April 8, 2020
By Ryan Schwartz, Interpretive Programs Manager at First State Heritage Park
To visitors of First State Heritage Park in historic downtown Dover, this ship’s bell mounted beside the Delaware Public Archives and Welcome Center is a familiar sight:
This bell was created in the first decade of the 20th century by the U.S. Navy for the vessel that would be its answer to Great Britain’s revolutionary new warship, HMS Dreadnought. A mountain of steel and firepower, Dreadnought had instantly rendered every other warship on the oceans obsolete and navies around the globe rushed to answer her implicit challenge.
For the United States Navy, that answer was the USS Delaware.
Just as Delaware is the First State of the United States, the USS Delaware (BB-28) was the first of a new line of battleships designed to reinforce the United States’ status as a global naval power in a time when naval power was a yardstick for national greatness.
The U.S. Navy has a long history of naming combat ships after states; warships bearing Delaware’s name include:
When this latest ship named for the First State was designed in 1907, it was laid out by naval architect Rear Admiral Washington Capps to be the most powerful warship yet built in terms of weapons and armor.
Admiral Capps’ vision on paper began to become a reality in steel at the Newport News Navy Yard in Virginia on November 11th, 1907. By the time she was launched on January 6th, 1909, the ship would be 512’ long, 85’ wide, and—protected by 11 inches of armor—would weigh over 20,000 tons. The cost of building her was $3,946,000 (over $113,000,000 today).
Powered by new triple-expansion steam engines that increased her efficiency dramatically, USS Delaware had a cruising distance of 6,000 nautical miles (6,900 miles) before needing to be resupplied with coal. Those novel engines also made her the first U.S. battleship capable of travelling at her full speed of 23 knots (26 mph) on a nonstop basis without needing to stop or reduce speed.
After finally being fitted out, USS Delaware was commissioned into the Navy on April 4th, 1910, and received her full complement of 937 officers and crew. Her first stop after putting to sea was Wilmington, DE, where she received a set of beautiful silver service as a gift from a state that was proud to be the namesake of the most powerful battleship then afloat in the world.
For the entirety of her career, USS Delaware was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet, with the primary mission of “showing the flag;” as such, she traveled regularly to Europe and South America to represent the nation and her interests. These first few years of service, though broadly uneventful, were marred by a deadly mishap on January 17th, 1911, when one of her seventeen boilers exploded. This incident killed eight of her crew and badly scalding a ninth. Despite the tragedy of this mishap, it proved the resilience of ship and crew: the Delaware was back at sea just two weeks later, returning the body of the Chilean ambassador to his home country before crossing to England. There, she represented the United States in the coronation of Britain’s new king, George V.
This early video recording of the 1911 Coronation Review at Spithead gives a sense of the scale and pomp of such occasions.
Film Courtesy: British Pathé
When not occupied with such active duties, USS Delaware was frequently used as a training ground for midshipmen from the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, where many officers who would later see service in the World Wars got their first experience aboard a warship at sea. A number of these young leaders were aboard when President Howard Taft reviewed the fleet in 1912.
April 1914 marked the beginning of the most active phase in USS Delaware’s career. That year, in response to a violent escalation in the Mexican Revolution, numerous ships of the Atlantic Fleet were deployed to seize the port city of Vera Cruz. Putting Marines and naval landing forces ashore, the city was occupied for seven months while Delaware steadily cruised off the coast, prepared to rain down fire support should any threat materialize to American troops or citizens within the six-mile reach of her gun batteries.
Although the US Intervention in Mexico briefly consumed the headlines, most of the world’s attention quickly turned to the Great War, which erupted in Europe that July. The great looming question quickly became “when will the United States join the conflict?”
Although President Woodrow Wilson ran on a peace platform, by April of 1917 there was no escaping the fact: the USS Delaware would be going to war.
In November 1917, USS Delaware and several of her fellow battleships steamed across the Atlantic to join with the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet at Scapa Flow, Scotland. There, they were designated the Sixth Battle Squadron in a stare-down with the Imperial German High Seas Fleet. As a Squadron, they joined the allied Grand Fleet in several sorties, attempting to lure German surface warships into a pitched battle; the enemy, however, repeatedly declined to engage and each time retreated to port, much to the frustration of a crew apparently eager for action.
Thereafter, the Squadron was assigned to escort merchant vessel convoys, bringing vital supplies and fresh US troops into Great Britain to support the war effort. In February 1918, Delaware was attacked by German U-Boats but was skillfully maneuvered to avoid the two torpedoes sent streaking towards her. Finally, after completing the deployment of an underwater minefield in July 1918, the ship was reviewed for the second time by Britain’s monarch, King George V, before being relieved to return to the United States for maintenance and refitting.
USS Delaware’s deployment to the North Atlantic during WWI was the both pinnacle of her career and the herald of her end. After returning to the United States in August 1918, the Great War ended before she could be dispatched for a second deployment. With the end of the war came a new dynamic between nations that would have sad consequences for USS Delaware.
Although for the next several years she made herself useful as a training ship, the hard lessons of the First World War had demonstrated that ships like the Delaware were obsolete thanks to major advances in naval warfare. The United States, Britain, and Japan launched massive naval building efforts in the years following the war, a new arms race that resulted in the Washington Naval Treaty, which limited the scale of fleets in peacetime. As a part of the treaty, the U.S. agreed to scrap USS Delaware and her sister-ship, the USS North Dakota. In November of 1923, she entered dry dock in Boston for the final time in order to be stripped of her guns. Her crew was transferred to the newly-built USS Colorado while their faithful ship was ultimately broken up for scrap metal in February 1924.
The ship that was once a marvel of modern naval engineering and the pride of the fleet was no more, decommissioned due to obsolescence after just 13 years of service. Her story is evidence of the rapid-fire technological innovations that defined the turn of the 20th Century.
Today, the legacy of the USS Delaware lives on in her bell and in her stately official silver service, both preserved and placed into the keeping of the State of Delaware by the U.S. Navy. Those 23 pieces of ornate silver have often been chosen by Delaware’s governors for their personal use at functions of state; the ship’s bell, meanwhile, was placed on permanent outdoor display at First State Heritage Park in 2017. These two tangible connections to the past have served to keep the proud ship’s memory alive; however, for nearly 100 years, there was no U.S. naval vessel named USS Delaware.
That changed in July of 2019.
The Age of the Battleship has passed. In the 21st Century, the powerful striking arm of the U.S. Navy lies in her attack submarines. These silent hunter-killers prowl the deep, neither as showy nor as massive as their 20thCentury counterparts, but equally vital to national defense.
The new USS Delaware is a Virginia-class submarine, just commissioned into service on April 4th, 2020. Just as her battleship predecessor once was, the modern USS Delaware is the newest and most advanced nuclear submarine in the United States’ arsenal.
Delawareans will know and recognize the new ship’s symbol and motto as she carries the legacy of her namesakes into national service once more.