Monday, October 12, 2009

Tales of two tragic ships

USS Arizona BB 39

USS Maine ACR 1

Arizona's anchor in Wesley Bolin Plaza, Phoenix

Last week I was in Phoenix, Arizona and had meetings in the State Capitol where there is a small museum dedicated to the USS Arizona which I have mentioned before.  What I hadn't seen before was one of the 16,000lb anchors from the Arizona on display in the centre of the city.

The USS Arizona was the last of the Pennsylvania class battleships built and was launched at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on June 19th 1915. Unlike other America ships she was not sent to Europe during the latter years of the Great War as she used fuel oil, rather than coal power, and there was a shortage of this in Britain at the time.

The Arizona in Cuba 1920

During the 1920s and 30s she alternated between the Caribbean and the Pacific, operating out of Guantanamo Bay and San Pedro, California. In 1934 she was involved in an incident when she ran down the 52' fishing boat Umatilla killing two of the nine crew. The Captain of the Arizona, Capt. Macgillivray Milne (1882-1959), was held responsible for the incident at an enquiry and ended his career as commander of the US Navy coaling station in Samoa. He would never command a ship again.

Left to right, Director of Here Comes the Navy Lloyd Bacon, actors Pat O'Brien, Gloria Stewart, Capt. Macgillivray Milne, actors James Cagney and Frank McHugh photographed on board the Arizona in 1934.

Milne had been the Captain of the Arizona when she was used extensively as a location for the 1934 film Here Comes the Navy starring James Cagney. Filming was done at San Diego Naval Station which was where the Pacific Fleet was based before being moved out to Pearl Harbor shortly after filming finished. The film even includes footage of the Arizona firing her 14" guns on manoeuvres at sea, filmed from the US Navy dirigible USS Macon (which also features in the film), which crashed with the loss of two lives a year later, putting an end to the Navy's rigid airship programme.Justify Full

USS Arizona was moored in Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7th 1941 when an 800kg bomb (actually a modified artillery shell) dropped by a Nakajima B5N2 plane off the aircraft carrier Hiryū piloted by Tadashi Kusumi (who was later killed at the Battle of Midway) detonated between the front two turrets of the ship. The bomb detonated a supply of black powder and the secondary explosion caused the forward magazine to explode. 1,177 men of the 1,400 crew of the Arizona died; nearly half of the 2,350 people who were killed at Pearl Harbor.

Justify Full

One of the monuments at Arlington Cemetery is to the USS Maine a pre-dreadnought armoured cruiser that exploded and sank on February 15th 1898 whilst at anchor in Havana harbour.

Launching of the USS Maine 1889

The Maine, like the Arizona, was built at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and was launched on 18th November 1889 by Secretary of Navy Benjamin Tracy and his granddaughter Alice Wilmerding. She was an unusual ship in that her main gun turrets were mounted in echelon rather than in-line, a development in naval archticture that didn't catch on due to the inability of the vessel to deliver a broadside with both turrets.

The sinking of the Maine became a rallying call for many and it certainly was a contributing factor to the Spanish-American war that followed. However, there is controversy about what actually caused the explosion that sank the ship.

The direct cause was an explosion of the forward six inch shell magazines but what preciptated the explosion is still being argued about. The general feeling at the time was that it had been caused by a mine but whether this was accidental, deliberately placed by the Spanish authorities or was, essentially, a terrorist attack without state sponsorship is unclear.

This is the only known photograph of the Maine exploding taken by a young Spanish sailor and then kept in his album for a hundred years. The ship's mast can be clearly seen

In 1976 Admiral Hyman G. Rickover launched his own enquiry and came out on the side of a theory that had been around since the sinking that the explosion was an accident caused by a fire in the coal bunkers which heated the magazines to the point of explosion.

USS Maine enters Havana Harbour in January 1898

A later investigation commisioned by National Geographic magazine and using computer modelling for the first time decided that the mine theory was most likely. Neither side will back down.

The Maine during her salvage

What is certain is that 274 men died immediately or shortly afterwards and only 89 survived.

Most are buried at Arlington, as shown in this photograph, where the monument to them includes the mast of the USS Maine. This was recovered from the vessel when it was raised in 1912 before being towed out to sea and scuttled in deep water.

The monument was designed by Washington architect Nathan C Wyeth and was dedicated in 1913. The anchor alongside the monument was actually placed on the site, adjacent to the Maine burials, before the main monument was build. It is not an actual anchor from the Maine but was taken off a similar vessel.

The story of the Maine is not as well known in the UK as the Arizona but it was strange that on subsequent days I saw memorials to both on opposite sides of the country.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting posts of late, LH. How did you find the Opus One?

    Best wishes