18 March 2011

USS OREGON (BB 3) – A Remarkable Voyage


This Saturday (19 March) marks the 113th anniversary of the beginning of what would become one of the most historic and epic voyages ever to be undertaken by a U.S. Navy warship. It was a journey that would test the resolve and determination of every Sailor on board and mark the time when our “New Navy” would begin its legitimate rise as a global naval power.
In early 1898, tensions between the United States and Spain were high as Spanish-controlled Cuba was in the midst of a bloody revolution. President McKinley deployed the USS MAINE to Havana harbor as show of concern for the violent demonstrations that had swept Havana and to evacuate Americans should the need arise.
On the evening of 15 February 1898 the MAINE suddenly erupted into a massive explosion and rapidly sank to the bottom of the harbor, taking 260 of her crew with her. Although the cause of the explosion has never been determined (there are several theories), the event was enough to push an enraged American public over the edge and serve as a catalyst (but not the primary reason) for the war with Spain.
As war with Spain was imminent, the USS OREGON (BB 3) was ordered from the west coast of the United States to Jupiter Inlet, Florida where she would join Admiral William T. Sampson’s fleet in the Atlantic. The Panama Canal did not exist at the time so the shortest route by sea would be down the west coast of the United States, past Central and South America, through the straits of Magellan, and then back up the coastline to her destination in Florida. It was an arduous 14,000+ mile journey that was certain to be fraught with great challenges.
Shortly before she was to sail, OREGON’s commanding officer became ill and was replaced by CAPT Charles Clark of the monitor USS MONTEREY. CAPT Clark took command of OREGON and on 19 March 1898, with a shortage of 94 men in the crew of 473, got underway from San Francisco and set a course of due south for Callao, Peru, her first coaling stop.
The Chief Engineer of the ship, Robert W. Milligan, informed CAPT Clark the supply of fresh water was not adequate to feed the boilers and the crew…there would have to be some tough decisions. Using seawater in the boilers would cause them to operate less efficiently and thus add time to an already long and critical journey – an unacceptable outcome. The alternative, according to Chief Milligan, was to save the fresh, cool water for the boilers and supply the crew with the warm feed water from the boilers. CAPT Clark called his crew together, informed them of the situation and the CHENG’s recommendation and found them all to be overwhelmingly supportive of the idea – a true commitment to the mission!
OREGON made it to Callao, Peru on 4 April, to replenish coal and supplies. While in Peru she learned that the TEMERARIO, a Spanish torpedo boat, was in the general vicinity but her precise whereabouts and intentions were unknown. At this point, the United States and Spain were on the verge of war and CAPT Clark instructed his crew to be extra vigilant during their watches as they set out from Callao. While at sea, there was no way of knowing if war had indeed broken out, so every encounter with a foreign vessel – especially Spanish ships – needed to be treated with the utmost caution.
OREGON proceeded to her next destination of Rio de Janeiro which took her through the treacherous Straits of Magellan where, with Murphy’s Law in full effect, she encountered an incredible gale that threatened to run her aground. CAPT Clark dropped anchors until the gale passed and on 16 April began navigating the Straits. After a few days that included a brief stop in Punta Arenas, she had cleared the Straits, made it to the Atlantic, and was making best speed to her destination in Florida.
OREGON finally reached Rio de Janeiro on 30 April where CAPT Clark would have several exchanges with Washington which finally culminated with his message "Don't hamper me with instructions. I am not afraid, with this ship, of the whole Spanish fleet." To understand and appreciate CAPT Clark’s message, it’s important to understand the environment back in the States. The United States had declared war on Spain and news had just broken of Admiral Dewey’s decisive victory at Manila Bay. Needless to say, there was much excitement in the air. The press corps and American public had learned of OREGON’s mission and had started following every update with great interest. In the wake of the MAINE, OREGON had become a symbol of resilience and power to the American public. And while OREGON’s crew welcomed the news of Manila Bay, CAPT Clark needed to keep them focused on executing their mission. The messages from Washington were only causing confusion and risked leaking his location and orders to Spanish spies.
So on 4 May, OREGON weighed anchor and steamed out of Rio de Janeiro with her guns manned in the event she encountered any Spanish ships. After a brief stop in Bahia, Brazil she arrived in Bridgetown, Barbados for a final resupply of coal. While in Bridgetown, the American Consul (unlawfully) transmitted a cable to Washington informing HQ that OREGON had arrived. This transmission (a major OPSEC breakdown) turned out to be a significant issue as Barbados was a neutral country and was thus required by law to permit the Spanish Consul to transmit a similar message of their own. As you can expect, CAPT Clark was greatly concerned, as he anticipated the Spanish Consul would certainly inform their government of his presence in port. OREGON got underway that evening and left port on a course fully illuminated to make her direction apparent to anyone watching. As she approached the horizon, CAPT Clark ordered her lights extinguished and abruptly changed course under the cover of darkness.
On 24 May 1898, CAPT Clark and the crew of USS OREGON steamed into Jupiter Inlet, Florida and completed the final leg of one of the most challenging voyages ever undertaken by a warship. She had completed the 14,000+ mile journey in just 66 days – a remarkable feat! For the entire journey, the “black gang” below decks worked non-stop around the clock feeding her voracious boilers with ten tons of coal per hour, with the only tools they had – two hands and a shovel!
Furthermore, throughout the entire journey, CAPT Clark, on the advice of his experienced and well-trained CHENG, had preserved his best coal, Welsh anthracite, for use in battle. OREGON arrived on station, with all engines steaming, completely combat ready. She had certainly earned her nickname “McKinley’s Bulldog” and set standards for professional competence, engineering excellence and dedication to duty that we follow today.
In July, we’ll take a look at the Battle of Santiago during which OREGON delivered the decisive blow to Admiral Cervera’s fleet.
All the best, JCHjr


Anonymous said...

Thank you, Admiral!
Great story looking forward to the followup.
Your mentioning of having to use feed water to take a shower brings back memories of Westpac circa 1960s.

YN2(SW) G said...

"I represent the fighting spirit of the Navy, and those who have gone before me..."


Wharf Rat said...

Very good Story, but you missed another great anniversary of another story of similar fighting men - USS Franklin CV 13 was hit in Japanese waters on 19 March 1945. That is a historic fight to save the ship.

I've got pictures on my blog posted of the explosion, list, and underway. 724 men remain on deployment due to this action - an incredible casualty rate. So many lives....but so many hero's who saved this ship. http://wharfratshome.blogspot.com/