By Fred Delkin
Her mast stands as a memorial today in Portland’s Tom McCall Waterfront Park as a reminder of how the battleship USS Oregon earned global headlines for a madcap voyage of 14,000 miles to seal victory in the Spanish American War and sweep away opposition to the construction of the Panama Canal. The vessel earned the sobriquet “Bulldog of the Navy” for her exploits in the battle off Santiago Cuba that destroyed the bulk of the Spanish fleet and led to Spain’s capitulation in August 1898. The Oregon’s trip from San Francisco around the tip of South America to Cuba took just 66 days and press accounts anointed her as “having a bone in her teeth.”
The Oregon, ironically, was designed for our Navy as a “short range battleship” and approved with sister ships Indiana and Massachusetts as “coast defense” vessels. Oregon’s sisters were built in Philadelphia and stationed on the East coast while Oregon was built in San Francisco to become the first battleship to serve the Pacific coast. Small in comparison to latter-day battlewagons, Oregon was heavily armored for her day and her coal-fired engines achieved a top speed of 17 knots. Her exploits were achieved under the command of Capt. H.H. Howison. He and his crew were informed of our Declaration of War by Congress (prompted by the explosion and sinking of the USS Maine off Cuba) as they arrived off the Florida coast and sailed to battle off Cuba.
When the Spanish hostilities ended, the Oregon was assigned to duty in the Pacific where she sailed for several years in waters off China, Japan and the Philippines “to support U.S. interests in the Far East.” She was modernized’ at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, WA and recommissioned in April 1917 as World War I drew the attention of American armed forces.
The Oregon served as President Woodrow Wilson’s reviewing platform as the U.S. Pacific fleet sailed into Seattle in 1919 to salute war’s end. She was decommissioned that year and loaned to the state of Oregon as a ‘floating monument & museum’ moored in Portland.
When the U.S. entered WWII, the U.S. Department of the Navy concluded that the Oregon’s value as scrap metal ‘exceeded her Historical value’ and she became a stripped-down hulk, but not before being honored by a downtown parade and ceremony in Portland just one year after Pearl Harbor (keynote speaker was a then young congressman, Lyndon B. Johnson). Oregon’s state Poet Laureate Ben Hur Lampman memorialized the USS Oregon with a composition concluding with: “The gray, gray mists where once she lay (ah but her name is pride!)…She loosed her moorage and bore away to serve again in a thunderous day…The Oregon sails with the tide.”
Her stripped hulk served the Navy in WWII as an ammunition barge during the fracas with Japan in the South Pacific, moored off Guam. She broke loose from her mooring there and undoubtedly inspired by her 1898 voyage, wasn’t recovered until she’d drifted 500 miles southeast of this final battle moorage. The U. S. Court of Claims sold the famed vessel’s remains to Japan’s Iwa Sanggo Co. of Kawasaki for $280,000 in 1956.
A time capsule of USS Oregon mementos is buried beneath the mast memorial in Portland and is scheduled for opening in July 2076. May it then herald another public obeisance to the Bulldog of the Navy who will again show the bone in her teeth.