Monday, July 19, 2010

The U.S.S. San Diego, Fire Island and Pearl Harbor

I am always amazed at the way that history seems to entwine and combine in various patterns that seemingly have no connection until you look just below the surface.

On my desk is a copy of the St. Louis Star-Times from Monday December 8, 1941. Obviously the big news item on that day was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent declaration of war on the Japanese empire by the United States. As I perused page seven I came across a small article titled “Loss of Battleship First Such Blow in U.S. History.” The piece was squeezed between a lengthy report on Japan’s attack on the Philippines and a larger article discussing President Roosevelt’s address to Congress.

As is the case throughout history, the specific details of such a catastrophic event had yet to filter down through the 4,100 miles between Oahu and the American heartland. Consequently the article reported that one battleship had been lost in the attack and that it had been “officially announced as capsized.” Of course the damage to the U.S. Pacific Fleet was much more extensive than that and the capsized vessel was almost surely the U.S.S. Oklahoma. The article pointed out that this was the first time an American “dreadnought” had been destroyed as a result of war. The word dreadnought is a reference to the first ship of its kind completed by the British, the HMS Dreadnought. The U.S.S. Maine was actually a converted Cruiser at a time when the battleship was in its infancy and would more appropriately be referred to as a pre-Dreadnought vessel, and more to the point it is more likely that the Maine was an accidental sinking and not an act of war.

But what I found most interesting was the closing sentence,

The largest American warship lost during the World War [World War I] was the cruiser San Diego, 15,400 tons, sunk by a mine off Fire Island, N.Y., on July 10, 1918.

The date of the San Diego’s sinking was incorrect; she was actually lost on the evening of July 19 approximately 8 miles off the coast of Long Island as she made her way to New York.

The USS San Diego was actually commissioned as the Armored Cruiser USS California in 1907. The California was recommissioned the San Diego in 1914, in order to reserve the name for the eventual construction of a battleship. (This is another one of those interesting twists in history, considering that the future battleship USS California BB 44 would be tied up to Pearl Harbor’s Foxtrot 3 on the morning of December 7, 1941 but too many twists can get confusing.)

The California has the distinction of being the first deep-draft vessel to enter the channel of Pearl Harbor following its dredging in 1910. On board was Sanford Dole, the first and only president of the Republic of Hawaii from 1893 – 1898. Also on board was Queen Liliuokalani whose kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown by Dole.

Why is all of this so fascinating? It's just the way that history has a tendency to be an intertwining of many different eras and epics, peoples and events. The way that a distant newspaper in St. Louis, Missouri would report on the attack on Pearl Harbor and inadvertently reference the very ship that played such an important role in opening Pearl as America’s gateway to the Pacific that thrust it and the Hawaiian Islands onto the world stage in the first place.

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