The five-ship Virginia class marked two steps forward and one step backward in the erratic development of U.S. Navy battleships. On the plus side, the larger size and beam largely corrected the stability problems of the preceding Maine class while permitting the mounting of a much heavier secondary armament: eight 8" in addition to a formidable 6" array. On the negative side, a new version of the piggyback deployment first attempted in the Kearsarge class was chosen for half the 8" armament. This arrangement had been problematic in the previous class: the 'upstairs' or 'superposed' secondary turret could not rotate independently of the larger turret to which it was affixed; also the ammunition lift for the 8" guns had to travel through the 12" turret, creating problems of space and synchronization, since the 8" guns had a quicker rate of fire than the 12". This mounting problem proved to be not only inconvenient but downright dangerous: the aft 8" piggyback on the USS Georgia sustained a crippling explosion on July 15, 1907, taking the lives of 10 gunners. Indicating that the problem was with the double-decker mounting, the 8" beam turrets in the class performed free of similar problems. While the piggyback mounting proved an insoluble technical headache, the Virginias were quite good ships in other ways. The piggyback mounting scheme was quietly retired in the next wave of American building -- the 6-ship Connecticut class, the acme of U.S. pre-dreadnought design.
One of the celebrated exploits of the Virginias, together with the other ten battleships of recent vintage in the Atlantic Fleet, was the circumnavigation of the globe ordered by President Theodore Roosevelt ("TR") in 1908. It was in the waning days of his administration and his trust-busting, nature-conserving, and empire-building energies were deadlocked in struggle with an intransigent Congress. But the presidency has its privileges, not least as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces. Navy booster T.R. could flaunt one of his pet creations -- the New Navy -- by the broad gesture of sending it on an audacious journey. While the epic voyage by 16 battleships could not be defended as strictly necessary, it did have benefits for the service. It gave necessary training in navigation and seamanship to a new and fast-growing service. It boosted morale to accomplish such an elaborate and ambitious mission (still counted among the U.S. Navy's greatest technical feats), operating very far from familiar bases. The trip had political benefits as well: domestically, it played up the new and costly Navy in a peaceful rôle, while at home and abroad, it trumpeted America's status as a naval and world power, one that "carried a big stick" even in faraway places. In particular, an attempt was made to impress the Japanese with America's insurmountable might. In this, the White Fleet's visit partially backfired: Japanese naval experts, accustomed to the latest British technology (particularly guns), analyzed the American ships and crews with a critical eye. The experts were unimpressed and undismayed. But the PR aspect of the visit was a triumph for both countries.
Above, detail of the piggyback turrets on the USS Georgia, following her internal turret explosion in 1907. Scorch marks and cracks are evident on the lower wall of the "superposed" 8-inch turret.
Plans and Specifications
Specifications for the Virginia class: Dimensions: Length: 441'4" x 76'4" x 23'10" Displacement: 14,980 tons std; 15,220 tons deep laden. Armament: (4) 12"/40 cal (2x2), (8) 8"/45 (4x2), (12) 6"/50, and (24) 1.5" 1-pounder guns; (4) .30-cal machine guns; (4) 21" torpedo tubes. Armor: Krupp Cemented type. 11"/8" belt; 10"/7.5" barbettes; 11" conning tower; 12"/6" turrets; 3"/1.5" deck. Propulsion: 12 coal-fired Niclausse boilers; 2-shaft inverted vertical triple-expansion engines developing 19,000 HP. Speed: 19 knots. Crew: 916.
Ships in class: Virginia · Nebraska · Georgia · New Jersey · Rhode Island.
Metric Specifications: Dimensions: Length: 134.5m x 23.4m x 7.3m. Displacement: 14,980 tons std; 15,220 tons deep laden. Armament: (4) 305 mm/40 cal (2x2), (8) 203 mm/45, (12) 152 mm/50, and (24) 37 mm 1-pounders, (4) 7.62 mm machine guns; (4) 533 mm torpedo tubes. Armor: Krupp Cemented type. 280/203 mm belt; 254/191 mm barbettes; 280 mm conning tower; 305/152 mm turrets; 76/38 mm deck. Propulsion: 12 coal-fired Niclausse boilers; 2-shaft inverted vertical triple-expansion engines developing 14,168 kW. Speed: 35.2 km/hr. Crew: 916.
The seaworthiness of U.S. battleships was proven many times over on the epic voyage. At left, the New Jersey (BB-16) wallows in the swell of a China Sea typhoon whose track the Fleet skirted on its way from Hong Kong to Manila. On returning to the States in early 1909, the ships of the Great White Fleet were withdrawn from service one by one for modernization. All received regulation wire "cage" masts with fire-control and spotting equipment at the top, as part of a fleetwide gunnery control upgrade. The Virginia class ships were relegated to the Atlantic Reserve Fleet: the active-duty slots were held open for the new dreadnoughts coming into commission, while reserve ships were kept in port with skeleton crews, on the model of the British reserve fleet developed by Sir John Fisher at the same time. During the War the older USN battleships were mostly used for training and coastal defense. After the Armistice, they were used to ferry troops back to the States, a process which consumed more than a year.
After more than a further year in limbo, tied up at Mare Island Naval Station's "death row," most of the navy's remaining pre-dreadnoughts were sold for scrapping. The Virginia and New Jersey were held out for special duty, however. In 1923 they were assigned as targets for Gen. Billy Mitchell's experiments in aerial bombing, and were sunk off the Virginia Capes. The Virginia was effectively demolished by a single direct hit; according to the DANFS, "Virginia and her sistership New Jersey were taken to a point three miles (5 km) off the Diamond Shoals lightship, off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and anchored there on 5 September 1923. The 'attacks' made by Army Air Service Martin bombers began shortly before 0900. On the third attack, seven Martins flying at 3,000 feet (900m), each dropped two 1,100 pound bombs on Virginia, only one of them hit. That single bomb, however, 'completely demolished the ship as such.' An observer later wrote: 'Both masts, the bridge; all three smokestacks, and the upperworks disappeared with the explosion and there remained, after the smoke cleared away, nothing but the bare hull, decks blown off, and covered with a mass of tangled debris from stem to stern consisting of stacks, ventilators, cage masts, and bridges.
"'Within one-half-hour of the cataclysmic blast that wrecked the ship, her battered hulk sank beneath the waves. Her sistership ultimately joined her shortly thereafter. Virginia's end, and New Jersey's, provided far-sighted naval officers with a dramatic demonstration of air power and impressed upon them the urgent need of developing naval aviation with the fleet.' As such, the service performed by the old pre-dreadnought may have been her most valuable."
For exciting video of the two ships' demise, click here.
For a photo feature on the USS Nebraska, only battleship built on Puget Sound, click here.
In their 1909-10 modernization, all existing U.S. capital ships were retrofitted with the new regulation wire-lattice masts, though in a few cases the original foremast was not replaced until after WWI. The decorative scrollwork on bows and sterns was also removed at this time, and the bridgeworks replaced with an angular new regulation model. Here is Virginia, looking sprightly in her new rig, c. 1912. The older U.S. battleships were mostly used for training and coastal defense during the War; afterwards they ferried troops back to the States.
This panoramic shot was made when Virginia had just docked at Boston on completion of one such voyage, and provides a good view of the 8" wing turret, identical to that used in the Connecticut class in style if not in positioning. For an awesome panoramic enlargement, click here.
The homely shape of USS New Jersey in her WWI rig and camouflage paint. Enlargement shows the rigging of the wireless aerials particularly well. Enlarge
The less than glamorous end of a battleship's career: made obsolete in a world of super-dreadnoughts mounting 16" guns, the members of the Virginia class await the wrecker's torch at Mare Island's maritime "Death Row," 1920. Left to right, USS Georgia (BB-15), Rhode Island (BB-17), Connecticut class battleship USS Vermont (BB-20), and USS Nebraska (BB-14).
Devastated by Billy Mitchell's Martin bombers, USS Virginia turns turtle and sinks into the blue Atlantic in a welter of foam, September 1923. The hulk was later sold to Bethlehem Steel, raised, and scrapped at Baltimore.
Dramatic video of Billy Mitchell's bombers sinking the Virginia and New Jersey.