The Saga of the USS Nevada
July – August 2014
Historic vessel leaves crucial chapter of American history in its wake.
BY WAYNE SCARPACI
July 11, 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the launching of United States Battleship Number 36 named for the great state of Nevada. Throughout Battleship Nevada’s long career—from her inception in 1909 to her sinking in 1948—she repeatedly distinguished herself. She was one of the most innovative and active battleships in the US Navy, as unique and special as the state for which she was named. That special Nevada mystique, with its bad-boy past, endless forbidding sagebrush deserts, a land of contrasts, contradictions, and beauty, carried over to Battleship Nevada and seemed to embody the very spirit of the state. From her heroic sortie at Pearl Harbor to her exemplary war record and incredible toughness in the face of efforts to sink her, Battleship Nevada is indeed a ship to be remembered.
Nevada was the 36th state to be admitted to the union and Battleship Nevada was the only ship whose hull number, (BB) 36, coincided with the state’s admission order.
When commissioned in 1916, the press of the day heralded Nevada as a “super dreadnaught” and declared that she shifted Uncle Sam’s Navy into the position of being the world’s leading sea power. This is because Nevada introduced the radical new concept of the raft body armor principal. This provided the thickest possible armor (13.5-inches thick) in a box-shaped fortress amidships, enclosing the ship’s vital systems, leaving non-vital areas largely unarmored. Vital areas were defined as the main turrets, their barbettes, magazines, the engines, command, conning, and main battery fire control. This feature made Nevada the first second-generation battleship and rendered all firstgeneration battleships obsolete. Nevada was also the first US battleship to be fitted with triple turrets in positions one forward and four near the stern, and was the first US Navy battleship designed from the onset to use oil as fuel.
BRAVELY MAKING HISTORY
On Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked. However, at 8 a.m. standing at attention on the fantail, Nevada’s band started playing the “Star Spangled Banner.” While standing fast in ranks, they were interrupted by a strafing attack aimed at them by a Japanese rear gunner in a torpedo bomber passing overhead which fortunately missed all personnel. The band paused during the strafing, but immediately picked up when it was over. They once again paused as a second torpedo bomber flashed overhead, this time without strafing. They then picked up once more until the last note was played, at which time all scattered for their battle stations.
Nevada was the first battleship to open fire at enemy planes, and she was the only ship to shoot down an aircraft with its secondary surface battery at Pearl Harbor. And on this day, luck earned Nevada a permanent berth in the annals of naval history. When in port and not tied to a pier, a battleship usually had just one boiler online to generate electricity; however, a single boiler was not enough for a battleship to get underway. Early on that fateful morning, Nevada’s offi cer of the deck realized the same boiler had been in use since the ship had returned to port on Dec. 5, and ordered a second boiler lit.
By 8 a.m., the second boiler was at full steam. When the attack started, the senior offi cer present afloat (SOPA) realized that with two boilers online, Nevada had enough power to get underway. He immediately ordered the hoisting of the signals “I am preparing to get underway” and “request tug assistance.” The tugboat Hoga was dispatched to assist Nevada.
UNDER ATTACK AND FIGHTING BACK
Minutes later Arizona—moored directly ahead of Nevada— blew up in a tremendous explosion and began burning furiously. At 8:10 a.m., Nevada was struck forward by a torpedo and at
8:13 a.m. was struck amidships by a bomb. At 8:25 a.m., the first wave of Japanese attackers withdrew. Realizing the danger of the burning oil on the water drifting toward Nevada, the SOPA
made the decision to get underway without the tug. The mooring hawsers were cast off and at 8:40 a.m., Nevada started to back down; minutes later her bow swung into the channel. At 8:47
a.m. the ship started moving forward. Nevada was underway! The effect was electrifying on the men ashore and aboard the other ships. Tumultuous cheering broke out and men from the stricken Arizona and West Virginia leapt into the water and swam to join Nevada as she passed.
Many of the men who saw Nevada underway recalled the words of the “Star Spangled Banner” when they saw the ensign courageously raised and standing out stiffly in the breeze. The ship then successfully navigated around the pipe for the harbor dredge and headed for the channel out of the harbor. At 8:55 a.m., the arriving second wave of Japanese planes noticed Nevada underway and moved to attack her in hopes of sinking the ship in the channel and blocking it. At 9 a.m., dive bombers and torpedo bombers put Nevada under heavy attack, and within a few minutes the ship was hit by five more bombs. Nevada was burning forward and amidships and sinking by the bow. The SOPA realized Nevada was going to sink and ordered the ship grounded.
At 9:10 a.m., Nevada was grounded on Hospital Point with the assistance of the tug Hoga, which had dutifully followed Nevada down the channel. Thirty minutes later Nevada was moved across the channel to Waipio Point to prevent the stern of the ship from swinging around and partially blocking the main channel. Thus, gallant Nevada was the first (and only) battleship to get underway during the Pearl Harbor attack.
BACK IN ACTION
On Feb. 12, 1942, Nevada was refloated, and six days later was towed into drydock for temporary repairs. On April 22, she got underway on her own power. Nevada was the first of the pre-war battleships to be fully modernized. She emerged with new radars, fire control, and a new 5-inch battery that gave her the same anti-aircraft capability as modern battleships. In December, Nevada was ready to rejoin the fleet and in May 1943 participated in the landings to retake Attu and Kiska in the Aleutians Islands. In June 1943, Nevada was transferred to the European Theater where she supported D-Day landings at Normandy, and was commended for her accurate gunfire. She then took part in the landings on the South of France, where she single-handedly neutralized the damaged Vichy French Battlecruiser Strasbourg at Toulon with a single 14-inch hit.
In September 1944, Nevada was released from the European Theater and transferred to the Pacific. She arrived in time to participate in the landings at Iwo Jima where she again distinguished herself. Two days before the main landings she was assigned to support 12 landing craft infantry (LCI) with underwater demolition teams (frogmen) to remove underwater obstacles and mines. The LCIs amphibious assault ships immediately came under heavy fire as the Japanese commander believed this to be the main landing force. Nevada rang up flank speed and charged the beach with both forward turrets blazing and at 800 yards, threw herself broadside between the LCIs and the beach, allowing them to escape.
Nevada was struck by an Acchi 99 ‘Val’ dive bomber Kamikaze that crashed on her starboard quarter while off Okinawa, Japan on March 27, 1945. On April 5 1945, also off Okinawa, an undetected 4.7-inch shore battery suddenly opened fire, sending five rounds into the side of the ship causing minor damage. Nevada returned fire, but the bunker was so well protected it took 71 14-inch rounds to destroy it. This was the first and only time Nevada was hit by counter-battery. In July 1945, Nevada joined Tennessee, California, and West Virginia and the new battle cruisers Alaska and Guam for anti-shipping sweeps off the China coast.
After the war, Nevada was selected as a target ship for the atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll. To identify her as the target for the airburst shot Able, she was painted orange. Nevada survived the test and was determined to still be in an operable, if radioactive, condition. The second test, shot Baker, an underwater detonation, also failed to sink Nevada. One airborne observer reported the explosion actually lifted the ship clear of the water on an even keel. And although now dangerously radioactive, she was still considered to be only minimally damaged and still operational.
Nevada was stored at Kwajalein until 1948 when she was towed near Oahu to be sunk as a target. On July 26, 1948, a powerful new explosive device was tested aboard Nevada, only to detonate without causing significant damage. On July 31, Nevada was to be sunk by naval gunfire from the modern battleship USS Iowa (16-inch guns) and three light cruisers (6-inch guns). First from 15 miles out, then just five, Nevada was pounded by gunfire, but refused to sink. Destroyers were sent into fire hundreds of 5-inch projectiles into Nevada, but when the smoke cleared, Nevada was riding proud and defiant.
Finally, the decision was made to torpedo the ship and an Avenger torpedo bomber put a single torpedo into starboard side of Nevada amidships. Slowly at first, Nevada started listing starboard, then abruptly capsized and went down, stern first, in 2,600 fathoms of water 165 miles southwest of Pearl Harbor with her colors still flying. The toughness of Nevada was a vindication of, and a tribute to, the men who designed and built this fine ship.
As the ship disappeared into the Pacific, a former crewman was heard to remark: “Certainly every man who ever served aboard her will be forever proud to say: “I served on the greatest of the great battleships, the USS Nevada, and a part of her mystique will always remain with me.” A fitting epitaph for Battleship Nevada.
LEARN MORE ABOUT USS NEVADA
At the Nevada State Museum in Carson City, view the entire USS Nevada Battleship silver service. It was fashioned from 5,000 ounces of silver from the Tonopah mines and lined with gold from Goldfield. 775-687-4810
On July 14, 2014, celebrate the 100th anniversary of the ship’s commissioning at the Nevada State Capitol in Carson City. From 9:30 a.m.-noon, attend the re-dedication of the memorial’s plaque; then, join the reception in the Old Assembly Chambers of the Capitol. 775-687-0608
Buy Wayne Scarpaci’s book, “Battleship Nevada: The Extraordinary Ship of Firsts” and view his artwork at artbywayne.com