BB-30 Florida Class
The construction of these ships was part of an early 20th-century arms race, at the time when global military supremacy was determined by control of the seas. The rise of the battleship as the super weapon of the world's navies had roots in the era of wooden vessels but commenced in earnest with the combat between the USS MONITOR and the CSS VIRGINIA (MERRIMACK) during the American Civil War, though the first true American "battleship" did not slide from the ways until 1895.
The first battleships, of which the famous USS MAINE was one of four, were key in the United States' victory in the Spanish-American War and were in turn followed by other vessels, many built during the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, whose 16-vessel "Great White Fleet" circled the globe in a show of American naval might. Despite the great number of American battleships, new developments in the years just preceding the First World War rendered them obsolete. These developments -- steam turbines, multiple turrets mounting increasingly large-bore rifled guns (from 10- to 12- to 14-inches) and improvements in armor -- made the battleship an even more formidable weapon and the focus of naval arms races.
The United States and other naval powers were alarmed by British plans to construct a new battleship, HMS DREADNOUGHT, that would embody the new developments with 10 12-inch guns and steam turbines driving the ship at 22 knots. Even as the last of Roosevelt's Great White Fleet slid from the ways and embarked on a world tour, plans for new American "dreadnoughts" were on the drawing boards. Named for the first vessel of the new class, the USS FLORIDA, these new battleships mounted multiple 12-inch guns, and with turbines (and unfortunately in some cases with old-fashioned reciprocating steam engines) they proved a match for the European dreadnoughts; in concert with the British they showed their mettle in the First World War.
The Florida class numbered two ships, both built on the east coast. Though generally similar to the preceeding design, the two Florida class battleships were nearly two-thousand tons larger, with rearranged smokestacks and masts, wider beam, and 5"/51 secondary battery guns in place of the earlier 5"/50 type. They also were the first U.S. battleships to have steam turbine propulsion. Both Florida and Utah served in the North Sea during World War I. After that conflict, they were increasingly employed on training and other subsidiary duties, as their armament and other features had by then been thoroughly overshadowed by those of newer U.S. and foreign battleships.
These were to be the first American battleships designed to carry the new powerful 14 inch main battery. Supply problems caused this class and the succeeding Wyoming class to resort to the older 12". The primary difference in this classes cage masts was that the second mast was abaft the second funnel. Range clocks on the masts and deflection scales on the turrets were added in 1918.
Second of the FLORIDA class, the USS UTAH was laid down on March 6, 1909, at the Camden, New Jersey yard of the New York Shipbuilding Co. Completed nine months later, the UTAH was launched on December 23, 1909. Work to prepare the ship for sea took longer, and the UTAH was not placed in commission until 1911. The UTAH statistics were impressive for the "Dreadnought era" -- 21,825 tons that drew approximately 28 feet. Top speed was estimated at 20 knots. The crew consisted of 60 officers and 941 men. Fire power was measured by five gun turrets, armed with two 12-inch guns. Supplementing the main armament were 16 5-inch, 51-caliber guns and two 21-inch submerged torpedo tubes. Armor 12 inches thick surrounded the vital areas of the vessel. After a shakedown cruise south along the coast, into the Gulf and then the Caribbean, the UTAH was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet in March 1912. For the next two years the battleship was assigned to regular duties in the Atlantic Fleet: drilling and engaging in training cruises.
Despite their obsolescence, the Floridas survived the Washington naval limitations treaty "axe" and were modernized in 1925-27. Their coal-fired boilers were replaced with oil-burning models, beam was increased to 106' by the addition of anti-torpedo "blisters", heavier deck armor was added and some of the five-inch guns were relocated to higher positions. As with other modernized battleships, their appearance changed dramatically from two smokestacks and "cage" masts to one of each.
The 1930 London treaty brought their battleship days to a swift end. The London Naval Conference set limits for naval armaments, particularly the number of battleships that a nation could have in its naval arsenal. Florida was decommissioned in 1931 and soon scrapped. The UTAH was one of those condemned as a battleship and was designated to be removed from service in order to comply with the London treaty. In 1934 the ship was saved at the last moment from demolition when Navy officials decided to remove the armament and convert the vessel to an experimental mobile target ship at the Norfolk Navy yard. Utah was "demilitarized" and retained as an auxiliary target ship.
On July 1, 1931, the UTAH was redesignated a miscellaneous auxiliary ship, and the hull was reclassified from BB 31 to AG-16. Conversion took nearly a year, but as a result the UTAH became one of the most sophisticated technical marvels of the period. Certainly the installation of the radio-controlled steering and steaming apparatus bears witness to the scientific advances of the 1930s. The mechanism allowed the UTAH to be controlled from another ship or aircraft. The ship could steam at varying rates of speed, alter course and lay smoke screens. It could maneuver as a ship would during battle. All this was accomplished by electric motors that could open and close throttle valves, position the steering gear and regulate the supply of oil to the boilers in order to generate smoke for laying down screens. This "robot" man-of-war was steadied by a Sperry "metal mike" or gyro pilot in order to keep the ship on course.
Although the UTAH could operate without the touch of human hands, it did have to be monitored. The maximum time for unassisted operations was four hours. In the past it had taken 500 men, including officers and seamen, to operate the vessel. The UTAH broke new ground in the field of remote control, and that groundwork was used for space exploration and guided missiles more than a generation later.
In retrospect, a common misunderstanding about the UTAH is its role and appearance. During those years the ship's role was to duplicate conditions of battle maneuvering that could test the skills of those who were being trained to attack from air or sea. Air attack on the UTAH was not without hazards during remote and manual operation. It has been estimated that dive bombers scored hits 15 percent of the time and high-altitude horizontal bombers about 5 percent. The practice bombs were inert but struck the ship with such velocity and force that it could penetrate the steel decks. In an effort to prevent this damage from occurring, huge wooden timbers were placed on the ship's deck. Needless to say, when the air attack took place, the crew exercised great caution. A majority of the crew found protection within the ship's armor. The spotters sought protection and visibility in the armored conning tower near the bridge.
The UTAH was changed over in August 1935 to an antiaircraft training ship for the Pacific Fleet, a status ultimately more important than the category of mobile target ship. Fleet officials established a machine-gunners' school that month, and trainees came aboard the UTAH from several cruisers and the aircraft carrier RANGER. The skill in particular of the RANGER's gunners was hailed by the Commander Aircraft Pacific Fleet Battle Force. Thus the UTAH embarked on a new phase of training that would occupy the remaining years of the ship's life until its demise in December 1941.
Notable among the experimental achievements was the development of a reliable fire-control system for 50-caliber machine guns for shipboard antiaircraft systems. This system would later be integrated in the use of the 1.1-inch antiaircraft gun. That same type of weapon was slated to be installed on board the ARIZONA in mid-December 1941.
In the later 1930s, with the treaty system all but swept away by a worsening World political situation, she was given some five-inch and smaller guns, allowing her to serve as an anti-aircraft gunnery training ship while retaining the target mission. In April 1940, the UTAH proceeded up the coast from San Pedro, California to Puget Sound for installation of a 5-inch 25-gun battery, considered by many as the best antiaircraft weapon in existence.
Armament was further increased in 1941 to enhance her utility for training. The UTAH entered the docks on May 31, 1941. For nearly three months the ship underwent massive changes to the shipboard training armament. Two turreted 5-inch 38-caliber guns were placed on top of the original 12-inch gun turrets, Nos. 4 and 5. An advanced gun director was secured to the top of gun turret No. 5. Amidships were placed two 5-inch 38-caliber guns on the port side and two on the starboard side. In order to fill the antiaircraft armament gap between the 5-inch batteries and 50-caliber machine guns, the Navy installed experimental, advanced 20mm automatic antiaircraft weapons. The testing and the proficiency with these guns enabled the Pacific Fleet to prepare for a war that appeared to loom even closer as the summer of 1941 wore on.
Her additional service was brief. On 7 December 1941 Utah was torpedoed and sunk by Japanese aircraft in the opening moments of the Pearl Harbor raid. Thirty officers and 431 men survived the loss of the ship. At best estimates, six officers and 52 enlisted men were lost, some trapped aboard ship, others cut down by strafing aircraft.
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