Spain. Even as he was planning on leading a cavalry regiment in Cuba, he also was putting his efforts into assembling as much seaborne firepower as possible. He had his bespectacled eyes on one ship in particular, the newest battleship in the Navy, the Oregon. The third ship in the Indiana class, which included the Massachusetts (BB-2), the Oregon was built at Union Iron Works in San Francisco, launched in 1893, and commissioned in 1896.

The Oregon was a large ship for her time, displacing more than 10,000 tons with a length of 350 feet and a beam of 67 feet. Two triple-expansion reciprocating engines could drive her through the water at a top speed of nearly 17 knots. With two turrets, each fitted with 2 13-inch/35 caliber guns; 4 8-inch guns; and 4 6-inch and 12 3-inch rapid-fire rifles, the Oregon’s 470 officers and men wielded heavy firepower. The problem was, she was on the West Coast, in Bremerton, Washington.

Roosevelt was more preemptive than his often-absent superior, Navy Secretary John Long, and convinced McKinley to order the Oregon to join the North Atlantic Squadron. She would have to sail nearly 15,000 miles around South America. Time was of the essence. The Hearst press was condemning McKinley daily for not having the spine to challenge the decadent and tyrannical Spaniards.

The Oregon received her orders on 1 March and weighed anchor on 3 March. Reaching San Francisco three days later, her crew began loading nearly 1,000 tons of coal and several hundred tons of shells and powder. Her commanding officer, Captain Alexander McCormick, fell ill and was replaced by U.S. Naval Academy graduate Captain Charles Clark. His orders were to leave for their first port of call, Callao, Peru, on 18 March.

When Captain Charles Clark took command of the Oregon, his orders were to sail the battleship nearly 15,000 miles to the Caribbean. With the United States on the brink of war, his contact with Washington would be spotty.
When Captain Charles Clark took command of the Oregon, his orders were to sail the battleship nearly 15,000 miles to the Caribbean. With the United States on the brink of war, his contact with Washington would be spotty. NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND.

The Oregon’s superstucture was painted in the peacetime scheme of white hull and buff, and her guns were a gleaming black. As the ship left the Golden Gate in her wake, on board was a young midshipman, William Leahy, who would one day be an admiral and chief of staff to two presidents.

One of the Oregon’s assistant engineers, Joseph Mason Reeves, who also would rise to the rank of admiral, wrote to his mother during the voyage around South America: “Captain Clark is a good one. I think he is not going to have the Oregon [become] a second Maine if he can prevent it.”

Racing at a sustained speed of 12 knots, the Oregon’s ram bow threw up a boiling “bone in her teeth.” This would earn her the nickname “Bulldog of the Navy.”

This was the first transfer of a capital ship from one coast to the other in time of war and proved to be a boon for the Navy’s public image. Marconi’s wireless telegraphy was still in its infancy in 1898, and all telegrams had to be sent by cable. The Oregon, on her dash down the coasts of the United States, Mexico, and Central and South America, was out of direct touch with shore. The only means of keeping track of her movement was from telegrams sent by U.S. consulates reporting her position. The Hearst and Pulitzer presses began publishing daily articles on the ship’s progress. Americans followed the Oregon’s race with increasing interest.

Captain Clark had one serious problem on the run south. A smoldering fire in one of the coal bunkers had to be found and extinguished. These were common in coal-burning ships and were not normally dangerous, but the Oregon was a warship and carried a hundred tons of propellant powder for her guns. Clark did not reduce speed as volunteers dug into the bunker and located the smoldering pyre.

The ship reached Callao on 4 April after a run of 4,112 miles in 16 days. This was a record for such a large ship. But there was little rest for her crew as they again loaded coal for the run to the Strait of Magellan. The ship’s band played patriotic music and popular airs to keep the crew’s spirits up in the increasingly humid equatorial climate.

While at Callao, Clark received a cable from Washington that the Spanish torpedo gunboat Temerario had left the Uruguayan port of Montevideo and might be headed south to intercept and attack the Oregon. War had not yet been declared, but Clark told his lookouts and crew to be on the alert for any strange craft as the battleship again pointed her prow to the southeast.

On 11 April, President McKinley asked Congress for a declaration of war. Clark did not yet know this as the Oregon steamed down the Chilean coast.

The battleship turned into the western end of the strait on the afternoon of 15 April, too late to attempt navigating the stormy and confined waters before nightfall. Then, a violent storm struck the area and huge waves rolled unbroken over the decks, burying all but her superstructure in foaming green water. Clark dropped two anchors in a bay off Tamar Island to wait out the storm. The following morning, the Oregon resumed her transit of the narrow strait and tied up at Punta Arenas, Chile, on 18 April. After provisioning and finishing some needed maintenance, she headed east and emerged into the Atlantic Ocean on 21 April. The Oregon was halfway to her goal. Now Clark’s concerns were focused on the possible appearance of the Temerario.

Halfway around the world in the western Pacific, Commodore George Dewey, scion of a Navy legacy that went back to the War of 1812, commanded the Asiatic Squadron, then based in Hong Kong. On board his flagship, the USS Olympia (C-6), he received orders to take his squadron to Manila and confront the Spanish fleet there.

The Spanish force consisted of eight heavy and light cruisers and three gunboats, while Dewey’s fleet had five protected cruisers and two gunboats. The Spanish numerical superiority was more than compensated for by U.S. firepower and excellent training. The Battle of Manila Bay on 1 May was a resounding victory for Dewey and the U.S. Navy, and he became a national hero.

The Oregon put into Rio de Janeiro on 30 April, which, because of the International Date Line, was the same day as the battle in Manila. While her crew labored to load 700 tons of coal into her bunkers, a Brazilian cruiser patrolled the harbor to protect the battleship from Spanish torpedo boats or sabotage. Word of the declaration of war and the victory at Manila sparked a wave of celebration and increased the crew’s drive to continue the rush to Cuba.

Assistant Engineer Reeves, in a letter posted from Rio, wrote: “There were loud shouts of ‘Remember the Maine!’ The Navy’s battle cry of this war and one that will most surely make a Yankee sailor’s blood boil and make him more anxious to die than to ever strike our flag to any Spaniard man of war. Within two weeks I think the Oregon, single handed will sink or capture two of Spain’s heaviest armored vessels.”

The crew of the Oregon cheers as the Cristóbal Colón strikes her colors  after the  U.S. battleship chased her down during the 3 July 1898 Battle of Santiago de Cuba.
The crew of the Oregon cheers as the Cristóbal Colón strikes her colors  after the  U.S. battleship chased her down during the 3 July 1898 Battle of Santiago de Cuba. U.S. NAVAL INSTITUTE PHOTO ARCHIVE.

With increased patriotic fervor firing the boilers as much as coal, the Oregon left Rio on 4 May. Cables from Washington reported four Spanish armored cruisers and three torpedo boats headed west from the Cape Verde Islands. Their course and orders were unknown. But the Oregon now had company; the gunboat USS Marietta (PG-15) and the recently purchased auxiliary cruiser Nictheroy. The Oregon led them north as her crew prepared the ship for imminent battle. All her elegant woodwork, furnishings, and paneling—in short, any fire hazard­­—were removed and thrown overboard. Her spotless white hull and upperworks were painted a flat gray.

On 8 May she steamed into Bahia, Brazil, announcing that she would be there for several days. This was intended to fool any Spanish spies. In fact, the ship was on her way the next day. Clark had cabled Washington that “Oregon could steam fourteen knots for hours and in a running fight might beat off or even cripple the Spanish fleet. With present amount of coal on board will be in good fighting trim and could reach West Indies.”

The battleship arrived in Barbados, whose population was decidedly anti-Spanish. But to confuse any Spanish sympathizers, Clark sailed west that night with all the deck and cabin lights blazing. Then all the lights were doused and the ship made a radical turn toward Florida.

On 24 May, with her crew standing on deck in their tropical whites, the Oregon entered Jupiter Inlet on the east coast of Florida 66 days after leaving San Francisco. She had steamed nearly 15,000 miles in just over two months, a remarkable feat for a predreadnought warship driven by reciprocating engines. The press called it a “triumph of American technology and seamanship.”

The Navy Department was heartened to learn that the Oregon and her crew were fully ready for battle and that the ship had suffered no damage or mechanical failures during her long voyage.

Moreover, the race of the Oregon proved that the United States could produce warships capable of protecting national interests on the world stage, exactly as Roosevelt and Mahan had insisted. But there was another unforeseen result of the voyage. If the United States were to become a global seafaring power, a canal had to be constructed between the Pacific and Atlantic. A two-month delay in moving ships from one ocean to another was unacceptable. This was one major motivation to building the Panama Canal—another war Theodore Roosevelt would one day wage.

The USS Oregon (right) following the  Battle of Santiago de Chile, and one of her gun crews during the fight (above). The battle lasted only four hours, but it decimated the Spanish fleet.
The USS Oregon (right) following the  Battle of Santiago de Chile, and one of her gun crews during the fight (above). The battle lasted only four hours, but it decimated the Spanish fleet. NAVAL HISTORY AND HERITAGE COMMAND.

The Oregon soon moved to the naval base at Key West, awaiting orders from Rear Admiral William Samson, commander of the North Atlantic Squadron. Samson learned that Commodore Winfield Scott Schley, leading the detached Flying Squadron, had found and blockaded the Spanish fleet in the port of Santiago de Cuba on the southern coast.

Admiral Pascual Cervera was in desperate straits. He was ordered by Governor General Ramón Blanco to move his fleet out to save them from U.S. capture. He was well aware of the massed naval strength lurking outside the harbor entrance.

The U.S. force consisted of five battleships, including the Oregon’s sister ships, the Indiana (BB-1), Massachusetts, and the new Iowa (BB-4), and the second-class battleship Texas (BB-35); the protected cruisers New York (ACR-2) and Brooklyn (ACR-3), both of which were sisters to the Maine; the cruiser New Orleans (CL-22); and a torpedo boat, the Porter (TB-6). Divided into two squadrons, they patrolled east and west of the harbor entrance, waiting for the Spanish to emerge.

On the early morning of 3 July, the Massachusetts and three other ships sailed to Guantanamo Bay for coal, while Samson, in the New York and accompanied by another vessel, headed up the coast to confer with the commander of the Army forces, Major General William Rufus Shafter. The majority of the blockading force therefore was deployed when Cervera, standing on the bridge of the magnificent cruiser Infanta Maria Teresa, led four large and light cruisers and two destroyers out to confront the enemy.

Cervera chose to send the cruisers Cristóbal Colón and Almirante Oquendo west with the destroyers while the Infanta Maria Teresa and Vizcaya headed for the Brooklyn. This caused some confusion in the opening stages of the battle. The first shot was fired by the Iowa at 0930. Within moments, the IndianaTexas, and Oregon opened fire on the enemy ships. But then Cervera, realizing his ships were slower and far outgunned by the U.S. battleships, also turned the Maria Teresa and Vizcaya west. The Oregon charged off in pursuit, first passing and then being followed by the Indiana and Brooklyn.

Reeves wrote to his mother on 7 July: “At last was the one chance we had been wishing for so long. Here was the Oregon’s chance to try her speed and her gunpower.” The Oregon and Brooklyn caught the Cristóbal Colón 60 miles west at Cape Cruz. There, the Oregon’s 13-inch batteries began firing at the Spanish ship.

Captain Clark (top, center) and his officers on board the Oregon during the Spanish-American War. The ship steamed to Florida in just over two months, proving the United States could produce warships capable of protecting national interests.
Captain Clark (top, center) and his officers on board the Oregon during the Spanish-American War. The ship steamed to Florida in just over two months, proving the United States could produce warships capable of protecting national interests. U.S. NAVAL INSTITUTE PHOTO ARCHIVE. 

The Cristóbal Colón had left Spain in such haste that her main armament was not even fitted into the turrets. She was unable to fire back. With nowhere to go and no way to fight, the Cristóbal Colón struck her colors at 1313 and was scuttled just off the coast. Then, the Oregon turned to take on the last surviving enemy ships.

Knowing he had no chance in a battle, Cervera beached his flagship, followed by the Almirante Oquendo and Vizcaya, which already had been savaged by the Oregon’s 13-inch, 8-inch, and 6-inch guns.

“The Almirante and Vizcaya are simply torn and ripped to pieces,” Reeves continued. “Oregon destroyed them almost alone and most mercilessly. She [the Vizcaya] was afire in a dozen places and three of her magazines blew up.”

The Iowa, joined by the New York and Indiana, chased down and severely damaged the torpedo boat Furor. The Battle of Santiago de Cuba lasted only four hours and left Spain without a fleet to support her army in Cuba. Santiago surrendered on 17 July.

The Oregon, having fought in her first naval engagement, was considered the hero of the day. But this was not the end of her career.

After Emilio Aguinaldo ousted the Spanish from the Philippines and established the First Philippine Republic, the Oregon was sent back to the Pacific to support U.S. troops. In 1900, she was sent to China to support land forces during the Boxer Rebellion. After remaining in the Far East for a year, the Oregon returned to the states for an overhaul at Puget Sound Navy Yard. She was in San Francisco for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition.

The old battlewagon was still afloat when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Then considered an “unclassified” ship, the Oregon was sold for scrap. Yet she still had a role to play. Stripped of the superstructure, the Oregon’s hull served as a munitions barge during the invasion of Guam in 1944.

She was finally scrapped in Japan in 1956, 58 years after her historic race around South America. Ironically, the ship that had shown the urgent need for a passage between the Pacific and Atlantic never steamed through the Panama Canal.

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