Cheer Up, Nevada Remains on Watch and there IS a Naval War College

On May 11, 2020researchers from SEARCH, Inc. and Ocean Infinity announced the discovery of the USS Nevada (BB-36) wreck site approximately 65 nautical miles southwest of Pearl HarborHaving sailed thirty-two years in two world wars and in peacetime, the venerable Nevada was relegated to target ship duty after World War II. Nevada survived two atomic bomb tests before finally sinking during gunnery and torpedo exercises in 1948. That it survived so much punishment was not an accident or simple good fortune, but rather the result of decisions made by the Navy’s General Board that changed the way American battleships were designed in the early 1900s. As such, the story of Nevada is closely intertwined with the Naval War College. 

President Roosevelt arriving at the Naval War College to chair the 1908 battleship conference

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt convened a special meeting of the General Board at the Naval War College to consider issues of battleship design. Just two years earlier, the Royal Navy had launched HMS Dreadnought whose numerous technological advances rendered every other battleship on earth obsolete. American policy makers realized that the U.S. Navy had to modernize quickly, beginning with the process used to build new warships. The old system divided responsibility among the numerous Navy bureausBureaucracy and professional jealousies meant that cooperation was anything but certain. At its worst, this method produced designs that were more collections of independent systems than functional warships. This changed at the 1908 meeting where the General Board assumed a central role in warship design. Board members determined the basic requirements and a committee of qualified officers refined and modified the designs.

The Nevada class, authorized in 1911, was the first battleship design to go through this new process. The two ships of the class, Nevada and Oklahomabecame the U.S. Navy’s first super-dreadnoughts and were the first in the world explicitly designed to fight at ranges over ten thousand yards. The four most important design features all came as a result of the discussions in Newport: triple 14-inch gun turrets, “all or nothing” armor, geared steam turbines, and changing from coal to oil for fuel. The last two greatly extended the range and endurance of American battleships, making sustained operations around the globe more feasible.

Nevada’s connection with the Naval War College does not stop with the General Board. No less than three Presidents of the Naval War College served as the captain of Nevada earlier in their careers. William Sims, Luke McNamee, and William Pye all left their mark on the ship, although Sims had perhaps the greatest influence as Nevada’s first commanding officer. The post was a fitting one, since as a junior officer, Sims had fought endless battles with Navy leadership about the shortcomings of early American battleship designsNow he was gratified to see the U.S. Navy finally catching up to the major naval powers of the worldShortly after Nevada was commissioned, Sims published an article in Proceedings titled, “Cheer Up!! There is No Naval War College” in which he highlighted the college’s value to the Navy as an institution for professional education. The phrase stuck with Sims. As with any new design, Nevada had some teething problems.  Sims did his best to encourage the crew as they worked through these issues, and his efforts gave the ship its nickname, the “Cheer Up Ship.”

Nevada undergoing trials in early 1916 

Following commissioning ceremonies in 1916, Nevada joined the Atlantic Fleet on May 26. Four days later, Germany and Great Britain fought the largest naval battle in the world up to that point off the Jutland Peninsula. Reports from the battle gave Sims plenty to think about as he took Nevada out for practice cruises. Using techniques he learned as a student at the Naval War College, Sims gathered his officers to analyze the battle and discuss the decisions made by the two commanding admirals.

Ironically, Nevada’s advancements worked against it when the U.S. entered the war in April 1917. Due to a shortage of fuel oil in Great Britain, the U.S. Navy initially sent older coal-burning battleships to operate with the Royal Navy. It was not until August 1918 that Nevada finally arrived in theater. Based in Bantry Bay, it performed convoy escort duty for the last two months of the war. In December, ten battleships including Nevada escorted the ocean liner that carried President Woodrow Wilson to the Paris Peace Conference.

Following a three-year modernization upgrade, Nevada joined the Pacific Fleet in 1930. On the morning of December 7, 1941, Nevada was moored just aft of Arizona on Battleship Row. Nevada received at least six bomb hits and one torpedo hit during the ensuing attacks and was the only battleship to successfully get underway. Flooding forced the crew to ground the ship south of Ford Island where it settled to the bottom of the channel the next day.

Nevada preparing for dry docking after being refloated in February 1942

Fortunately, the water was shallow enough to allow Nevada to be refloated the following February. Following repairs and modernization at Puget Sound Navy Yard, the battleship sailed to Alaska to provide fire support for troops fighting on the island of Attu. Nevada was approaching thirty years of service at this point, and even with modernization, it was deemed too old to use in a possible fleet action with the Japanese NavyNevada next sailed for Norfolk, Virginia where it prepared to perform the familiar duty of convoy escort in the North Atlantic. In April 1944, Nevada set out from Casco Bay, Maine, bound for British waters to join Operation Neptune, the naval component of the invasion of Normandy. Its 14-inch guns provided fire support for troops on Utah Beach, making it the only battleship to be present at both Pearl Harbor and D-Day. Nevada continued to serve in the European theater for another three months and performed ground support duties once again during Operation Dragoon, the invasion of southern France.

Forward 14"/45 guns firing on Utah Beach

For its final act of wartime service, Nevada once again crossed over to the Pacific Ocean to support the landings on Iwo Jima and Okinawa. On March 27, a Val dive bomber crashed into the ship killing 11 and wounding 49 members of the crew. The kamikaze attack also damaged Turret III along with three 20 millimeter mounts and two of the ship’s Kingfisher aircraft. Following repairs at Pearl Harbor, Nevada returned to join Third Fleet and participated in occupation duty while anchored in Tokyo Bay.

A postwar survey deemed Nevada too old to remain in active service and recommended that it be used as a target ship in the upcoming atomic bomb tests. For what was expected to be its final duty, Nevada received a bright red paint job to help the bombardier aim. Nevertheless, the bomb fell well off target and Nevada survived the blast. It also survived a subsequent underwater test. At a gunnery practice in 1948, even direct hits from another battleship could not sink Nevada. It took a final hit from an aerial torpedo to send the veteran of two world wars to the bottom.

Underwater atomic bomb test during Operation Crossroads 
The red arrow points to USS Nevada

Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun photographed at wreck site of USS Nevada 

Rob Doane 
Naval War College Museum


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