By Roger Hare
The U.S.S. West Virginia's creation started with the "Great White Fleet" of Admiral Dewey. The pride of Teddy Roosevelt-the armored cruisers, were cumbersome and slow. Armor of the day was heavy and thick. Used only on the deck, it made for top-heavy vessels, prone to floundering in rough seas. More armor would have resulted in vessels incapable of floating.
The German "Krupp Works" developed light, yet strong armor early in the 20th century. When the secret of this metal was passed to he British, battleship design changed forever. First lord of the Admiralty Jackie Fisher had in mind a new type of vessel that would out-class all others-the H.M.S. Dreadnaught; the first "modern" battleship. The armored cruiser was obsolete.
The first West Virginia was an armored cruiser (ACR-5) and was named after the state that provided the coal for our fleet. Out-dated already when built in 1899, it's design was much as the U.S.S. Maine beforehand. Within six years all of these ships were made obsolete by the British "Dreadnaught". Every country with large navies scrambled to build copies. The armored cruiser was relegated to secondary duties and their names were changed to allow a new fleet to be built. The W.V. became the U.S.S. Huntington. The mountaineer state was to have a new battleship carry her name. The creation would take years.
In 1907, Congress authorized the first generation of big gun battleships. The U.S.S. Mississippi was the first off the drawing board. Armed with a 12" main battery, the "Miss" and subsequent dreadnaughts were recognizable by their "cage" masts. Cages were thought to be strong, yet light, until one crumpled in high winds in the 20s. As older battleships were rebuilt, these wire baskets were replaced with stronger "tri-pod" masts. This is why older ships at Pearl Harbor sported tri-pods, while newer ones (like the WeeVee) still had their old style masts, yet to be replaced.
Our ships were built to similar specifications of range and power as they were to operate in groups over long distances. Original power plants were coal-fired, but later modernization would switch to oil. The "WeeVee" was to have a Babcock and Wilcox oil fired plant.
As W.W.1 approached, our battleship designs changed little, except for better engines and larger guns. We still copied British design, but the naval battle at Jutland in 1916 changed our design strategy. The Germans clash with the British fleet off Denmark's coast showed a weakness in "compartmentalization". Minor hits on English ships resulted in flooding and loss. This event also showed the fallacy of the "battle-cruiser" concept. Battle-cruisers were battleships that sacrificed armor for speed. At Jutland, they blew up in spectacular fashion as minor hits easily penetrated thin hulls to detonate powder magazines. The American navy scrapped plans for battle-cruisers and worked on flood control and compartmentalization for their new generation of battleships-the "Colorado" class.
In 1916, Congress and president Wilson authorized 4 new ships,
almost identical to the previous "Tennessee" class battleships.
Originally to cost 11.5 million each, the final price tag was closer to 25
million. The keel to #48 was laid April 12, 1920 at Newport News shipyard and
work slowly progressed until the Harding administration called for a world-wide
naval disarming conference in Washington D.C. in 1921. This conference decided
limits on Battleship construction for the industrialized nations. The final
formula would have allowed the U.S. to keep the new Colorado and Maryland, but
scrap the unfinished sisters W.V. and Washington. Japan was to have scrapped
their new "Matsu", but they refused, and the conference was threatened
with failure. A last minute change allowed them to keep the Matsu and we could
keep one of the two ships scheduled for destruction. The W.V. was deemed more
complete, so the hull of the Washington was towed off the Virginia coast and
sunk by the U.S.S. Texas. The Washington name was used on a later class of
battleship. Japan had saved the U.S.S. West Virginia from a similar fate!
The W.V. was an all electric ship. Its power plant could supply enough "juice" to supply a small city. Its "compartmentalization" gave it a flood control ability that would save it from the fate f the U.S.S. Oklahoma on December 7th 1941. This latest design also gave it 16" main guns. These large guns were accurate and psychologically devastating. If the first hit didn't kill them, the sight of the neighboring hill disappearing, gave bad guys motivation to run away fast! The 14" shell ranked #2 on the "holy crap" scale of power.
The "general board" of the navy set specifications for our ships. The requirements were vague for "Colorado" battleships. They were to "have as heavy armor and as powerful armament as any vessel of their class". Simply put, the navy wanted the best.
The WeeVee was christened on November 19 1921, using a bottle of champagne donated by the treasury department. Prohibition didn't include battleship launchings. Alice Mann, daughter of the Governor of West Virginia did the honors. Fitting was completed and the W.V. reported for duty December 1 1923. Since it was originally believed the W.V. was to be scrapped before completion, the $2300 raised by West Virginia school children for her official silver set (all battleships had them) was set aside. When the ship was indeed completed, it was discovered this money was missing. A great scandal ensued and the WeeVee had to make due with an old silver set from the old Missouri (BB-11). The U.S.S. West Virginia was the pride of the fleet when built. She led many pre-war navy exercises and her accurate guns won he many excellence awards. Her sister "Colorado" was scheduled for a Bremerton WA rebuild in 1941. Fate had the W.V. take her place in "Battleship Row" at Pearl Harbor. Japan had saved her from the scrap yard, only to pump 9 torpedoes into her port side on December 7th. Her motto was also the same as her home state: "Montari Semper Liberi"-Mountaineers always free.
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