USS Utah (BB-31) was the sixth dreadnought battleship commissioned by the US Navy. She entered service in August of 1911. Utah and her sister Florida were the first two US battleships to use steam turbines, although some later battleships (New York, Texas, and Oklahoma) would revert to reciprocating engines. Utah displaced 22000 tons, carried 10 12″ guns, and could make 21 knots.
The battle squadron constructed by the United States between 1910 and 1921 avoided many of the problems of the Royal Navy, the High Seas Fleet, and the Imperial Japanese Navy. From Delaware on, the ships were all relatively heavily armed, armored, and consistent in speed. It was not difficult, therefore, for the fleet to operate as a unit. In contrast, the Royal Navy included battlecruisers, which, while useful for many operations, could not operate safely in the battle line. Also, the dreadnoughts of the Royal Navy varied widely in speed; this could be a handicap in battle, as faster ships could get separated from slower. The same problems existed in the High Seas Fleet and the IJN.
Utah, like many US ships of the period, engaged in her first combat action off Vera Cruz in April 1914. A contingent of sailors and marines were supported by offshore gunnery, and the men of Utah apparently distinguished themselves. Utah did not play much of a role in World War I, as she was not included in the squadron allocated to the Grand Fleet in 1917. Utah didn’t arrive in Great Britain until September 1918, acting as a convoy escort. Like all other US battleships, she saw no combat.
The interwar period was relatively eventful for Utah. Twice, Utah served as the flagship of a squadron engaged in a goodwill cruise of South America. The second cruise included President-elect Herbert Hoover. Utah underwent modernization in 1925, losing her aft cage mast and receiving more anti-aircraft guns. Most of the rest of the period before 1930 was spent as a training ship.
The 1930 London Naval Treaty moved a step beyond the 1922 Washington Treaty. The latter was intended to forestall a naval arms race, which many, especially in Great Britain, blamed for World War I. The massive battleship building programs of the United States, Japan, and the United Kingdom were suspended in favor of a naval construction freeze and strict limits on the size of battlefleets. The United States was allowed to keep 18 battleships, including Utah. The London Naval Treaty sought to reduce the number of battleships in each fleet. The new limit for the US and the UK was 15, as opposed to 9 for Japan. This necessitated the elimination of several units from each fleet. Utah found herself on the chopping block. Rather than scrap Utah, however, it was decided to disarm and convert her into a target ship.
Utah served in this capacity for eleven years. On December 7, 1941, Utah was moored some distance to the northwest of Battleship Row. The Japanese torpedo bomber pilots were rather less than interested in Utah’s demilitarized status, and at 801am she was hit forward port by a single torpedo. Eleven minutes later, Utah rolled over and sank. Remarkably, only 64 of a crew of 471 died, with some sailors being rescued after their blowtorch-armed comrades cut through the bottom of the hull.
Utah was the oldest battleship to serve in World War II, but not the oldest to serve as a battleship, an honor which goes to USS Arkansas. Utah’s service in the war lasted about fifteen minutes. However, the service was not wholly irrelevant; the torpedo that hit Utah might have hit another US battleship, resulting in the deaths of more sailors. Utah remains at the bottom of Pearl Harbor today, although she is visted far less frequently than Arizona.
Trivia: What was the first battleship sunk by the Allies during World War II? Hint: The Graf Spee was not a battleship.