Rime of the Ancient Battleship
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2019

When Britain launched the first Dreadnought in 1906, she carried the 12-inch main battery that was the standard heavy caliber of almost all of the world’s navies. Over the years that followed, the United States built eight ships carrying them, but after the Washington and London Naval Treaties forced the wholesale scrapping of older battleships, only one remained.

Arkansas had been laid down in 1910 at New York Shipbuilding’s yard in Camden, New Jersey. She and her sister Wyoming were an enlarged version of the preceding Delaware and Florida classes, carrying a dozen 12-inch guns where the previous ships had 10. Many within the Navy were disappointed in Arkansas and Wyoming, having hoped to build ships with 14-inch guns; the rejected design would become the New York class in the next fiscal year. At 26,000 tons, Arkansas was much larger than the preceding classes.

Gunnery practice, sometime prior to the Great War.

As partial compensation, Arkansas carried a new model 50-calibre 12-inch gun. Like other battleships of the day, she had a pair of torpedo tubes below the waterline. This was the first design influenced by the lessons of the 1907-1908 around-the-world cruise of the “Great White Fleet.” Thus Arkansas was flush-decked, unlike previous American dreadnoughts which had lower decks aft. This allowed the secondary battery of 21 5-inch guns (10 per side, with one more positioned dead astern) to be carried four feet higher than in previous classes. The world cruise had demonstrated that American battleships were much too wet, and their secondary guns could not be operated in heavy seas. The secondary guns also had armored casemates; in the first six American dreadnoughts, the secondary guns had been placed in open mounts. Like other American battleships, she burned coal.

Commissioned in 1912, Arkansas became President William Howard Taft’s personal yacht for a time, taking the fattest president in American history on jaunts to Panama and Florida. Her captain and crew parlayed that connection into another prime posting, with Arkansas becoming Atlantic Fleet flagship soon afterwards.

In 1914, Arkansas and the other Atlantic Fleet battleships participated in one of the darkest chapters of American naval history, the bombardment of the Mexican port of Veracruz. A battalion of armed Arkansas sailors participated in the street fighting; two were killed in action and one, Lt. (j.g.) Jonas H. Ingram, was awarded the Medal of Honor.

Transiting the Panama Canal on a training cruise, 1919. Battleship Texas is on the right.

The United States entered the First World War in April 1917, but Arkansas spent the first year of the war on training duties. In July 1918 she went to Scapa Flow north of Scotland to join the Sixth Battle Squadron, the American component of the Grand Fleet. Operating with the British for the remainder of the war, she and the rest of her squadron left European waters in December 1918.

In the years that followed, Arkansas usually trained midshipmen, taking them on cruises to Europe and the Pacific. After the 1925 Naval Academy cruise to the West Coast, she went to Philadelphia Navy Yard for extensive rebuilding. She received four new oil-fired boilers originally intended for ships of the cancelled South Dakota class, much more compact than her older machinery and thus creating space to fit better torpedo protection. New bulges also helped protect against torpedoes, but also reduced her already-unimpressive speed.

Preparing for convoy duty, February 1942. She retains the old-style “cage” mast.

Thicker armor was laid on her deck, over her magazines, and on her turrets. The two torpedo tubes were removed at the same time. She also lost five of her five-inch guns, with the remainder being re-sited even higher to reduce wetness. Experience steaming in the stormy North Sea showed that even the increased freeboard of Arkansas compared to the earlier American dreadnoughts was not enough.

The rebuilt Arkansas resumed the same duties, carrying midshipmen on cruises throughout the rest of the 1920s and 1930s, and conducting exercises with the Atlantic Fleet. The outbreak of a new war in Europe changed the pace of operations, and while the Naval Academy cruises continued, Arkansas also trained groups of Naval Reservists. Her well-trained crew also made her the first choice when President Roosevelt extended American neutrality patrols into the Atlantic, and she escorted a brigade of Marines to Iceland in the summer of 1941.

Off the East Coast, en route to war. April 1944.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, Arkansas alternated convoy escort and midshipman training cruises. In the summer of 1942 she received a new, modern foremast to replace her outdated “cage” arrangement. She escorted one of the invasion convoys for Operation Torch in November 1942, but did not take part in the bombardments of Morocco. Not until the summer of 1944 was the ancient battleship sent into combat, as part of the bombardment force for the Normandy landings. Arkansas received an upgrade to her anti-aircraft armament, adding numerous 40mm and 20mm weapons at the expense of several of her remaining 5-inch guns. She supported the landing on Omaha Beach and the siege of Cherbourg, before shifting to the Mediterranean to provide the same service for the landings in southern France.

Despite her great age and steadily eroding speed, Arkansas was sent to the Pacific to help support the landings on Iwo Jima in February 1945. Several of the other older battleships had worn out the barrels of their main armament in fire support missions; the relatively untouched 12-inch guns of Arkansas still had considerable service life ahead of them. So while Navy bureaucrats weighed the cost-effectiveness of re-lining the guns of aging ships like Texas and New York, Arkansas lumbered into action. She also shelled Okinawa, fighting off several kamikaze attacks but suffering no damage.

Arkansas following the first atomic test at Bikini; watercolor by Arthur Beaumont.

There could be no question of retaining Arkansas in the post-war fleet, and after several trips moving troops from Okinawa back home to the United States, she joined the fleet of targets moored at Bikini Atoll for atomic testing. She sank there in July 1946, where her radioactive hulk remains.

Arkansas appears in Great War at Sea: Jutland.

Click here to order Jutland right now.


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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.