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The United States Navy

The two most striking features of the modern United States Navy are the strength and power of the battleships and the number of destroyers and submarines


The Arkansas, built in 1910-12, has a standard displacement of 26,100 tons

THE LATTICE MASTS, at one time such a distinctive feature of United States battleships, have been replaced by tripod masts, of the British type, in the more recent battleships. The Arkansas, built in 1910-12, has a standard displacement of 26,100 tons and a speed of 21 knots. She has an overall length of 562 feet, a beam of 106 feet and mean draught of 26 feet. This photograph was taken before extensive alterations were made to the Arkansas in 1925-27, when one funnel was removed.

MANY people in Great Britain would be surprised to learn that the United States Navy has been in existence for over 160 years. Most of us are accustomed to regard the great English-speaking commonwealth across the Atlantic as a comparative newcomer into the family of nations, and its institutions as youthful or, at best, adolescent. Yet the thirteen original United States had national aspirations before the Declaration of Independence in 1776, the year that witnessed also the birth of the United States Navy.

Although this new fighting force was called into being to wage war against Great Britain, it was closely modelled on the British Navy in its organization, customs and discipline, and of its original personnel probably ninety-five per cent were of pure British extraction. To these factors may have been due the astonishing efficiency which was displayed by the unfledged navy.

Several of its ships proved more than able to hold their own in action with veterans of the British fleet, and it is on the hard-fought encounters of the Revolutionary War and the subsequent Anglo-American conflict of 1812 that the earliest traditions of the American Navy are founded. But a century and a quarter of peace between the two nations has removed all trace of ill-feeling on this score. No modern British sailor grudges his American cousins the laurels gained in those wars of long ago, when the young republic obeyed its inherited instinct to assert its power on the sea and did so with surprising efficiency.

Yet the naval operations of these two wars were mere side-shows, which left no deep impression on the mass of Americans and certainly did not fire them with the ambition to become a great naval power. Thus, for the next fifty years the national navy languished in neglect, and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 found it wholly inadequate to cope with the situation.

It is the considered verdict of all historians that had the Federal Government owned a naval force of sufficient strength to establish from the outset even a moderately effective blockade of the Southern coast-line, the war would have ended in eighteen months at the latest, instead of dragging on for well over four years and inflicting untold misery and hardship on victor and vanquished alike. As it was, the North had to improvise the sea power which eventually imposed a stranglehold on the Confederacy and led more or less directly to its military collapse.

When the Civil War ended the United States Navy had become exceedingly formidable, alike in the number and quality of its ships and in the proficiency of its war-hardened personnel; but since its operations had been confined in the main to coastal waters and rivers, it was deficient in the ocean-going ironclads of the type then included in the leading European navies.

The position, therefore, was that the United States could, had it wished, have developed from its existing resources a really powerful battle fleet, equal if not superior in quality to that of any afloat. But the country was weary of war and, instead of developing the improvised armaments at its disposal, it turned to the more congenial and eminently Anglo-Saxon task of beating the swords into ploughshares and repairing the ravages of four years of fratricidal conflict.

For the next twenty years the navy led a hand-to-mouth existence, and rapidly dwindled to a small collection of obsolete ships scarcely capable of anything more serious than police work. Early in the year 1880 America’s only armoured vessels were the monitors which had been built or laid down during the Civil War. These low-freeboard turret ships, designed by the Swedish-American engineer Ericsson, were the progenitors of the modern Dreadnought.

Not until 1883 was a beginning made with the building of steel ships, and several more years elapsed before the first genuine battleship, the Texas, was laid down from designs furnished by a British naval architect. From then onwards a fairly methodical shipbuilding policy was pursued. When the war with Spain broke out in 1898 the United States had a small but well-balanced fleet, consisting chiefly of up-to-date ships. The decisive naval victories gained at Manila and Santiago, and the subsequent acquisition of Spain’s former territories in the West Indies and the Pacific, not only exalted the naval prestige of the United States, but also, by making her a colonial power, forced upon her new responsibilities which rendered the maintenance of a first-class navy indispensable.

The father of the modern American Navy was without doubt the late Theodore Roosevelt. During his term as President large shipbuilding programmes were undertaken.

It is unnecessary here to recapitulate the services performed by the United States Navy after April 1917, when America entered the war of 1914-18, but it is pleasant to recall the extremely cordial relations which existed between the British and American naval forces during those stern times —relations which happily still survive. A squadron of American battleships joined the Grand Fleet and served under Admiral Beatty and at Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland, a large force of American destroyers operated under the orders of another British admiral, Sir Lewis Bayly. American minelayers and other war ships worked side by side with British units in the North Sea laying the famous Northern Barrage, and the two navies were closely associated in almost every theatre of war.

The Washington Conference

In the United States itself a colossal programme of shipbuilding was launched, including over 200 destroyers and though the war ended when but few of the new vessels were ready for action, the immediate post-war years found the United States with so much new fighting tonnage on the stocks that the completion of all this material would have made the American Navy equal, if not superior, to the British.

At this juncture, however, certain economic and political factors came into play, and eventually led to the summoning of the Washington Conference, from which emerged in 1922 the famous agreement for the limitation of naval armaments. By this compact the British Empire and the United States were placed on an equal footing in naval strength, and Japan, France and Italy were allotted lower ratios of fighting tonnage. So far as Great Britain and America are concerned, the principle of “parity” then established still holds good and, although the original agreement was due to lapse at the end of 1936 it is well understood that naval rivalry between the two countries is definitely and permanently eliminated.

In 1932, for the first time in American history, legislation was introduced which automatically effected the timely replacement of obsolete ships of the American Navy. A certain standard of strength is to be achieved by 1942, and thereafter maintained by such new construction as may be necessary to replace ships of every type as they approach the age limit. This far-reaching measure, known as the Vinson-Trammell Act, attracted little notice abroad, but it is unquestionably a landmark in American history. Its immediate result may be seen in the American Navy Estimates for 1936, which amount to no less than £106,000,000 — a record figure for peacetime — and in the 1936 building programme, which included eighty-one fighting ships of various types.

It is abundantly clear that the United States are firmly resolved to implement the policy of building and maintaining a navy “second to none”.

The Detroit is one of the ten vessels of the Omaha type

A LIGHT CRUISER of 7,050 tons displacement, the Detroit is one of the ten vessels of the Omaha type completed in 1923- 25. These cruisers have an overall length of 555 ft. 6 in., a beam of 55 ft. 4 in. and a maximum draught of 14 ft. 4 in. The Detroit is armed with ten 6-in. four 3-in. anti-aircraft, and two smaller guns. There are six 21-in. torpedo tubes. Her speed is nearly 35 knots.

The United States Navy, of which the President is Commander-in-Chief, is administered from Washington by the Navy Department, a body organized on somewhat similar lines to the British Admiralty with a civilian head and a naval officer (Chief of Naval Operations) who exercises the functions of a First Sea Lord. All executive and engineer officers graduate from the Naval College at Annapolis, Maryland, which is a more elaborate edition of the British institution at Dartmouth. Whereas, however, the British naval cadet enters Dartmouth in his thirteenth year, candidates for Annapolis are on the average at least four years older. The entrance age for seamen is also higher than in the British Navy, and the period of first enlistment is five years, instead of twelve as is common in the British Navy. Differences in national temperament are reflected in the outward manifestations of discipline in the two services. If to a British observer the routine on board an American man-of-war may seem rather casual, it would be a great mistake to conclude that the United States Navy is deficient in any of the fundamental elements of discipline. Team work is the guiding principle of the service, and the competitive spirit between individual ships and squadrons is sometimes carried to lengths which recall the bygone days of sail in the British Navy, when the fiercest inter-ship rivalry was displayed in sail drill and other evolutions.

In 1936 the United States Navy had a personnel, including Marines, of 17,000 officers and over 110,000 men, a figure well in excess of the British total. The material built and building included fifteen battleships, thirty-eight cruisers, seven aircraft carriers, 266 flotilla leaders and destroyers, and 100 submarines. American naval construction has always borne the stamp of originality, owing little to foreign influences. It is claimed, apparently with justice, that the American Navy was the first to adopt the system of mounting all the big-gun turrets of a ship on the centre line, thus enabling the whole main armament to be discharged on either broadside. The American Navy was responsible also for such innovations as oil fuel in place of coal electric drive for big ships, and the equipment of battleships and cruisers with multiple aircraft.

American ships are as a rule more heavily armed than British ships of corresponding size, a practice which has been consistently adhered to from the earliest days of the United States Navy. The principal details of the fifteen American battleships will be found in the table below.

List of United States battleships in 1936

In spite of the difference in the calibre of their main armament, the ships from the Colorado to the Arizona (in the table) are almost uniform in design, and therefore comprise the most homogeneous and possibly the most formidable group of battleships afloat. A feature that does not appear in the table is the extremely efficient system of underwater protection in the later ships.

What these vessels could stand in the way of punishment was indicated by experiments with a sister of the Colorado, the Washington, which had to be discarded by international treaty. This vessel remained afloat after a series of heavy explosive charges, corresponding to the most powerful torpedoes and air bombs, had been detonated against her hull below the water-line. In the end it took several salvos of armour-piercing shell fired into her at short range to send her to the bottom. As has been explained by one of the foremost American naval officers of the day these experiments convinced American naval opinion that the modern battleship is less vulnerable to aerial and under-water attack than her critics believe her to be.

“All or Nothing” Principle

Nine of the U.S. battleships have triple mountings for their big guns, a system which the British Navy was slow to adopt but eventually incorporated in the Nelson and the Rodney. It has the advantage of saving weight and simplifying fire control and is likely to be adhered to in future construction.

Despite their age, the Oklahoma and the Nevada are two of the most interesting ships in the fleet, inaugurating as they did a new departure in battleship design. They were planned on the so-called “all or nothing” principle, meaning that while every vital part was protected by the heaviest armour possible, other sections of the ship, where a hit was not likely to have disastrous results, were left bare. Hitherto naval designers had tried to effect a compromise by working heavy armour over vital parts and thinner plating elsewhere. Experiments conducted by the American Navy, however, proved that armour plate below a certain thickness was more dangerous than none at all, since it served merely to detonate shells which otherwise would probably have passed through without exploding. The “all-or-nothing” system was applied to the British vessels Nelson and Rodney. As no ship armoured on this principle has ever yet been tested in action, it is impossible to say whether the new system is superior to the old.

All but three or four of the fifteen U.S. battleships have been thoroughly rebuilt and modernized in recent years at an average cost of £2,000,000 a ship. This process has included the provision of anti-torpedo bulges, extra armouring, increased elevation for the big guns to endow them with longer range, and in some ships an entirely new set of propelling machinery. Further, every vessel has been equipped with eight 5-in. anti-aircraft guns, the heaviest armament of this type mounted in any battleships other than those of the Japanese Navy. Provision is made also for carrying at least three aircraft.

The Salt Lake City is a sister ship to the Pensacola

A HEAVY CRUISER with a displacement of 9,100 tons, the Salt Lake City is a sister ship to the Pensacola, illustrated below. Built in 1929, the Salt Lake City has a length of 570 feet between perpendiculars a beam of 65 ft. 3 in. and a mean draught of 17 ft. 5 in. Four sets of geared turbines housed in two engine-rooms, give the cruiser a speed of nearly 33 knots

The American Navy has been the pioneer in adapting air power to naval purposes and in furnishing ships with the most efficient means of defence against air attack. One interesting item of battleship modernization in America has been the fitting of tripod masts of British type in place of the ungainly lattice or cage structures which were for many years a conspicuous feature of United States capital ships. The cage mast was introduced in the belief that it could not be destroyed by shell fire, but experience proved it to be unsuitable for fire-control purposes, as the elastic structure developed a serious degree of “back lash” under the concussion of the ship’s own guns.

Thanks to the excellence of their original design and the completeness with which they have been modernized, the fifteen American ships constitute a battle force inferior to none in existence. On a purely technical comparison the British battle fleet may appear to possess an advantage by reason of the heavier calibre of its guns, but in fact the difference is slight, and fully compensated by the superior volume of fire which the American force, with its more numerous guns in each ship, is able to develop.

Until comparatively lately the building of cruisers had been neglected in America, so that the navy lacked balance. It became, as it were, an inverted pyramid, top-heavy with battleships and having scarcely anything between these mastodons and torpedo craft. So pronounced was the shortage that destroyers had to be used as scouts, a function for which they are ill-suited. This deficiency is now a thing of the past. Since 1928 cruiser construction has been proceeding on a large scale, and when the present programme is completed a few years hence the United States will have a force of cruisers unsurpassed by any other navy’s.

Up to 1936 twenty-seven ships have been built or laid down, ranging in size from 9,000 to 10,000 tons, and divided into two groups. The first group contains eighteen ships similar in design, with a speed of nearly 33 knots and a main armament of nine 8-in guns, though the Pensacola and the Salt Lake City mount ten of these guns. In most instances eight 5-in. anti-aircraft guns are carried, and the equipment includes four to six aircraft. The later vessels differ from their predecessors in having robust armour protection. In the second group are nine ships of 10,000 tons and 33 knots speed, mounting the impressive armament of fifteen 6-in. guns in triple turrets. As this terrific broadside can be discharged at least six times a minute, the volume of fire developed will far exceed that of any previous cruising ship.

SEAPLANES CARRIED ON BOARD the United States cruiser Pensacola

SEAPLANES CARRIED ON BOARD the United States cruiser Pensacola are housed between the two funnels. The Pensacola carries four seaplanes and is equipped with two catapults. Her armament includes ten 8-in., four 5-in. anti-aircraft and two 3-pounder guns, in addition to six 21-in torpedo tubes. Identical in dimensions to the Salt Lake City illustrated above, the Pensacola has an overall length of 585 ft. 6 in.

Besides the twenty-seven new vessels mentioned above there are ten older but still effective cruisers which were launched in 1923-25. They are sister ships of 7,050 tons, with a speed of 34 knots, mounting ten or twelve 6-in. guns. Altogether, therefore, the U.S. Navy has thirty-seven modern cruisers built and building, and it is proposed eventually to raise this total to fifty.

If the British Navy can claim the distinction of having built the first aircraft carrier, America has had her full share in the later development of this type of vessel. In the Lexington and the Saratoga she has two carriers which are unique in size, speed and aircraft capacity. Laid down in 1920 as battle cruisers, they were shortly afterwards redesigned as carriers, in which role they have proved most successful. Either ship displaces about 33,000 tons, and is propelled by turbo-electric drive at a

speed of nearly 34 knots. The full capacity of the Lexington is ninety aircraft and that of the Saratoga seventy-nine, but it would clearly be impossible to operate anything approaching this number of machines simultaneously. The flight deck is 880 feet long. 85 to 90 feet in width, and 60 feet above the water-line. All the boiler uptakes are led into a single enormous funnel casing which is placed on the extreme starboard side of the ship, where the bridges and gun turrets also are situated. The main armament consists of eight 8-in. guns, supplemented by twelve 5-in. anti-aircraft and four smaller guns.

The drawback of these magnificent ships is the enormous target they offer to every form of attack, not least to air bombardment. Moreover, each cost more than £9,000,000, a figure calculated to stagger the taxpayers of even the wealthiest country. For these reasons the two carriers of the Lexington type are never likely to be repeated. A new carrier, the Ranger, of 14.500 tons, with a speed of 29¼ knots and a capacity for seventy-five machines, was completed in 1934. Three more, the Yorktown, Enterprise and Wasp, were laid down in 1934-36, the first two ships being of 19,900 tons and the third of 14,700 tons.

Even to-day the U.S. Navy controls by far the largest sea-going air force in the world, and when the new carriers and other ships are in service it will be able to take to sea as many as 600 aircraft, with more than twice that number operating from shore bases. Reference is made above to the large programme of destroyer construction on which the United States embarked during the war of 1914-18. No fewer than 267 boats were ordered, and although many contracts were cancelled after the Armistice, the great majority of these boats were completed. Known as the “flush deck” class, they average 1,190 tons, with a designed speed of 35 knots and an armament of four 4-in. guns and twelve torpedo tubes. Many of these destroyers are still in service, but they are gradually being replaced by new vessels.

Strategic Effect of Panama Canal

Between 1932 and 1936 seventy-three destroyers were built or authorized, the smallest displacing 1,500 tons and the largest 1,850 tons, with an armament of 5-in. guns. As in all modern American men-of-war, the living quarters for officers and men are remarkably roomy and well-equipped. An innovation in this class of vessel is the provision of a special lower-deck mess in the stern, distinct from the forecastle where the men sling their hammocks.

The American Navy has always been partial to submarines. The total completed and under construction during 1936 was 106. The majority of these, however, were old boats laid down during or immediately after the war. Among the newer boats are two of the largest in the world, the Nautilus and Narwhal, whose tonnage when submerged is 3,960. Their armament is two 6-in. guns and six torpedo tubes. The American Navy has always observed a certain secrecy about its submarines and to this day withholds the speed of these craft.

In modern times the development of' the American Navy has been largely influenced by the geographical factors which invariably determine national strategy. Before the opening of the Panama Canal, American warships in the Atlantic could reach the Pacific only by rounding Cape Horn, the voyage from New York to San Francisco involving a run of 13,300 miles. While these conditions prevailed the United States found it expedient to maintain separate fleets in the Atlantic and the Pacific, because in an emergency it would have been impossible to effect a concentration for several weeks.

This division of force made the United States Navy weak at all points, though it derived a certain security from the great ocean distances which separate North America from Europe on the one hand and from Asia on the other. The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, however, completely altered and simplified the strategic picture. The sea route from New York to California was cut from 13,300 miles to 5,260, which meant that fast ships could be transferred from one ocean to the other at comparatively short notice.

the United States screw sloop Ranger

A STATE TRAINING SHIP built at Chester, Delaware County, Pa, in 1876, as the United States screw sloop Ranger. She was armed with one 11-in. and two 9-in. muzzle-loaders, as well as with one 60-pounder. She had a tonnage of about 1,000 and a speed of 10.4 knots. She was extensively repaired in 1881 and in 1909 replaced the wooden sloop Enterprise as the Massachusetts Nautical School Ship. In 1918 she was given the name Nantucket.

In these circumstances sound strategy dictated the formation of a single battle fleet to be stationed either in the Atlantic or the Pacific, and after some years of hesitation the American authorities decided to adopt this course. The Pacific was chosen as the normal cruising and practice ground for the newly constituted “United States Fleet”, which is now based on the Pacific coast, with its headquarters at San Francisco and subsidiary bases at San Diego (California), San Pedro (California), Bremerton (Washington) and Hawaii, 2,100 miles south-west of San Francisco.

From time to time the fleet visits the Atlantic for short periods, but that ocean is for the greater part of the year denuded of warships other than small local flotillas. Without unduly stressing the inferences suggested by this fact, it does seem to indicate that the United States does not regard the Atlantic as a potential danger zone, as it might become if the balance of naval power in Europe were upset by a sudden collapse of British naval strength.

Despite the increased mobility conferred upon it by the Panama Canal, the United States Navy, as with the British is essentially an oceanic force which has to visualize the possibility of waging a campaign in areas remote from its home bases. This serves to explain why American naval officers have always preferred their ships to be of large dimensions and endowed with the greatest possible radius of action. Ship for ship, American men-of-war carry more fuel and stores than the vessels of other navies, not excluding the British. Both the current shipbuilding pro gramme and the system of administration and supply now in force are designed to make the United States Fleet a self-contained unit which could remain at sea in a state of full efficiency and be entirely independent of shore bases for weeks, if not months, at a stretch.

The officers of the United States Navy arc thoroughly trained and exhibit marked professional keenness The American naval officer is trained in deck and in engineering duties.

The quality of the lower-deck personnel has vastly improved in recent years. Desertion, once the scourge of the service, is nowadays a rare offence. Thanks to generous rates of pay, living quarters which are almost luxurious compared with those in ships of certain older navies, every possible form of entertainment and a system of discipline carefully adapted to the national

temperament, the navy has no difficulty in attracting a sufficient number of the best type of recruits.

The United States Marines form a corps as old as the navy itself. As with the British Royal Marines, they are “soldiers and sailors, too”, and although their principal duty is to provide garrisons for the naval bases and colonial dependencies, marine contingents serve on board most of the larger ships of the navy. Marines formed the vanguard of the American Expeditionary Force which came to France in 1917.

In recent years the United States Navy has intensified its training programme, and now spends as much time at sea as any other navy. Grand manoeuvres lasting several weeks are held every year, and during these periods every ship in commission is engaged in realistic war training. From all accounts, American naval gunnery stands at a high level, and marked progress is reported in torpedo and mining work. Thanks to its huge air force, the U.S. Navy has been able to develop the collaboration of ships with aircraft on a scale not yet approached by any foreign service.

To-day, for the first time in its history, the United States has a navy of the first rank in size and quality and, barring some drastic reversal of domestic policy, the future maintenance of this formidable fleet appears to be assured.


AN EARLY UNITED STATES ARMOURED CRUISER, the Maryland was laid down in 1901 and completed in 1906. The Maryland had a displacement of 13,680 tons a length of 502 feet, a beam of 69 ft. 6 in and a maximum draught of 26 ft. 6 in. Her normal complement was 878 or 921 as a flagship.

Click here to see the photogravure supplement to this chapter.

You can read more on “American Shipping”, “Floating Aerodromes”, and “Raising the Maine” on this website.