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USS North Dakota

The All-Big Gun Debate

 High School Lesson

Introduction

USS North DakotaUSS North Dakota. SHSND 2002-P-15 Album2-P14b

On November 10, 1908, the first American dreadnought battleship, the USS North Dakota was christened by Mary Benton of Fargo as it slid from its construction site into the water. The ship was the biggest, heaviest, and fastest ship yet built by any navy. The ship, its builders, the Navy, the United States, and North Dakota were praised in superlatives. The Fargo Forum printed a front page headline declaring the ship to be “Uncle Sam’s Biggest Peacemaker.” Governor John Burke, speaking at the formal launching ceremonies at Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts stated that “this is the greatest fighting machine in the world, . . . named after the greatest agricultural state in this union.”

The ship’s design reflected the lessons American Navy officers learned in defeating the Spanish in 1898. A US Navy officer, Commander Homer C. Poundstone had noted that while the US won the war, on average only two per cent of shells fired from US ships hit their target. Poundstone theorized that locating the proper range of fire required different calculations for guns of different sizes mounted on the ships. In the confusion of battle, this led to inaccuracy in placing shots. In 1903 Poundstone designed two models for all-big-gun ships – an entirely new idea in ship construction - but the plans were set aside with little further attention.

The 1905 Russo-Japanese War, in which Great Britain played a supporting role as Japan’s ally, led British naval engineers to think about more effective battleships. The British ship, HMS Dreadnought, was soon built along the lines of the all-big-gun ships proposed by Commander Poundstone. So impressive was the Dreadnought, that its name came to represent an entire generation of battleships. The USS North Dakota was the first American dreadnought to launch (its sister ship, USS Delaware was launched shortly after). Other nations followed suit: Germany, France, Italy, and Japan began to enlarge their navies with all-big-gun battleships.

The USS North Dakota was not completed and ready to sail until April 11, 1910. Over the next thirteen years, she sailed along the east coast, the Caribbean Sea, the coast of Mexico, and to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She patrolled the east coast from Virginia to Long Island during World War I, and trained midshipmen from the US Naval Academy. She toured ports on the Mediterranean Sea in 1919. Her crew took honors in target practice on the open sea, hitting targets as far as 10 miles away at a rate exceeding thirty per cent.

The ship, however, was also troubled by engine breakdowns, a major explosion in September 1910, and a fire. Some Naval officers had complained as the ship was being built in 1907 and 1908 that the design was flawed, the guns were inadequate, and the turbine engines were of an inferior design. The debate raged over the North Dakota’s design in such respectable journals as The New York Times and Scientific American. The Grand Forks Herald made reference to the debate in its articles about the launching of the ship, but assured North Dakotans that the critics were not on solid footing.

Were the critics right? The debate centered on many technical aspects of the ship, as well as national preparation for a possible war, cost of armaments, speed of production, and the honor of the US Navy command. Read both sides of the debate before making your decision.

The Critics' Position 1

In 1906, a man named Henry Reuterdahl launched a series of criticisms at the Navy Department, most of them based on organization. Though Reuterdahl’s arguments did not reflect on the new battleships, they left the Navy Department defensive about any criticism. So, when Navy Lieutenant Commander Albert L. Key began to raise questions about the construction of the North Dakota as it was being built in 1907, a debate among Navy officers ensued.

Commander Key was assigned to the USS Salem which was under construction nearby. He visited and studied the North Dakota often and submitted to the Secretary of the Navy a list of objections to its design. The disturbance caused by his assessment of the battleship led to a Naval Conference called by President Theodore Roosevelt, who had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy from 1897 to 1898 and maintained a strong interest in the Navy and its representation of US power abroad. At this conference, Key’s observations were under discussion. He had a good deal of support from other officers, though Navy regulations prevented them from speaking publicly on the matter.

The New York Times and Scientific American sought information on the matter of the North Dakota’s effectiveness and safety. Both printed articles on the debates before and after the Newport Naval Conference held in August 1908. The official report of the conference was released in November, just three days before the ship was launched. The following statements concerning the North Dakota are taken from these journals as well as Captain Gilbert F. Rindahl’s study of the ship which was published in North Dakota History 32 (April 1965):107 – 116.

The Critics' Position 2
  1. The armor on the five inch guns was not thick enough to protect the guns from enemy shells. The five-inch guns were designed to repel torpedoes. They were mounted in the sides of the ship just below the deck.
  2. The five inch guns were placed too low on the ship and would be dashed by sea-water at moderate speed of 10 knots and in relatively calm seas. The shutters on the gun mounts could be closed when not in use, but when needed in warfare, it was possible that the gunpowder would be wet and the gun deck would be flooded. These guns also lacked a firing angle wide enough to protect the entire ship from torpedoes.
  3. The number 3 powder magazine (where gun powder was stored) was located between the engine room and the steam pipes which could cause the powder to rise in temperature, possibly leading to fire or explosion. The high temperature of the powder would also make the powder less reliable in firing the ship’s big guns. The French battleship Jena had had an explosion of overheated powder in 1907.
  4. The 12-inch gun turrets on the main deck were poorly positioned. The ship was designed for broadside combat which, it was presumed, would be the nature of naval combat in the future. The big guns of the North Dakota could be turned to either side of the ship for firing. However, if the ship had to fire to the rear, one of the two turrets which were located on the same level would be unable to fire, diminishing the effectiveness of the ship’s guns.
  5. The 12 inch guns of the North Dakota were inferior to those of other nations’ navies. The guns were lighter in weight than most others, similar only to those of France; they had the slowest “initial velocity” – meaning that the shells left the gun at a slower rate of speed compared to those of other navies; the shells had the least penetrating power on armor plate compared to those of other navies; and the “danger space” was the shortest, meaning that the shells were less likely to hit the target even if properly aimed.
  6. The armor belt which protected the sides of the ship was too high and should be lowered by at least one foot, though some officers said the armor belt was too low and should be raised. The armor belt was supposed to protect the ship at the water line or load line. That line was also debated depending on whether the ship was fully loaded or partially loaded.
  7. The North Dakota was fitted with two Curtis turbine engines (the Delaware had reciprocating engines) which could run on coal or oil. Some officers considered these engines inferior and noted that test runs on these engines revealed poor performance. They consumed more coal than other types of engines.
  8. The ventilators and funnels were too high and not protected by armor. These ventilators brought fresh air into the engine room. If they were damaged and unable to function, the men working in the engine room would suffocate from lack of oxygen.

The Defenders' Position 1

The Navy was anxious to clear the controversy over the North Dakota’s construction and design. Navy leaders agreed to meet under the leadership of President Roosevelt at the Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island to discuss the complaints and to make adjustments if necessary or practical.

President Roosevelt was disturbed by the nature and frequency of the criticism of the North Dakota. The conference was to proceed in secrecy though the names of the participants were public. Among the officers were six Rear Admirals, several Naval Constructors, and Commander Albert L. Key.

The plans for the North Dakota (Battleship 29) and the Delaware had been submitted to Congress in 1906 along with a construction budget. Similar plans had been submitted to Congress for appropriations for the next ships to be built, the Florida and the Utah. Roosevelt, who had, as president, promoted a strong Navy, wanted to be sure that all four ships would be among the most powerful in the world.

During the conference, a news story was published stating that the ships of the Delaware class (including the North Dakota) were unsatisfactory. Roosevelt responded on August 21, 1908 with characteristic vigor:

There is no question about the plans being unsatisfactory; merely as to whether they cannot be made even better. The North Dakota [Delaware] class are undoubtedly better than any ships now afloat. The conference is simply engaged in the effort to try to make them better still.

The President, however, had temporarily halted work on the battleships until he saw new plans for that class of ship. A week later, President Roosevelt approved of the plans for the new ships with just a few adjustments. All the new ships (after the North Dakota and Delaware) would have turbine engines, and each would have two extra 5 inch torpedo guns.

The following statements in defense of the ships’ design and construction are taken from the New York Times, the Grand Forks Herald, and Scientific American.

The Defenders' Position 2
  1. The Delaware and the North Dakota are nearly 40% completed and defects cannot be remedied at this time.
  2. Changing the plans of the Florida and the Utah would require delaying the building of those ships by 5 or 6 months. These two ships were to be completed approximately one year after the North Dakota.
  3. Even if two chambers were hit by shells in combat, allowing water into the ship’s interior, the ship would float and remain able to return fire making the exact placement of the armor belt of less importance.
  4. The armor belt should be 6 feet below the most likely position of the water line at combat weight and that is where it currently is located on the North Dakota.
  5. Thicker armor for the 5 inch guns would mean heavier weight and greater displacement of water (resulting in a lower water line). While desirable, this would cause the loss of other desirable qualities in the ship.
  6. The 5 inch guns probably should be mounted higher, but a special inquiry should be held to determine the best position for mounting the 5 inch torpedo guns.
  7. The twelve inch guns of the North Dakota may be inferior to the new British 12 inch guns, but they were equal to guns currently in use. Improved 12 inch guns would be used on the newer dreadnoughts, the Florida and the Utah.
  8. It would be impractical to redesign the North Dakota to provide a cooler location for the powder magazine that is surrounded by steam pipes. The Navy would attempt to provide a cooling mechanism for the magazine.
  9. The location of the gun turrets is acceptable and is similar to the location of gun turrets on other nations’ ships. The position of the turrets contributes to the stability of the ship.
  10. Some sacrifices had to be made in order to achieve the proper weight, space, speed of the ship and maximum efficiency of broadside discharges of the 12 inch guns. Therefore, some of the criticisms of Commander Key must be set aside.
  11. The North Dakota and the other dreadnoughts of the US Navy are equal to any of their type in the world. Though there may be flaws in design, these are common among similar ships in the navies of other nations.

Debate Conclusion

Both sides claimed victory following the conference. Commander Key and his allies announced that the ventilators would be armored, the guns would be improved on the next generation of ships, and the powder magazines would be refrigerated. The senior officers at the conference generally defended the North Dakota’s construction and design stating that changes in design could not be ordered so late in the construction process and that some sacrifices had to be made so that the ship could meet the desired weight and speed. Though there were problems with the early models of the turbine engine, the officers generally approved of the smooth running engine which allowed them to accurately place shots from the big guns.

With very few changes, the North Dakota was launched three days after the release of the report from the Newport Conference. The final details of construction were completed and she went to sea in April 1910 with a crew of more than 900 officers and men. She acquired an honorable record in many respects and was noted for the good feeling between the officers and the enlisted men. One report noted that the officers were careful to explain the tasks expected of the seamen thoroughly so that if one were disabled, another could take his place. Very likely, the North Dakota’s officers contributed to the education of the enlisted men when on board schooling was suggested by Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels in 1913. The entire crew cheered the success of the North Dakota’s gunnery exercises in 1911 when the ship won the fleet’s coveted red flag with the black ball in the center for hitting a target at nearly 10 miles distance over 30 per cent of the time.

The ship never saw combat so the effectiveness of the armor belt location was not resolved with this ship. However, the debate over construction was not the last time the North Dakota would have the spotlight. She entered into another debate in 1922 when she was on the list of older ships to be de-commissioned and destroyed under the terms of the Naval Arms Limitation Treaty.

Activity 1
  1. Organize a debate among your classmates over the construction of the USS North Dakota.
  2. Organize a “conference” to discuss the issues of construction of the first All-Big-Gun ship. Each participant should be assigned a rank (Lieutenant, Commander, Admiral, etc) and one person should be the President of the United States. Each person should have a list of the positions they represent and should be prepared to argue for their position.

Activity 2

Using this matrix, compare the arguments concerning the USS North Dakota. Using what you have read about the ship, and any other research you can conduct on her, analyze the strength of each argument. An example is presented to help you get started.


Download pdf version

Activity 2

Naval Arms Limitation Treaty 1922

World War I was sometimes called The War to End All Wars. The amount of material destruction and the numbers of lives lost and/or ruined appalled the citizens of modern nations many of whom believed that wars were a residue of our savage past. Indeed, the warring nations formed in 1919 the League of Nations, an international organization which provided a forum for discussing international disputes. (The United States did not join the League of Nations.)

Some people, especially in the United States and Great Britain, thought that the arms race, particularly in naval vessels, had contributed to the outbreak of war, and that the frantic effort to build more, and more powerful, battleships had been an enormous and possibly debilitating expense to their national economies.

The Republican platform in the 1920 presidential race contained a naval disarmament plank which committed President Warren G. Harding to pursue arms limitation in his presidency. Republican Senator William Borah of Idaho represented these interests in the Senate where he fostered the idea of an international naval arms limitation conference. Those who supported Borah’s plan believed, as did Senator Hiram Johnson (Republican) of California, that "War may be banished from the earth more nearly by disarmament than . . . in any other manner.”

The resulting Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty of 1922 was signed by the United States, Great Britain, France, Italy, and Japan. These nations agreed to limit battleships according to total tonnage of ships (mostly battleships), allowing the US (and Great Britain) 525,000 tons displacement. More than 800,000 tons of older ships were to be destroyed in order to meet the limit on tonnage. The USS North Dakota was identified in the treaty as one of the ships to be “disposed of” in a prescribed manner. The Rules for Scrapping Vessels of War (Treaty Ch 2, Pt 2) required that the ship be permanently sunk, broken up, or converted to target use exclusively.

The North Dakota sailed until September 1923, when the Navy announced that the ship would become a radio controller’s target during maneuvers in the Caribbean Sea over the coming winter. When that exercise failed, the ship was placed in “mothballs” at Norfolk Navy Yard for the next eight years. In 1931, the ship was sold for $87,206 to be cut apart by torches and turned into scrap metal. Disarmament was not a simple idea. Just a decade earlier many US citizens thought that peace could be assured by a powerful navy protecting our shores. However desirable permanent peace may have been in 1922, it was an uncertain ideal in a world that seemed populated by aggressive, acquisitive nations. The ideas of peace and preparedness remained entangled over the next two decades.

Sources: Washington Naval Arms Limitations Treaty: Edith Wakeman Hughes Papers: SHSND 10114

Treaty Documents

This section contains three documents from the collection of Edith Wakeman Hughes. Mrs. Hughes was the chairperson of the first Navy Day in North Dakota in October 1922. While these documents concern Navy Day rather than disarmament, they contain sentiments about arms and peace that reveal the intertwining of our desire for peace insured by a well-armed nation.

The first letter, dated September 11, 1922, was written by the national chairman of the Navy Day committee inviting Governor Nestos of North Dakota to participate in Navy Day. Note especially the middle paragraph which suggests that the Navy ensures peace through power.

The second letter, a telegram from Governor Nestos to Secretary of the Navy Edwin Denby, indicates that North Dakotans favor Naval Disarmament while honoring the accomplishments of the Navy.

In the third letter, Senator Arthur Capper of Kansas pledges to honor Navy Day in 1923 while expressing his approval of both arms limitation and the importance of “naval power.”

The fourth document is an excerpt from statements made by Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan (September 27, 1840–December 1, 1914) that were published in the Bismarck Tribune on September 15, 1914, just as Europe was beginning to engage in World War I. Admiral Mahan is regarded as the man who designed the modern navy in the 1880s.

Read these documents carefully before completing the Activities.

Treaty Activities

Choose one or more of the following activities to explore the ideas of armament and peace.

  1. Establish two teams to debate the concept of disarmament based on the following resolution:

    Resolved: A well-trained and well-armed Navy was the best deterrent to war until 1941.
  2. Establish two teams to debate the following resolution:

    Resolved: The cost of building the All Big Gun ships (or dreadnoughts) was a worthwhile investment in the security of the United States.
  3. Read about the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (1969 – 1972) at the State Department web site

    Compare the SALT treaty to the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty in its scope and purpose.
  4. Read the Navy Budgets

    Read the national budgets (after 1900)

Compare the budgets for the Navy and for the United States for several years. Are those war years? Can you see trends toward more naval building and less naval building? What accounts for increases and decreases in the naval budget?