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The Battleship Iowa (BB-4) at the Battle of Santiago Bay, July 3, 1898

On May 19, 1898, twenty-five days after the U.S. declaration of war against Spain, the Spanish fleet, under the command of Admiral Pascual Cervera, arrived in Santiago Harbor, Cuba.  The entrance of the harbor was blockaded nine days later by the United States Navy’s Atlantic Squadron permitting the unopposed landings of U.S. Army troops on June 22-23.  Among the ships of the Atlantic Squadron poised outside the harbor entrance was the USS Iowa, the U. S. Navy’s first seagoing battleship.

The Iowa resulted from a naval development program begun in the early 1880s.  Between 1883 and 1898 Congress authorized the construction of over a dozen “steam and steel” vessels while implementing an overhaul of the nation’s coastal defense system.  On July 19, 1892, Congress authorized the construction of “one sea-going coast-line battleship, designed to carry the heaviest armor and most powerful ordnance.”  It would be designated Battleship Number 4, USS Iowa.
Battleship Iowa BB 4
Launched on March 28, 1896, the Navy’s first sea-going battleship was 362 feet, 6 inches long, with a beam of 72 feet, 2 inches and a top deck covered with teak wood.  Protected with 14 inches of armor the 11,346 ton ship was powered by two vertical inverted triple-expansion steam engines turning two screws delivering 11,000 horsepower at a top speed of 17 knots.  The Iowa’s armament consisted of four 12 inch guns, eight 8 inch guns, six 4 inch guns, twenty-two 6-pounder rapid fire guns, four 1-pounder guns, four colt automatic guns, and eight 14” torpedo tubes.  With a full crew it carried 471 officers, sailors, and marines.  The USS Iowa was commissioned for service June 16, 1897 at a total cost $3,110,000.

The Iowa served with the Atlantic squadron since her commissioning.  Captain Robley D. Evans assumed command on April 1.  The blockade off Havana, Cuba, beginning on April 22 included the Iowa until May 4.  The Iowa participated in the shelling of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on May 12 receiving light damage from Spanish cannon fire that wounding three sailors.  The Iowa was ordered to join the Flying Squadron under the command of Commodore Winfield Scott Schley on May 19 and blockaded the Santiago Harbor entrance since May 28.

With the Spanish fleet blockaded in Santiago Harbor the American troop landings at Daiquiri and Siboney on June 22-23 went unopposed.  By July 1 American ground forces had advanced to positions on the heights east of Santiago.  Admiral Cervera, commanding four cruisers and two torpedo boats, was ordered to flee the harbor in column and veer west to evade and outrun the American ships anchored outside.

The American ships present on July 2 were positioned five miles away in a semicircle around the harbor entrance.  At the extreme west was the armored cruiser Brooklyn, (Commodore Schley’s flagship), then the battleships Texas, Massachusetts, Iowa, Oregon, and Indiana.  Between the Iowa and Oregon was the armored cruiser New York, the flagship of Admiral Sampson, commander of the Atlantic squadron.  Also present were the torpedo boats Gloucester, Vixen, and Ericsson.  (The Ericsson was constructed in 1894 at the Iowa Iron Works Company in Dubuque.)  At dusk on July 2 the Iowa’s officer of the deck, Lieutenant F. K. Hill saw smoke rising from the harbor.  He readied the flags to fly signal 250: “Enemy’s ships escaping.”  At 4:00 a.m. on July 3 the Massachusetts left the line to take on coal.

At 9:00 a.m. on July 3, Admiral Sampson flew the signal “Disregard movements of Commander in Chief,” and proceeded to take the New York and Ericsson out of the line to in order to meet with General Shafter concerning joint Army-Navy operations.  At the bottom of the hour watchmen on the Iowa, observing the Spanish ships maneuvering out of the harbor, fired a six-pounder gun to signal the rest of the squadron.  Signal 250 was run up the halyard as the movements of the Spanish fleet were observed from the other blockading ships.  As the American vessels sounded general quarters and prepared to get under way, Commodore Schley checked his watch.  It was 9:35 a.m.  The Spanish ships left the harbor about six-hundred yards and ten minutes apart.  The lead ship was the Maria Teresa, then the Vizcaya, Cristobal Colon, Almirante Oquendo, and the torpedo boats Pluton and Furor.  The Spanish ships successfully caught the American squadron off guard.
“I found the engines set full speed ahead and the ship pointed straight for the harbor,” Captain Evans later recalled.  “As the leading Spanish vessel, the flagship Maria Teresa, swung into channel . . . she presented a magnificent appearance with her splendid new battle flags and her polished brass work.”

Evans would have rammed the Maria Teresa had he gotten close enough (The bow of the Iowa protruded beneath the waterline for that purpose).  The Iowa opened fire scoring hits and then attempted to ram or torpedo the next ship out of the harbor.  Unsuccessful, the battleship was steered to port to deliver a starboard broadside at the escaping Vizcaya, then back to starboard to ram the Colon.  The Colon steamed by too quickly for the Iowa to ram.  Evans ordered the Iowa hard to port again to deliver a broadside from the Iowa’s starboard guns.  “At this time the Colon came with a great show of speed,” Evans would later write.  “As she passed she struck me twice-two as most beautiful shots as I ever saw made by any ship.”

Evans ordered the helm to adjust the Iowa’s course to run parallel to the Oquendo, about 1500 yards to the north, and exchanged fire.  “She rolled and staggered like a drunken thing” Evans remembered.  “As I looked at her I could see the shot holes come in her sides and our shells explode inside her, but she pluckily held on her course and fairly smothered us with a shower of shells and machine-gun shots . . .  It was a magnificent, sad sight to see those beautiful ships in their death agonies; but we were doing the work we had been educated for, and we cheered and yelled until our throats were sore.”

As the leading Spanish and American ships outpaced the Iowa, she opened fire on the Spanish torpedo boats which were the last to leave the harbor.  “We were hotly engaged with the last ship,” Evans remembered. “We turned our rapid fire guns and the after guns of the main battery on them… a splendid column of steam mixed with coal dust sprang hundreds of feet into the air, and I knew that the boiler of one of them had blown up.”

At this time the crew of the Iowa made preparations to rescue the survivors of the beached and burning Vizcaya.  The crews of the Iowa and the torpedo boat Ericsson began rescuing the surviving Spaniards.  When the wounded Captain Antonio Eulate of the Vizcaya was brought on board, the old sailor removed his sword, kissed the hilt, and offered it as a token of surrender to Captain Evans.  Evans accepted the surrender of the Spanish vessel, declined the sword, and shook hands as the crew of the Iowa cheered.  The Iowa recovered about 250 men from the Vizcaya and later provided temporary quarters for Admiral Cervera.  As the Iowa’s crew busied themselves with rescue efforts the remaining Spanish warship Colon continued westward pursued by the Oregon, Brooklyn, and Texas.  At last the Oregon was within range and opened fire from its 13 inch guns.  Realizing escape was hopeless, the Colon’s captain beached the ship and surrendered at 1:20 p.m.

The Battle of Santiago Bay ended and America’s “steam and steel” navy proved its worth by delivering to President McKinley a timely Fourth of July present.  The United States Navy, for the second time in two months, had engaged a Spanish fleet, destroyed or disabled all its ships while losing none of its own, and incurred only one casualty.  For the Spanish the action exacted a heavy toll: 323 killed, 151 wounded, all vessels run ashore or destroyed.

If destiny made available the Iowa for battle against the Spanish, history saw to it that the shots fired on July 3, 1898, were the last it delivered in battle.  Warship design rapidly improved during the early twentieth-century.  The Iowa served as a patrol and training ship during the First World War (1917-1918) along the East Coast, but by that time was a floating anachronism to naval architecture.

The Iowa performed its last duty in the Sea of Panama, March 23, 1923, as the first radio controlled target ship for the U.S. Navy.  Stripped of its armament, renamed “Coastal Battleship Number 4” and painted with large targets on the fore and aft decks, a salvo of 14 inch shells from the Battleship Mississippi (BB-41) sank the once mighty vessel.  Thus, after twenty-seven years of service, the career of the Navy’s first seagoing battleship Iowa, “Queen of the Navy,” ended as the waves of history flooded her decks.
(PHOTOS: USS Iowa.  Iowa crewmen.  Wreck of the Spanish cruiser Vizcaya.