“She Hastens Onward Still”: The Battleship USS Oregon And its Place in National
by Dr. Christopher M. Jannings
Ship breakers claimed the vast majority of 19th Pre-dreadnought and 20th century
United States battleships like the USS Oregon upon decommission. Masts,
guns, anchors, smoke stacks, and other elements of the most famous remain on public
display at historic sites, serving as substitutes for full-sized memorials that
require private donations or taxpayer dollars to maintain. The USS Oregon
was the centerpiece for the State of Oregon Marine Park from 1927 to 1942, and seemed
destined for honorable retirement until the outbreak of World War II, but was sacrificed
because of misguided patriotism in the State of Oregon and misappropriation of war
materials and building contracts, particularly involving the use of steel, within
the highest levels of government and industry. This essay charts the battleship’s
career from construction, wartime service, to memorial status. It asks: What events
constituted it becoming the premier floating memorial in the country and what were
the costs? What were the major political, economic, and social forces that led to
its removal from memorial status and eventual scrapping? Can a warship not serving
as a floating memorial still hold a place in national memory?
After the Civil War the United States government did little to maintain a large
army or navy. Less efficient ships of the period were disposed of or became useless
through age. In 1883 Congress authorized the construction of four steel cruisers.
A build-up of cruisers and battleships of great size, strength, and speed soon followed.
In 1890, General B. F. Terry, Secretary of the Navy, gained congressional approval
for the authorized construction of three battleships. The navy afterwards named
these “seagoing coastal battleships,” USS Indiana, USS Massachusetts,
and USS Oregon. The term “seagoing” appealed to the “Big Navy” expansionists
and “coastal” appeased those individuals who valued economy and defense strategy.
Congress appropriated more than $3 million for the building of the USS Oregon.
The Union Iron Works of San Francisco laid its keel in 1891, the first such effort
on the West Coast of the United States. The Bethlehem Iron Works at South Bethlehem,
Pennsylvania contributed 72 tons of engine forgings, 750 tons of armor plate, and
346 tons of gun forgings. Construction officially began in 1893. The ship displaced
at 10,000 tons with an armor belt of eighteen inches, a main battery of four thirteen-inch
guns, and secondary batteries of eight and six inches. Armaments located in the
superstructures and other areas of the ship comprised of: 20 six-pound cannons,
8 one-pound cannons, 4 four-pound guns, 2 three-inch field guns on carriages, and
four Gatling Guns. Contractors also installed 4-18” torpedo tubes. Deck plates
measured 3-inches thick with most gun position protection ranging from 3-17 inches.
The battleship measured 351 feet in length and 69 feet abroad, with a mean drought
(normal) 24 feet, mid-ship section and mean drought together 1534 square feet, and
an engine horsepower of 1100. It was destined to be one of the navy’s most prized
The USS Oregon reached speeds well beyond expectations due to its advanced
power plant, which consisted of 4 fire-tube boilers with 4 (double-ended) furnaces
each fired from 8 separate rooms on the main line plus 2 fire-tube single-ended
(each with three furnaces) for auxiliary stations. When compared with the recorded
speeds of the USS Indiana and USS Massachusetts, 15.61 and 16.15 knots,
the USS Oregon rated out at 16.79 knots. At full complement the ship carried
32 officers, 441 enlisted men, and a company of 60 marines. After its launching
in 1896, many government officials and naval officers declared it the most powerful
battleship in the United States Navy, equal in size and armament to any other warship
in the world.
On October 26, 1893 Miss Daisy Ainsworth and Miss Eugena Shelby officially christened
and launched the ship. Navy and army representatives and civil officials from the
States of California and Oregon gathered to witness the event. On October 27
the Morning Oregonian reported:
A little before the hour of noon today the battleship Oregon, the first of
her class constructed on the Pacific Coast, was launched from the ways at Union
Iron Works in the presence of one of the greatest crowds of people which has ever
assembled their to witness a similar event, while on every street and on every hillside
and housetop from which a view of the works could be obtained, thousands of enthusiastic
spectators were gathered.
That part of the bay directly in front of the Union Iron Works was entirely occupied
by a great fleet of steamboats, tugs and crafts of every description, all decorated
with bunting and loaded down with hundreds of people, eager to witness ceremonies.
The area of the bay in front of the Union Iron was congested with a “great fleet”
of steamboats, tugs, and sporting craft, along with significant numbers of small
government vessels. All bore witness to the ship’s christening and launch. The Morning
Oregonian reported “hundred salutes were fired, bands of music played national
airs, thousands of spectators gave cheer after cheer, and every steam whistle within
a radius of a mile of the works joined in the deafening chorus.”
General H. B. Compson, a Civil War veteran from Portland representing Governor Sylvester
Pennoyer of Oregon, said, “On behalf of Governor Pennoyer and the people of Oregon,
I bid thee God speed. Guard well thy name, The USS Oregon.” Originally
designed solely for coastal defense because it possessed the coal capacity for a
cruising range of only 5,000 miles, many critics doubted the role the USS Oregon
would play if the country went to war.
In May 1896, the navy appointed Rear Admiral L. A. Beardslee President of the Board
of Officers responsible for the final inspection of the battleship. As in most cases
with newly completed warships, the “Trial Board” subjected the USS Oregon
to rigorous tests and sea trial. At the same time, newly appointed USS Oregon
captain, Charles E. Clark, and Chief-Engineer, Robert W. Mulligan assisted Beardslee
during initial inspections of the ship. The team inspected holds, passageways, ammunition
magazines, storage compartments, shell rooms, and bulkheads before checking engines
for the quantity of coal consumed and steam produced. The threesome reported no
major deficiencies and praised contractors by declaring the USS Oregon in
first-rate condition. Once at sea the ship proved capable of handling all turning,
backing up, and straightaway maneuvers.
American naval authorities in the last decade of the nineteenth century agreed that
war with Spain seemed inevitable. On March 19, 1898, in the wake of the U.S.S. Maine
disaster in Havana, Cuba, the USS Oregon embarked on one of the most daring
voyages ever taken by a United States warship. In unprecedented fashion the battleship
circumnavigated the Western Hemisphere by cruising over 17,000 miles in eighty-one
days to join the U. S. Atlantic Fleet off the coast of Santiago, Cuba. This record-breaking
voyage brought to light the importance of building an inter-oceanic isthmian canal
that would allow the United States to unite expeditiously its Atlantic and Pacific
fleets in time of war, as well as to exercise new naval policies in a more efficient
manner around the globe. The New York Herald claimed that the USS Oregon
broke four records: “the longest cruise by a battleship; a continuous run without
a single stop of 4,500 knots, the distance between San Francisco and Callao [Peru]—never
equaled by any other battleship, covering a distance of 2,484 knots at an average
speed of thirteen knots, and a run of 155 knots in ten hours.” Once in Cuba,
ships of the Atlantic Fleet welcomed the USS Oregon with “many cheers and
shouts of approval.” In the naval battle at Santiago Frank A. Ramsey recalled “the
Oregon was the first to see the enemy, the first to fire a shot and the last to
fire a shot at the close of action.” The ship later earned the nickname “Bulldog
of the Navy.”
In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, the USS Oregon’s later duties
appeared to be, as John D. Alden put it, “somewhat anti-climatic.” After receiving
a hero’s welcome in New York City, the ship returned to duty in the Pacific Squadron.
In the early 1900s it served in Philippine, Chinese, and Japanese waters with the
Asiatic Fleet. On March 1, 1913, Governor Ernest Lister of Washington State dedicated
a new dry dock at Bremerton. The USS Oregon became the first U.S. warship
to use the facility and remained there in reserve until 1915 after which the navy
ordered it to serve as an opening exhibit at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition
in San Francisco. Located on the north end of the San Francisco peninsula, the exposition
attracted thousands of spectators, many of which toured the USS Oregon.
After duty in San Francisco, the navy retained the ship as part of the Pacific Reserve
Fleet with a special assignment as part of the Naval Militia of California. It remained
in full commission until 1917.
Deemed by the U. S. Navy as too old for first rate fighting, the USS Oregon
mainly served in coastal defense during World War I. In 1919, President Woodrow
Wilson selected it as his flagship for review of the Pacific Fleet, a grand spectacle
commemorating the end of the war. The battleship carried the President pass
“parallel lines of the great Navy ships each of which would fire its guns in salute.”
The terms of the Washington Conference on Limitation of Armaments or Washington
Naval Treaty of 1922 restricted warships with weights exceeding 10,000 tons; the
USS Oregon along with other veteran ships of the Spanish-American War, USS
Indiana, USS Iowa, and USS Massachusetts, exceeded weight limits
and seemed destined for target practice or the scrap heap. But, as Bert Webber,
author of Battleship Oregon: Bulldog of the Navy explained, “the ship was
revered by Americans as a priceless, historic relic and to break it up was unthinkable.”
Congress and the Department of the Navy acted immediately by decommissioning the
ship to comply with the treaty then designated it as a floating memorial. Assistant
Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt, greatly influenced by public outcry
to save the battleship also intervened. He explained in 1942:
The old battleship moved down the Bay, passing the New Mexico, Mississippi,
Idaho, Texas, and New York. Then came 27 destroyers spaced
about three hundred yards apart, followed by every type of vessel—destroyers, tugs,
submarine chasers, etc. On each vessel the sailors lined the rail at attention.
The bands flung across the waters strains of the National Anthem…Surely America
should have been proud of such a sight. It awed us both [referring to his wife Edith]
as we sat on a little roof garden and gazed silently.
My interest in the old Oregon lies in the fact that I saved her from the
scrap heap. She was to be broken up, but I thought that, with the great history
the old ship has, it would be better to keep her afloat. And I thought that perhaps
the State of Oregon might like to have her in Oregon waters.
FDR had strong loyalty to the navy and personal interest in the ship, but the cost
to preserve it as a floating memorial would not be funded by the federal government.
In 1923, the state of Oregon petitioned the government for rights to the battleship.
The state appropriated $15,000 annually in maintenance expenses, whereas the Navy
estimated costs for preparation and delivery at $20,000. Portland adhered to providing
suitable access and power. Official notification came on June 15, 1925 when the
navy rendered the USS Oregon incapable of further warlike services and loaned
it to the state “to be preserved as an object of historic and sentimental interest.”
The people of Oregon promised to display it “so that their children could see the
proud old conqueror and walk her decks.” Berthed along the Willamette River
for the next seventeen years, it attracted hundreds of people daily and served as
a civic center for patriotic organizations. Thereafter, its place in local and
national memory seemed secure for generations to come.
The years 1927 to 1942 defined the USS Oregon as a floating memorial. Berthed
under the Broadway Bridge for nearly a decade, it drew much interest from private
industry, state politicians, and the local community. In 1927 a junk dealer from
California wrote Oregon governor, L. L. Patterson, offering to purchase the ship
for its metal. Patterson forwarded the letter to the Battleship USS Oregon
Commission who promptly rejected the offer, indicating that certain groups valued
the ship for sentimental reasons over monetary gain. Some merchants and citizens
had concerns about the battleship, arguing that it impeded shipping in the channel
and that an exceedingly long flight of stairs scared away tourists. President Roosevelt,
when visiting Portland in 1935, could only gaze upon the ship, unable to go aboard
because of physical limitations. The City Council passed legislation that same year
authorizing four and one-half acres of land to build a permanent berth, more easily
accessible to the community.
Two years passed before Senator McNary, Republican from Oregon, asked Congress for
a $25,000 appropriation to assist building costs. President Roosevelt signed
the bill adding federal funds to the $41,000 already raised by local citizens.
On May 27, 1938 first construction began towards enshrining USS Oregon in
a memorial park on the Portland waterfront with the building of a sea wall. Work
crews also installed a “gang plank” that ran from street level to the deck of the
battleship, allowing for safe access to and from it. After completion civic groups
like the Sea Scouts, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Camp Fire Girls, 4-H-Clubs, Naval
Reserve, Navy Mothers of America, and Navy Post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars
called the ship home. Oregon and Western Washington schools regularly planned field
trips. The Battleship USS Oregon Commission charged no admission to uniformed
military personal or veterans. High School children and younger also paid no fees.
Others paid 25 cents admission to assist in maintenance costs. Willard H. Stevens,
of the Oregon State Grange, declared, “The Battleship USS Oregon, although
out of commission as a fighting monster, is still performing a wonderful service
in cultivating patriotic pride.”
Tragedy nearly struck the battleship on June 9, 1940. According to Portland Mayor,
Joseph K. Carson, an attempt to sink the USS Oregon in dry dock had been
the work of saboteurs. Officials commented that the ship “had taken on nearly 600
tons of water and the vessel’s stern was slowly sinking in the Willamette River
when damage was discovered.” It appears that not all of Portland’s residents viewed
the memorial as an asset to the community or part of national memory. The ship
survived the ordeal and continued to serve the community for the next two years.
Japanese tactical success at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 proved a strategic
failure when the United States and its industrial strength declared war. Time Magazine
reported on December 15th “the war came as a great relief, like a reverse earthquake,
that in one terrible jerk shook everything disjointed, distorted, askew back into
place. Japanese bombs had finally brought national unity to the U.S.” In the
months that followed Japan’s army and naval forces scored numerous victories over
American, British, and Dutch forces in the Western Pacific. Guam, Wake Island, and
Manila fell after fierce fighting. Beyond a few heroic deeds by American soldiers
and home front workers (most sacrificing material needs and enduring strenuous work
schedules in war production factories and shipyards), it appeared “this year 
may be one of the hardest of all years to face.”
On January 1, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt entered the second year of a
third term. Americans visualized ultimate victory, yet the outcome seemed uncertain.
Over the next year, the President busied himself dealing with the military aspects
of war. Public speeches and fireside chats, broadcasted world-wide, expressed purposes:
The purpose of American military attacks by land, air, and sea, inevitable victory,
messages of hope, faith, and cheer to Americans and peoples of occupied countries,
prospects of human freedoms world-wide, and promise of American military and labor
potentials. In response, millions of Americans answered the call-to-arms or manned
labor positions on the home front. Few, however, realized Roosevelt’s responsibility
as a military leader and world spokesman, or the individual and material sacrifice
required to win a war.
A series of events in 1942, largely influenced by nationwide shortages of war production
materials, notably steel, forced Roosevelt to inexplicably authorize the Navy Department
to turn the USS Oregon over to the newly formed War Production Board for
reduction to scrap metal. James Forrestal, Under Secretary of the Navy, wrote Oregon
governor, Charles Sprague that “because of the great necessity for scrap metal and
the pressure exerted upon us to make every possible contribution toward building
up an adequate stockpile, this decision [to scrap the USS Oregon] will probably
have to be reconsidered.” While Roosevelt deserves the bulk of the blame, one
cannot easily forget his loyalty to the navy, efforts to save the ship in 1922,
or overall devotion to the war effort. Greatly disturbed the President wrote Secretary
of the Navy, Frank Knox, on October 26, 1942, saying “It is with great reluctance
that I authorize the Navy Department to turn the USS Oregon over to the War
Production Board for reduction to scrap metal.”
Other than commitment to New Deal programs, Roosevelt valued no other like the navy.
As early as 1935, with unsettled conditions existing throughout the world, he argued
for warship building to meet the “country’s needs…it is imperative that we should
heed requirements for national defense.” A statement on Maritime Day, May 22,
1942, revealed similar desires, as the President paid tribute to brave men serving
on gallant ships of the merchant marine, and those without uniforms, the shipyard
and factory workers. His personal and political obsession for shipping ran deep:
A little more than a year ago we embarked upon the greatest shipbuilding program
in history. No other nation ever had attempted so vast a maritime enterprise. There
were those who doubted our ability to succeed. Today I can assure you that we will
perform this near miracle of ship production.
A 500% increase in ships during the first eighteen months of war did little to satisfy
the President. He remained adamant that American industry needed to increase its
annual tonnage to “add to the most glorious chapter in American history.”
On October 12, 1942, just weeks before submitting approval to scrap the USS Oregon,
the President further addressed American shipping. Despite increased numbers of
allied vessels sunk by enemy action, the tonnage of ships produced by American,
Canadian, and British shipyards remained significantly ahead of losses. “I can say
to you that we are getting ahead of the enemy in the battle of production,” claimed
Roosevelt. Why then the sacrifice of the USS Oregon if so much progress
had been made? One might argue that a government effort to out-produce Axis powers
in terms of war materials bordered on extreme, as did the decision to scrap one
of the nation’s premier ship memorials.
However, both decisions defined FDR’s single-minded approach towards winning the
war, and his uncanny ability to sell patriotism to the American people (at all costs).
In other words, those peoples not directly fighting the war needed to be a part
of the war. At the same time, he appeased industry and labor by approving building
contracts for war materials that went beyond what was necessary to win the war.
If Roosevelt did not realize his mistakes in late 1942 then he surely did by the
spring of 1943 when allied navies had overcome the U-Boat problem in the North Atlantic
and merchant ships began to reach their destinations in Europe.
Other forces, like immense competition for building contracts, influenced Roosevelt
beyond selling the war to the American people and making history with war production.
As money poured into the treasury military—over $100 billion in the first six months
of 1942--purchasing bureaus gained a large percentage of building contracts. David
Kennedy, professor of history at Stanford University, contended that, “procurement
officers loosed their imaginations, abandoned any vestige of managerial discipline,
and lost all sight of the larger context within which they were operating.”
Contractors used purchase orders as hunting licenses for valuable resources. Makers
of cargo ships grabbed steel supplies at the expense of warship construction. At
the same time, navy agents manipulated aluminum away from aircraft assembly plants.
Locomotive foundries converted to tank production despite a critical shortage of
locomotives. Other areas of war production suffered as well. Kennedy said, “When
construction was not stalled outright, it could end up uselessly squandered.” Examples
of this folly occurred when manufacturers were “contracted to make a hundred thousand
trucks” but delivered only about a quarter of the contract total. It appears competition
from other manufacturers stood in the war. Aircraft and tank plants expropriated
tires and spark plugs. Seventy-five thousand trucks were left unfinished and unusable.
Kennedy noted “having meanwhile wastefully consumed and criminally idled millions
of tons of steel that could have built dozens of cargo ships or made millions of
Competition for rich war production contracts ruled the day, leaving historians
to doubt their role true motivations in contributing to what Studs Terkel later
coined the “Good War.” Government agencies like the army and navy and private industry
greatly exaggerated need for war production materials to meet quotas. Some industries
used steel allocated for production to expand plants, which left ship builders emptied
handed and raised questions not only about material shortages but also mismanagement.
As early as March 1942 (nine months before the deconstruction of the USS Oregon),
the War Production Board’s Planning Committee warned that uncontrolled expansion
(of war material) was threatening nationwide production of tires, steel, aluminum,
and other essential items necessary for war.
By early summer 1942 shortages became widespread in America’s major industrial centers,
at great cost to production. Eliot Janeway explained, “By July 1942, the ship program,
than which nothing more basic, had to be cut back for lack of steel plate, as well
as glass, turbines, engines, and valves.” The real problem, however, was that the
Navy and Maritime Commissions were hoarding much of the countries supply of iron,
with the WPB authorizing an increase in war production in “everything except what
was most urgently needed. Therefore, throughout much of 1942 the fate of the
USS Oregon hung in the balance despite economic methods of production and
campaigns efforts to prevent against waste, conserve raw materials, shortages still
Steel mills recovered tons of scrap to compensate shortages, but on the whole, inefficiency
and red tape in government led to hostilities between private industry and the military.
Favoritism toward labor at the expense of business or government influence did little
to influence War Production Board members, ex-businessmen, familiar with the economic
game, and hard-pressed to earn a dollar. For much of 1942-43 more manufacturers
with high priorities existed than did steel and, as Richard Lingeman noted, “having
priority didn’t ensure one of getting the steel needed.” All that military agencies
like the Navy Department, under enormous strain to meet Roosevelt’s demands for
increased ship tonnage, could do was request materials and hope for the best.
The steel industry posed a multitude of problems for the Roosevelt Administration.
Eight months after Pearl Harbor total production of steel in the United States accounted
for only 25% of war production. Initially, Roosevelt proposed building more steel
plants to raise production, but later realized that it took eighteen months to build
before producing worthwhile product. Next, he adopted a plan that would “cut more
deeply into civilian production.”
The steel industry deserves much blame for the navy’s problems and America’s inability
to develop a solid wartime economy, one dependent on steel perhaps more than any
other single product. Yet, much like the aluminum industry in the early 1940s, steel
mills resisted the government plans to expand production. Problems began with their
traditional “oligopolistic” approach. At the start of World War II about thirteen
integrated firms like United States Steel and Laughlin Steel Company accounted for
nearly eighty-eight percent of all ingot production. Although steel magnates deserve
praise for stabilizing the industry, eliminating price wars, and divided markets
in the early twentieth century, the Great Depression “caused leaders in steel to
bristle at the notion of substantially increasing ingot capacity for the war.”
Many of these corporate executives, largely motivated by the bottom line, also undermined
Roosevelt’s early plans to increase ship tonnage. By 1940, excess supplies disappeared,
with signs of shortages affecting production of plates and forgings, essential to
munitions and ship builders. In 1941 steel industries reported to Roosevelt that
adequate supplies still existed—excesses running around 14 tons. The President erred
when he endorsed, Gano Dunn, consultant for the Industrial Materials Branch, who
predicted “modest shortages of steel in 1941 and substantial ones in 1942. By
late 1942, steel shortages reached critical levels, forcing Roosevelt to cut deeper
into civilian use, push scrap drives, and to eliminate old buildings and memorials
tied to national memory, including the USS Oregon.
The Federal Government tried to resolve friction between civilian and military agencies
and material shortage by promoting scrap drives. Designed to arouse the energies
of the American people, Roosevelt believed that such efforts on the home front would
win the war. According to Donald Nelson, chairman of the War Production Board:
We are engaged in an intensive drive to collect all of the scrap possible. We need
steel scrap badly to increase present production. We are keeping ahead of the blast
furnaces now, but we want to accumulate 17 million tons of scrap to insure steel
production for the year 1943.
The overall goal, it appears, was to locate all abandoned steel structures, railroads,
plants and buildings, old farm machinery of no further value. It also included collecting
any miscellaneous steel, copper, rubber, and scrap that Americans might have lying
around the home. Unless Nelson categorized ship memorials as miscellaneous, he made
no mention of the USS Oregon. He also failed to note that not all of such
types of scrap could be used.
Organized in the early 1940s, scrap drives sought metals, rubber, fat, newspapers,
and linens. Campaigns basically collected junk, sometimes millions of tons of materials,
and even recycled valuable artifacts tied to national memory like relics from previous
wars, including cannons, park statues, and other memorials. When asked about these
artifacts Roosevelt replied, “there are a great many statues around the country
which would probably look better if they were turned into guns. They could perhaps
be replaced after the war with something—what shall I say?—a little more artistic.”
The tampering with World War and Civil War cannon also had little effect on the
President. “We have already gone through navy yards, and are still going through
navy yards to use many of those old historic cannon. It probably is the best use
they can be put to, and I think it should be done,” he said.
Scrap drives were not beneficial to home front industry or overall war production
rather they gave the masses a means to assist the larger war effort. Doris Kearns-Goodwin
pointed out that “scrap could be re-melted for peacetime purposes,” but much of
the iron and steel collected by a patriotic democracy proved useless to the building
of aircraft and ships. Manufacturers could melt metals for munitions but required
virgin aluminum to build aircraft. President sacrificed the USS Oregon
to promote these drives, appease private industry, or make a political statement
for reelection in 1944, one largely based on patriotic support for the war. All
of these factors likely came into play, or that Roosevelt felt compelled to consider
all three during 1942 when prospects of American victory in World War II hung in
Oregon’s population responded differently to the potential loss of its prized battleship.
When rumors resurfaced in mid-1942 that the government intended to scrap the ship,
patriotic organizations from chapters of Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW), mostly
consisting of Spanish-American War veterans bombarded the Navy Department with verbal
protests and written petitions. Surprisingly, newspapers editors on the West Coast
received letters revealing two different perspectives. Some people insisted if “her
iron is needed to make new warships then let her go,” while the few veterans left
from 1898 cried, “don’t even think about destroying this monument.” In a surprising
move aimed at placating mounting opposition, the navy issued a statement to the
New York Times that said “the Navy Department has no knowledge of any plan
to scrap the USS Oregon,” later admitting it “served as a historic shrine
remindful of the perseverance and loyalty of the old navy.”
Inexplicitly, in October 1942 the navy recanted its decision on the grounds of steel
shortages. James Forrestal wrote Governor Sprague declaring, “I regret to have to
advise you that because of the great necessity for scrap metal and the pressure
exerted upon us to make every possible contribution toward the building up of an
adequate stockpile this decision will probably have to be reconsidered.” Frank
Knox, Secretary of the Navy, explained to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No.
1478, “despite the fact that I, like yourselves, would like to preserve the USS Oregon
the necessity for utilizing all available strategic materials make it imperative
that the metal of the USS Oregon be utilized.” In November 1942 Roosevelt
conferred with Knox’s proposal and ordered the ship stricken from the navy.
Governor Sprague, under great pressure from constituents to save the ship admitted,
“We will certainly interpose no objection if the USS Oregon is needed to
help meet the war emergency of the nation.”
Immersed in patriotic fervor, Sprague inexplicably offered to return the battleship
to the navy in 1941 so it could serve in coastal or other defense measures on the
West Coast. However, it was a fruitless proposition considering it had been “demilitarized
and incapable of being navigated under its own power” since the 1920s. Initially,
the navy declined his offer by stating, “the ship’s historical importance outweighed
any operational value she might have.” Most Oregonians still disagreed on what
to do with its most famous memorial. Arguments likely flew back-and-forth between
Sprague, other politicians, and the Navy Department, by telephone, telegram, or
letters, but in the end, the ship was determined more useful for wartime production
rather than memorial status.
On November 2, 1942, the navy struck the battleship from its inventory and transferred
ownership to the state of Oregon. Deconstruction began immediately with the main
mast removed and placed on a Portland sea wall, later relocated to the Marine Park
along the Willamette River. On December 8th the New York Times reported
“the historic battleship USS Oregon, covered with rust and glory, was tossed
on the scrap heap today.” Lyndon B. Johnson, state representative from Texas and
member of the Naval Affairs Committee, opened “junking ceremonies” at Portland.
Attended by city and state officials and officers of the army and navy, Johnson
declared, “it was time to scrap inefficiency and deadwood in our government…While
we have fighting to do abroad, we have scrapping to do at home…Today we are getting
closer to the unity of command and the coordination of effort that goes for both.”
Not surprisingly, he carried a political message from Roosevelt, giving little regard
to the Oregon as an important piece of national memory, only how it would
best serve industry and the war effort.
Under the care of Mrs. Cora Thompson, longtime secretary for the Battleship USS Oregon
Commission, the ship also housed one of the most elaborate marine museums in the
world. Among the possessions included a “silver service” which cost $25,000,
with funds raised from pennies donated by schoolchildren of Oregon. After hearing
of plans to scrap the memorial, Thompson said, “the government may, from time-to-time,
build bigger and more powerful battleships than the USS Oregon, but they
could never build a better one.” In January 1943, Marshall Dana, chairman of
the Battleship USS Oregon Commission said, “we owe to our manifest esteem
for the past and this we owe to the interpretation that will be given the deeds
of the past, including our own, by coming generations.”
After deconstruction local officials took legislative steps to preserve artifacts
and build a second marine museum along the Portland waterfront. Unfortunately, the
state failed to raise necessary funds and the museum closed after the USS Oregon’s
deconstruction, leaving over 10,000 artifacts on display from every state in the
Union, including many from England and Canada, without a home. Most of the memorabilia
and artifacts fell prey to scavengers and private parties bent securing a piece
of the historic battleship, then selling it at a profit. Author Leonard Wiley recalled
a “number of gavels were made from the USS Oregon’s teak wood furnishings.
One went to each of the governors of the 48 states.” Roosevelt received a piece,
as did several Senators and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Dana removed
all articles of non-military value from the ship, “to encourage the sale of war
bonds, in the hope that sufficient money would be raised to get another USS Oregon
built, as well as to encourage naval enlistments.” Sufficient funds were never
raised and it seems likely that the most valuable artifacts attracted private collectors
and then disappeared from public view.
In January 1943 after a final visit to the ship, author Leonard Wiley was shocked
at the condition of the battleship. He recalled her “wooden flooring had been all
torn up…so were her teakwood furnishings. Shelving, furniture and all accommodations
made of wood, had been removed. Debris littered the various officers’ staterooms.
She was ready for the wreckers.” Ship wreckers towed the USS Oregon to
Kalama, Washington, where two Portland businessmen purchased it for $35,000. In
September 1943, the navy halted scrapping processes once the work reached the main
deck and after the hull’s interior had been stripped. It was re-designated miscellaneous
ship “IX-22” and, in July 1944, used to haul dynamite and other explosives to Guam,
for the purpose of clearing jungle and building airfields to support B-29 bombers.
USS Oregon remained in Guam until 1948 when a typhoon broke mooring lines
and sent her adrift. Navy search planes located the ship 500 miles away, in close
proximity to the Philippine Islands. After its retrieval, official reports declared
The ship sat rusting until March 1, 1954, when the Senate and House of Representatives
convened in a special meeting of the Committee of on Armed Services to determine
its value for sale or scrapping. With the Honorable Leroy Johnson presiding, the
committee addressed United States ships, Constitution, Constellation, Hartford, Olympia,
and Oregon. The Secretary of the Navy reserved the right to remove any
parts of these ships prior to sale, scrapping, or donation to such non-profit historical
or educational institution for preservation. The Constitution remained in
Boston, Constellation in Baltimore, Olympia in Philadelphia, while
the committee gave consideration to send Hartford to Mobile, Alabama. Mr.
Devereux reported to the chairman, “Oregon is practically just a hulk. That
is what is left of her I rather doubt whether any patriotic or historical organization
would want to move her.” Mr. Van Zandt said, “I think the Oregon is at its
end…I don’t think that any community would want to finance it. I think you may as
well mark off the Oregon.” In closing, the committee determined that it would
cost upwards of $27 million to restore the ship, and another $51,000 in annual maintenance
fees. Mr. Wilson contended, “I don’t imagine anyone would go to the trouble of trying
to restore the Oregon.”
One organization did attempt to retrieve the ship. In December 1954, the San Francisco
Labor Council sought means to preserve (in this case, re-preserve) the battleship.
In a resolution, the council pleaded with the Board of Supervisors and Mayor Elmer
E. Robinson, to petition the Navy Department to maintain the USS Oregon “with
the dignity and honor which are its due.” Unable to reach an agreement with the
Navy or intimidated by costs for restoration, San Francisco took no further action
in the matter. On March 15, 1956, after sixty years of service, the Massey Supply
Corporation in Guam purchased the hull from the United States Government for salvage
purposes, and promptly sold it to the Iwai Sanggo Company of Japan. Owners then
towed the hull to Kawasaki for scrapping. J. B. Thomas, reporter for the Honolulu
Star-Bulletin recalled, “The ship that in a very real sense ‘inspired’ the
Panama Canal is ending her days in Japan.” He found it difficult to imagine the
once proud ship “as a spotless, virginal white showpiece—all spit and polish…which
made her once the cynosure of all eyes. She cannot now be positively identified
by any visible mark remaining on or in her.”
Realistically, by 1956 the USS Oregon could not be saved. However, if it
had not been loaned to the State of Oregon by the U.S. Navy in the beginning, rather
put under control of the National Park Service, it would have been the beneficiary
of federal or state funds for restoration and likely survived for generations to
come. Created on August 25, 1916, the NPS has a long history of protecting, preserving,
and interpreting historic sites and monuments. More recently, the National Park
System devotes much attention to maritime cultural resources. For example, the Carbrillo
National Monument in San Diego commemorates the 1542 voyage of Juan Rodriguez and
the discovery of California. The International Peace Memorial, located at Put-in-Bay,
Ohio, acknowledges Oliver Hazard Perry’s naval victory over England at the Battle
of Lake Erie. Three other parks focus entirely on the maritime past: San Francisco
Maritime National Historical Park, Salem Maritime National Historic Site, and the
Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historical Park, located between Cumberland,
Maryland, and Washington, D.C. San Francisco houses the nation’s largest maritime
museum and collection of vessels—among them the schooner’s Alma and C. A.
Thayer, tugboat Hercules, and paddle tug Eppleton Hall.
Efforts to locate, preserve, and commemorate World War II (still afloat and not)
and Civil War sunken ships have increased in the past two decades. Vessels like
the Snow Quall at the Falkland Islands Company Jetty in Port Stanley, and
the Jeremiah O’Brien, the last American Liberty Ship from World War II, now
at the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, and the World War II shipwrecks in
Truk (now called Chuuk) Lagoon serve as prime examples of growing interest for Maritime
history. Several American states house famous American warships like the USS
Constellation, Hartford, Olympia, Texas, North Carolina, and Massachusetts,
places that now serve as community centers for discussion, memory, and lessons of
war. The USS Arizona remains under water at Pearl Harbor, as a tomb and memorial
for 1,177 men who died there. Other American ships lie in watery graves around
the world, serving as reminders of sacrifice and patriotism. All seem to teach,
influence, and hold a special place for the postwar generation of Americans who
lived through an era of unparalleled sacrifice in American history. However,
those warships on display cost millions of dollars a year to maintain.
The USS Oregon lives on in national memory, albeit not as a full-scale memorial.
This approach may be the future of warship preservation in order to avoid the high
cost of yearly maintenance. Whatever the case, pieces of the battleship still exist
in private ownership or are on display in public locations. On April 13, 1957, the
city of Yokosuka, Japan donated its anchor chain to a nearby naval base. Mounted
in concrete it serves as a last vestige and permanent reminder of a gallant ship.
Deeply moved by photographs of the memorial former crewman, Forrest Fanuef said,
“It is a sad sight to see a once-proud ship scrapped far from home. If not for patriotic
fervor by any number of politicians and private parties, the USS Oregon should
have been preserved intact for all time, along with Old Ironsides.”
The Battleship USS Oregon Memorial Marine Park in Portland displays the main
mast and bow-crest shield. Author Bert Webber, a native of Oregon, salvaged a ten-foot
base end of the upper mast and transported it to Lake Oswego where it became a part
of his home flagpole. The Navy League of the United States donated a capsule of
the USS Oregon’s history, currently located at the base of the main mast.
Permanently fixed on the mast, a bronze plaque honors Marines that served aboard
the ship. Among other dedications, battleship enthusiast, Jeffrey Meals, maintains
a history and photograph collection on the USS Oregon website that “stirs
echoes” of the ship’s past accomplishments. The USS Oregon smoke stacks stand
in the Liberty Ship Park located less than half-mile from the Marine Park. As late
as April 1994, people of all ages gather at the Park “every day” of the year to
enjoy family outings, walks through the park, resurrecting old memories of its famous
warship. More recently, the Oregon Historical Society has created exhibits of
photographs, memorabilia, and writings, open to the public.
A victim of “misguided patriotism” during World War II, the USS Oregon deserved
a better fate. Stanford Sternlicht proclaimed no “American vessel served her country
better. In peace, she showed the flag, trained thousands of a naval officers and
enlisted men, and then was a floating memorial…no ship has been more revered and
loved by the American people…surely, she has a secure place in history.” Unfortunately,
the famous battleship joined others of her kind, dependable and well built vessels
that had paved the way for American expansionism at the dawning of the twentieth
century, only to be unceremoniously scrapped and sold off to the highest bidder,
leaving behind only remnants of their former selves.
Built during the 1890s at a time of great naval expansion, the USS Oregon
enjoyed a career that spanned nearly six decades. One of America’s first pre-dreadnaught
battleships, it gained international fame after circumnavigating the Western Hemisphere
during the Spanish-American War. In record-breaking time, the USS Oregon
joined the U. S. Atlantic Fleet at Santiago, Cuba, firing the first and last shots
of the battle, returning home to a hero’s welcome. Credited by historians as the
ship responsible for the building of an inter-oceanic isthmus canal, it later served
around the world in a variety of capacities.
Deemed by the navy as too old for further wartime service, the USS Oregon
later became one of America’s premier ship memorials in Portland, Oregon, home to
a variety of patriotic and educational organizations. However, during World War
II strong political, economic, and social forces undermined efforts by the people
of Oregon, notably veterans of the Spanish-American War, to save the ship from deconstruction.
Immersed in fighting a two-ocean war, FDR could not intervene to save USS Oregon
like he did after World War I. The country’s need for steel proved more vital than
the ship’s value as a floating memorial despite evidence of misguided patriotism
and misappropriation war production materials at most levels of government and industry.
Today, the USS Oregon enjoys limited memorial status (of the physical type),
but remnants of its past live on in our national memory through smaller artifacts
and photographs, and more recently through a museum exhibit located at the Oregon
Historical Society. Over Fifty years after final deconstruction, it “hastens onward
still” not with waves crashing against its hull, but in a last effort to educate
Americans about their wartime past and the values of public and national memory.
. John C Reilly, American Battleships, 1886-1923: Pre-dreadnaught Design and Construction
(Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980)> He defined the Pre-dreadnaught as
“a large seagoing warship, protected by the heaviest of armor, carrying a main battery
of a few powerful guns and numerous medium-caliber ones, and designed to fight other
ships of its kind.
. See John M. Taylor, “Matchless Race of the Oregon,” Military Historical Quarterly
13 (3): 26-31.
. Bert Webber, Battleship Oregon: Bulldog of the Navy (Medford, OR: Webb
Research Group Publishers, 1998), 17.
. President Theodore Roosevelt authorized the letters “USS” on navy ships in
Executive Order 549 on January 8, 1907. At the time of its launching, the Oregon
was identified as “Coast Battleship No. 3.
. Sherwood Sternlicht, McKinley’s Bulldog: The Battleship Oregon (Chicago:
Nelson-Hall Company, 1977), 12-13, and Webber, Battleship Oregon, 17.
. See Webber, Battleship Oregon, 18.
. The Gatling gun gained famed during the Civil War. A machine gun, it had a
cluster of barrels that fired in sequence as the cluster rotated.
. See L. A. Beardslee, “The Trial of the Oregon,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine
98 (1899): 700, Webber, Battleship Oregon, 21, and Peter Kemp, The Oxford
Companion to Ships & Sea (Oxford University Press, 1976).
. See Webber, Battleship Oregon, 21.
. See Sternlicht, McKinley’s Bulldog, ix, 12-13.
. Information obtained from photocopy of an engraved invitation commemorating
the launch of the Oregon located in Webber, Battleship Oregon, 19.
. See Morning Oregonian (October 27, 1893), 1.
. See Ted Mahar, “Ceremony to Recall Launching,” Oregonian (October 24,
. See Sternlicht, McKinley’s Bulldog, 12-13.
. See Beardslee, “The Trial of the Oregon,” 700-707.
. “The Reason Why the U.S. Built the Panama Canal,” San Francisco Call-Bulletin
(September 29, 1940), “Farewell to the Oregon,” New York Times (October 13,
1942), 22 and, Harold and Margaret Sprout, The Rise of American Naval Power, 1776-1918
(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946), 233-34.
. Commentary from the New York Herald quoted from Literary Digest
16 (June 4, 1898): 667. Source courtesy of Leonard Wiley, “Battleship Oregon’s First
50 Years, 1893-1943,” Oregon Historical Quarterly 44 (March 1943): 23.
. Ramsey quoted in Webber, Battleship Oregon, 61.
. Numerous works address the Oregon’s voyage. The best descriptive accounts
include, Ralph E. Shaffer, “The Race of the Oregon,” Oregon Historical Quarterly
76 (3) (1975): 269-98, and Richard H. Bradford, “And Oregon Rushed Home,” American
Neptune 36 (4) (1976): 257-65.
. John Alden, “Whatever Happened to the Battleship Oregon,” U.S. Navy Institute
Proceedings 94 (9) (1968): 146-149.
. Bert Webber determined that the numbers of fair-goers visiting the Oregon
during the exposition was not recorded, but that a witness remembered that navy
whale boats (free) and “taxi” boats (50 cents round trip) were filled as fast as
people lined up.
. See Webber, Battleship Oregon, 78-84.
. See “Old Battleship Oregon Escapes War Scrap Pile,” New York Times
(September 16, 1942), 18.
. See Webber, 89.
. See Arthur S. Link, Papers of Woodrow Wilson Vol. 63, September 4-November
5, 1919 (Princeton University Press, 1990).
. See Sternlicht, McKinley’s Bulldog, 109.
. See Webber, Battleship Oregon, 134.
. “Navy To Break Up Oregon For Scrap: Decision to Salvage Historic Ship’s Metal
for War Use,” New York Times (October 12, 1942), 3.
. See Webber, 91-92.
. See Sternlicht, McKinley’s Bulldog, 109.
. See “Navy to Break Up Oregon For Scrap,” New York Times, 3.
. “Californian Offers to Buy Warship Oregon,” San Francisco Call-Bulletin
(April, 6, 1927).
. See Webber, 93.
. “McNary Asks Fund to Moor Warship Oregon,” San Francisco Call-Bulletin
(December 13, 1937). See also “Providing Mooring for the Battleship Oregon,” House
Reports on Public Bills: 75th Congress, 3rd Session Vol. 3 (Washington,
DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1938): 1-2.
. “Memorial Location Set For Battleship Oregon,” San Francisco Call-Bulletin
(May 27, 1938) and, “Bill Signed: Battleship Oregon Gets Park Place,” San Francisco
Call-Bulletin (June 17, 1938).
. See Webber, 98.
. Stevens quoted in Webber, 98.
. See “Saboteurs Blamed in Attempt to Sink Oregon,” San Francisco Call-Bulletin
(June 10, 1940).
. Time Magazine (December 15, 1941) quoted in Geoffrey Perrett, Days of
Sadness, Years of Triumph. (New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc.,
. See New Republic (December 29, 1941) quoted in Perrett, 207.
. Samuel I. Rosenman, comments introducing The Public Papers and Addresses of
Franklin D. Roosevelt 1942 Volume, “Humanity on the Defensive.” (New York:
Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1950): v-viii.
. Forrestal quoted in Alden, “Whatever Happened to the Battleship Oregon, 148.
. Knox also quoted in Alden, 148.
. “Roosevelt Urges Warship Building,” New York Times (October 27, 1935),
. See The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt 1942 Volume,
. See Public Papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt 1942 Volume, 247.
. See Franklin D. Roosevelt 1942 Volume, 419-20.
. See David M. Kennedy, The American People in World War II (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1999), 202.
. John E. Brigante, Feasibility Dispute: Determination of War Production Objectives
for 1942 and 1943 (Washington, DC: Committee on Public Administration Cases,
1950), 35. See also Kennedy, 202, and Eliot Janeway, The Struggle for Survival
(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1951), 308-09.
. See Kennedy, The American People in World War II, 202.
. See Janeway, in The Struggle For Survival, 310.
. See Richard R. Lingeman, Don’t You Know There’s A War On?: The American Home
Front, 1941-1945 (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1970), 110-112.
. Paul A. C. Koistinen, Arsenal of World War II: The Political Economy of American
Warfare, 1940-1945 (Lawrence, KS: University of Kansas Press, 2004), 139-141.
. See Koistinen, 141.
. Doris Kearns-Goodwin, No Ordinary Time, Franklin & Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home
Front in World War II (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 260-61.
. Nelson quoted in The Public Papers and Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt
1942 Volume, from “The Eight Hundred and Fortieth Press Conference—The Press is
presented to Queen Wilhelmina.” August 7, 1942: 325-26.
. Roosevelt quoted in The Papers and Public Addresses of Franklin D. Roosevelt,
. See Goodwin, No Ordinary Time, 260.
. Marshall N. Dana, “Governor Sprague Gave Ship Despite Protests,” Oregon Journal
(April 15, 1944), “Governor Sprague is reported,” Oregon Voter 104, no. 17
(April 22, 1944), 29, and Webber, Battleship Oregon, 109.
. See “Old Battleship Oregon Escapes,” New York Times (September 16,
. Alden, “Whatever Happened to the Battleship Oregon,” 147.
. “Navy Reviews Plan Not to Scrap Oregon: Aim to Save Historic Ship Being Reconsidered,
Forrestal Says,” New York Times (October 10, 1942), 30.
. Knox quoted in Alden, “Whatever Happened to the Battleship Oregon,” 147.
. See article “Old USS Oregon to Fight Again,” in San Francisco Call-Bulletin
(July 17, 1942).
. “Seek Berth for Oregon,” New York Times (May 22, 1932), 5.
. The Navy Department memo quoted in Alden, 147.
. See Webber, Battleship Oregon, 109-110.
. “Oregon Is Junked With Ceremonies,” New York Times (December 8, 1942),
. See Wiley, “Battleship Oregon’s 50 Years,” 25.
. Thompson quoted in Webber, Battleship Oregon, 90.
. Dana quoted from an interview with Leonard Wiley in “Battleship Oregon’s,”
(January 26, 1943), 25.
. See Webber, 93.
. Dana quoted from a conversation with Wiley in January 1943 in Wiley, “Battleship
Oregon’s 50 Years,” 26.
. Leonard Wiley, “Battleship Oregon’s 50 Years, 1893-1943,” Oregon Historical
Quarterly 44 (March 1943): 19-26.
. See Louise Aaron, “Old Oregon to See Active War Service,” Oregon Journal
(April 15, 1944), 1.
. Summary of proceedings along with quotes by Devereux, Van Zandt, and Wilson
located in Hearings before Committee on Armed Services: Sundry Legislation Affecting
the Naval and Military Establishments, 83rd Congress, 2nd Session, Book 2.
(Washington, D. C.: United States Government Printing Office, 1954): 3513-3528 and
. “Labor Council Acts to Save Old Battleship Oregon,” San Francisco Call-Bulletin
(December 9, 1954).
. See Webber, Battleship Oregon, 114-15.
. J. B. Thomas, “Canal Zone ‘Inspiration’ Being Scrapped in Japan,” Honolulu
Star-Bulletin (June 7, 1956) and Tokyo Asahi Evening News (June 4,
1956). Both sources quoted in Webber, Battleship Oregon, 119.
. Dr. Harry A. Butowsky, “Nomenclature Used in the National Parks,” Cultural
Resource Management Bulletin 2, no. 4 (December 1979): 3. The Antiquities
Act of 1906 authorized the President to set aside lands containing historic landmarks.
To qualify as a national monument, an object or piece of land must possess something
of archeological, ecological, or historical value. The law requires that the area
specified must be no larger than needed to preserve the object of interest.
. James P. Delgado, “Maritime Resources in the National Park System,” Cultural
Resource Management Bulletin 12, no. 5 (1989): 18-19.
. For further reading on World War II and Civil War sunken ships consult Marie
Cottrell and Steven R. James, Jr., “Civil War Sunken Ships: Legacy Resource Management
Program,” CRM 16, no. 10 (1993): 8-9, and Bill Jeffrey, “ World War II Shipwrecks
in Truk Lagoon: The Role of Interest Groups,” CRM (Summer 2004): 51-66. Information
on the Snow Squall and Jeremiah O’Brien gathered from William A. Bayreuther,
“The Clipper Ship Snow Squall: Translating a Dream into Reality,” CRM
16, no. 3 ((1993): 24-26, and Kevin J. Foster, “The Roving National Historic Landmark—Jeremiah
O’Brien: A Successful Public-Private Partnership Commemorating the 50th
Anniversary of D-Day,” CRM 17, no. 5 (1994): 1, 3-4.
. Geoffrey M. White, “Disney’s Pearl Harbor: National Memory at the Movies,”
Public Historian 24, no. 4 (Fall 2002): 99.
. Harry A. Butowsky, “Preserving American History—Past, Present, Future,” Cultural
Resource Management 2, no. 4 (December 1979): 3.
. “Memorial in Japan: Battleship Scrapped,” San Francisco Call-Bulletin
(April 13, 1957).
. See article “USS Oregon,” San Francisco Call-Bulletin (May 1, 1957).
. Information based on photographs in Webber, Battleship Oregon, 101-106.
. See Sternlicht, McKinley’s Bulldog, 122.
. Alden, “Whatever Happened to the Battleship Oregon,” 148-49.
Copyright © 2011 Dr. Christopher Jannings
Written by Dr. Christopher M. Jannings. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Dr. Christopher M. Jannings at:
About the author:
Dr. Christopher M. Jannings earned his MA and Ph.D. in United States history from Western Michigan University.
His teaching and research interests are grounded in military studies and the history of warfare.
Published online: 11/06/2011.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.