Wednesday, October 3, 2018

"Off to Sea" Signal on the Battle-Ship Oregon -- October 3, 2018

San Francisco Call, 27-March-1898
From the 27-March-1898 San Francisco Call. Click on the image for a larger view. 

Oregon was a pre-Dreadnought battleship, built at San Francisco's Union Iron Works. When the Spanish-American War was on the brink of erupting, Oregon sailed around the Horn to the east coast in three weeks. This provided ammunition for proponents of a Panama Canal. Oregon served in the fleet that destroyed the Spanish fleet at Santiago de Cuba on 03-July-1898. In 1915 she visited the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Starting in 1925, she was preserved at Portland, Oregon as a museum ship. When World War II broke out, she was converted to a barge.

It is the last day of the Oregon's stay in San Francisco, and the decks in the great battle-ship are crowded with hurrying, perspiring throngs of bluejackets. In a few hours she will be off to make a showing with the other Atlantic battle-ships in the Spanish question. Every one who can is at work, apparently everything is in confusion, but in reality orderly discipline prevails and all the arrangements for the long voyage which the ship is to make around the Horn for the Atlantic seaboard are being carried out with matter of fact precision. Few people have any idea of the amount of labor involved in preparing a huge battle-ship like this for sea. Theoretically a man-of-war, once commissioned is supposed to be always ready for action. But in practice there is always a great deal to be done at the last moment, especially when a voyage of such exceptional length is contemplated. And in the Oregon's case the work was complicated by the fact that the ship had just come out of drydock, where her sea-going qualities have been greatly improved by the addition of a couple of bilge keels to check the tendency to excessive rolling which the vessel formerly manifested.

Thus all the ammunition which had been discharged previously to going into drydock had to be taken on board again; no light task considering that over 408 tons of shell and powder, gun-cotton and other explosives, are stowed away far below the water line in the magazines.

Each of the monster thirteen-inch guns in the turrets fires a shell weighing over 1200 pounds. There are four of these guns, two forward and two aft; their long muzzles can be seen projecting far beyond the turrets. For every gun 100 rounds of shell has to be carried, and this means a weight of over 200 tons.

Then there are the eight-inch guns in the smaller turrets, the six-inch guns, the rapid-firing six-pounders and all the numerous machine guns which go to complete the secondary battery and which are intended to play havoc with any torpedo-boat or unarmored vessel which may come within range. These weapons all require supplies. In action they would eat up cartridges with the greatest voracity, and the result is that there are over 400 tons of ammunition of all kinds in the magazines.

On the upper deck of the central citadel, or armored battery, wherein all the fighting power of the ship is concentrated, the sailors may be seen giving the finishing touches to the six-pounder rapid-firing guns which frown over the breastwork. They are dainty, dangerous little weapons, for, though they are light enough to be handled with the utmost ease, their shell is heavy enough to pierce the skin of any vessel not protected by armor. One of these projectiles, striking the boiler or engines, is quite sufficient to disable, if not sink, a torpedo-boat.

To make sure that everything is all right a crew of four sailors is going through drill with the gun, and our photograph shows clearly the manner in which it is worked. The captain of the gun directs it by means of a projecting arm, against which he presses his shoulder, and so accurately is the weapon balanced that the slightest force will swing it from side to side, elevate or depress it, as desired. It can be aimed quite as readily as a small rifle and fired as quickly. Another man operates the breech mechanism, inserting the cartridges as they are handed up to him by a third member of the crew. All the captain of the gun has to do is to aim and pull the trigger, and, with a practiced crew, as many as twenty rounds a minute can be fired from this death-dealing little weapon.

Another reason for all the bustle on board is an important change which is being made in the armament of the crew. Sailors have rifles as well as big guns wherewith to deal damage to an enemy, but hitherto the only small arm on board the ship has been the old fashioned Lee rifle.

In view of present emergencies, the naval authorities have substituted a far more modern and effective weapon. The tug Unadilla is alongside, and a string of sailors are busy passing out the old rifles and their ammunition and taking on board the new guns. The rifle is a marvel of compact mechanism. It is light and easy to handle, and has an extremely small bore, firing a bullet about the size of a pea. But this little bullet will reach a range of 2000 yards, and will penetrate at half that distance three feet of timber. Attached to the breech of the rifle is a small magazine, in which five cartridges, held in a metal clip, can be placed at once. Just as in a Winchester, one pull on the breech lever ejects the usual cartridge and inserts a new one, so that five shots can be fired consecutively in the briefest space of time.

Sixteen hundred tons of coal are already safely stowed below in the capacious bunkers of the warship; but the task of coaling has left its traces all over the upper decks. Sailors are busy everywhere touching up the paint work and polishing the brass rails of the superstructure; the decks are still moist from the hard scrubbing which they have recently undergone, and the ship will soon be as clean and white as on the first day when she left the dockyard.

Everybody is not preparing for fighting, though. The arts of peace as well as of war are being cultivated, and the sailor with the sewing-machine is carrying on a distinctly pacific trade. A sewing-machine seems strangely out of place on board an ironclad, yet many sailors possess the little hand-machines and are very dexterous in their use. The man is making up thick blue serge frocks, which will doubtless prove useful when the vessel gets through the tropics and encounters the biting blasts of the Antarctic off Cape Horn.

Forward, under the shelter of the breastwork which rises above the deck, there is quite a little gathering of men, who, for some reason or other, have nothing to do. Many of them are on the sick list; one poor young fellow had his hand smashed through a shell dropping on it. Some have been on guard during the night, and are, therefore, relieved during the day.

But all are happy and jolly, and exulting over the prospect of a brush with Spain. They exchange rude sailor jokes one with the other, and even the man who is shaving is not allowed to perform this delicate operation in peace. "When the photographer proceeds deliberately to focus his camera upon him he is bidden to put more lather on, and he responds by sticking a great dab of the creamy white soap on the tip of his nose. Altogether, he is a most ridiculous-looking individual, and not a bit sailor-like, though I suppose shaving is just as much part of a sailor's discipline as gun drill or general quarters.

As the day wears on and it becomes known that the battle-ship is to leave for the south at daylight on the morrow the officers on the quarter-deck have a busy time stalling off intruders. Boat after boat, laden with friends, or it may be sweethearts of gallant tars, comes alongside, the occupants, in defiance of all rules and regulations, striving to obtain one last word with the men who so soon are to sail away. Sometimes a pretty face and a tearful eye melt the heart of the officer of the day, and an interview is permitted, but more often the visitors have to row back disappointed. Who knows when they may see their dear ones again?

Apart from the chances of battle, the Oregon, having once rounded the Horn, may never return to the Pacific station. The exigencies of naval service may keep her in the Atlantic, but wherever she is, we may rest satisfied that she will be serving the Union faithfully and well.

San Francisco Call, 27-March-1898

San Francisco Call, 27-March-1898

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