Dec. 7, 1941, was a bad day for American battleships.
Four of the U.S. Navy’s front-line battleships — the Arizona, Oklahoma, West Virginia and California — were sunk or destroyed. Four more were beached or badly damaged. Far across the ocean, the fate of another battleship was sealed as well: The U.S.S. Oregon, hero of the Spanish-American War, resting quietly at a dock in Portland as a museum ship.
The Oregon was launched in 1896, in the middle of a remarkable period of torrid innovation and development in the history of warships, a time when ship designs were only good for about ten years before something better came along.
The Oregon was one of three sister ships built at the same time, two on the East Coast and one (the Oregon) in San Francisco. They were built to the same specs, but for some reason the Oregon was the fastest of the group by a considerable margin, which would become its main claim to fame.
The onset of hostilities with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 caught the Oregon on the wrong side of the continent, in Bremerton, Wash. Orders went out for it to get “around the horn” to the Caribbean Sea right away. Heaping the decks with coal to save time on fuel stops, the battleship’s crew set out on a cannonball run. They tore southward to Patagonia, cut through the notoriously stormy Strait of Magellan, and then raced northward past Argentina and Brazil to rendezvous with the American fleet off the Florida coast — arriving on May 24, 1898.
It had taken the new battleship 68 days, and she’d come almost 17,000 miles. The run broke several records for speed and endurance, prior to the construction of the Panama Canal.
A month later came the naval engagement that would really cement the Oregon’s fame. The Spanish fleet, which had been secure in the harbor at Santiago, Cuba, was forced to make a run for it after a U.S. expeditionary force landed and started pushing toward the harbor. On July 3, 1898, the Spanish fleet made a break for freedom. One by one the Spanish ships were hit, caught fire, and were beached.
Two ships, the Vizcaya and the Cristóbal Colón, managed to outdistance all the American ships -- except the Oregon, which chased them down doing an astonishing 18 knots, and then from five miles astern started dropping 13-inch shells. The Vizcaya was hit, and beached; the Cristóbal Colón was nearly hit, and struck her colors. The battle was won, and with it the war — and basically, one ship had done all of it.
Brief though it had been, the aging warrior’s moment in the sun had been so bright that a movement got started in Portland to preserve the ship as a floating monument and museum. The Navy not having any other plans for her, restored the ship and handed it over to the state of Oregon on an indefinite loan. There she sat, moored in Portland Harbor, playing host to groups of schoolchildren and visiting history buffs and Spanish-American War vets, becoming a familiar and beloved feature of the Portland skyline.
Following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, appeals went out for scrap metal to be donated for the war effort, and the U.S.S. Oregon represented a large potential contribution. President Franklin Roosevelt considered the Oregon the fourth most historic Navy vessel afloat, behind the Constitution, the Constellation, and the Hartford, but war is war.
In 1942 the governor of Oregon gave the ship back, and she was sold for $35,000 to an outfit in Kalama to be stripped. The ship’s hull was towed to Guam and finished World War II as a munitions barge. Finally, in 1956, what remained of the old battleship was sold to a Japanese company and cut up for scrap.
Yet while the ship may be nothing more than a footnote in military history, aspects of it still remain – specifically in Lake County. Housed at the Schminck Museum in Lakeview are artifacts from the U.S.S. Oregon, including an old desk and uniform.
The legacy of the U.S.S. Oregon now has an opportunity to be continued, as lastmonth a new U.S.S. Oregon was christened in Connecticut – the U.S. Navy’s newest attack submarine, to be officially commissioned next year. The ship had a unique Oregon-centric ceremony despite being built on the east coast, as the nuclear submarine was christened with a combination of Oregon sparkling wine and water from Crater Lake National Park.
— Kurt Liedtke