Rime of the Ancient Battleship
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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
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.
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.
Transiting the Panama Canal on a training cruise, 1919.
Battleship Texas is on the right.
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.
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.
Preparing for convoy duty, February 1942. She retains
the old-style “cage” mast.
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
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.
Off the East Coast, en route to war. April 1944.
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.
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 following the first atomic test at
Bikini; watercolor by Arthur Beaumont.
Arkansas appears in
World War at Sea: Bismarck and Great
War at Sea: Jutland.
Send the old tub into battle! Order Great War at Sea: Jutland or Second World War at Sea: Bismarck right now!
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.