Another turn-of-the-century American innovation was the double-decker turret. Many American battleship classes after the Indiana and Iowa classes retained the four-turret 8-inch intermediate armament. In two classes this was mounted in two turrets sandwiched on top of the main 13" turrets, as seen in our views of the Kearsarge — the last U.S. Navy battleship not to be named for a state but for a mountain in New Hampshire, and also for a famous Civil War warship.
The Kearsarge was commissioned February 20, 1900. The dual turrets looked impressive, but in practice this double-decker gun mounting was problematic. Since the turrets swiveled as a unit, there was no independent training possible for the smaller guns. The 8” fired at a faster rate than the main armament, thus creating difficulties in coordinating the ammo lifts. Lastly, blast and vibration from the 13” main guns interfered with the operation of the 8” guns above. The turret used two 50 hp electric motors for training. Elevation, hoists and chain-driven rammers were also electrically powered; exposed electrical switch gear caused a powder burn in one of the Kearsarge's turrets on April 13, 1906, killing ten men and seriously injuring four more. Major re-engineering of the ships' turrets followed to correct this hazard. While the 13" turret section was protected by 15-17" Harvey armor, the 8" turret carried only 7 to 9" armor, providing a soft point of entry to the main turret in the event of a direct hit in action. Despite the problems, a similar dual mounting arrangement was repeated after a hiatus in the five-ship Virginia class (completed 1904-06).
While the Kearsarge class was not a rousing technical success, it was one of the most interesting and unique types of American battleship. The top of the superstructure was covered with an intricate web of flying bridges, boat booms, and awning rigging pierced with angular cranes, slender funnels, and sprouting ventilator cowls. These features, the overstated ram shape, and the odd turrets have made the class a favorite of artists and modelers.
Kearsarge and Kentucky made the globe-girdling voyage with the Great White Fleet in 1907-09, the oldest class of battleship to complete the circumnavigation. Both ships underwent an extensive refit in 1910-11, costing over $675,000 each. They received new Mosher boilers, additional 5" guns, and reworked ammo lifts (to two-stage) in the piggyback turrets. Externally they were fitted with wire lattice masts. Kentucky became Adm. Roberts' flagship in Manila, leading the Asiatic Fleet for 4 years. Both served as training ships and coastal defense units in WWI. Kentucky was 'consigned to the dustbin' in January 1924 in conformance with the Washington Treaty, but Kearsarge was converted to a crane ship in 1922, beginning a long and successful 33-year second career. Her ancient original engines died in the 1930s and she was moved about by tug afterwards. Her screws were removed to decrease drag while under tow. In 1948 she was assigned to a last, 7-year stint at the Boston Navy Yard. It was a sad day for the U.S. Navy when, worn out after working to the last, she was sold to Patapsco Shipbreaking. Later in 1955 she made her last voyage to Baltimore and the boneyard.
Specifications for the Kearsarge class:
Dimensions: 375'4" x 72'3" x 25'10" Armament: (4) 13"/35 Mark 3 (2x2), (4) 8"/35 Mark IV (2x2), (14) 5"/40 rapid firing, and (4) 6-pdr guns; (1) 18" torpedo tube. Armor: Harvey nickel type. 16.5"/4" belt, 17"/15" main turrets, 9" secondary (piggyback) turrets, 5½" battery, 7"/6" bulkheads, 2½" deck, 4" engine hatch, 10" conning tower. Coal capacity: 410 tons normal; 1,210 tons maximum. Propulsion: (14) coal-fired Scotch boilers; (2) vertical triple expansion engines developing 10,500 IHP, shafted to twin screw. Maximum speed: 16 kts. Crew: 553.
Ships in class: Kearsarge · Kentucky
Dimensions: 114.4m x 22.2m x 7.89m. Armament: (4) 33 cm/35 Mark 3 (2x2), (4) 203 mm/35 Mark IV (2x2), (14) 127 mm/40 rapid firing, and (4) 6-pdr guns; (1) 450 mm torpedo tube. Armor: Harvey nickel type. 419 mm belt, 432 mm turrets, 127 mm deck, 254 mm conning tower. Coal capacity: 410 tons normal; 1,210 tons maximum. Propulsion: (14) coal-fired Scotch boilers; (2) inverted vertical triple expansion engines developing 7,457 kW, shafted to twin screw. Maximum speed: 29.63 km/hr. Crew: 553.
Longitudinal section hints at the complicated ammunition hoists for the piggyback turrets.
Cutaway view from a newspaper shows the workings of a piggyback mount on the Kearsarge. Accompanying text describes the turret as "the greatest invention of the century" -- an easy claim to make since the century was only two years old, but a dubious claim nonetheless. Text goes on to praise its own illustration as "the best ever published" which also is a debatable claim. Be that as it may, this is the best illustration of the Kearsarge's dual mountings that has come to us. Enlarge
At right, the Kentucky's bow crest, gilt bronze outside with a red enameled eagle in the center; Kearsarge and the second Maine bore nearly identical bow ornaments. The dual piggyback mounting was revived in the Virginia class without success, and at last abandoned in the following Connecticut class, 16,000-ton ships which could readily support four 8" turrets and a dozen long-barreled 7" on the broadside to boot. Under President Teddy Roosevelt, the U.S. developed an Atlantic fleet of 18 battleships between 1898 and 1909, and a substantial cruiser fleet as well, with six older battleships held in reserve. This frenzy of warship construction was intended give the U.S. a fleet second only to Great Britain's by 1919. Thanks in part to the fortunes of war (the surrender and subsequent scuttling of most of the German fleet), the United States succeeded in that goal.
A stern view of Kearsarge in drydock, Sept. 18, 1899. Arrangement of rudder and screws is shown, along with a great view of the aft piggyback turret.