Of the Dreadnoughts
By Jeffery Hess
Jeffery Hess, author of Beachhead, Tushhog, and the short-story collection, Cold War Canoe Club, navigates us through one of the less familiar stories of WWI about the U.S. Navy and its formidable Dreadnoughts.
Florida and the Navy are as much a part of me as blood and bone. I’ve lived in the state all but the first four years of my life. But the only thing I find myself writing about more than Florida is the Navy. Having served aboard two ships, I’m endlessly fascinated by shipboard life—especially in times of war. I’ve written about Navy ships and submarines and populated them with people real and imagined. A few years ago, I was putting together a collection of Navy stories set during the Cold War. I had a good number of stories, but I always looked for the next idea, the next ship. The stories I had were heavy on the later portion of the era, so I began looking back.
I did some digging, took copious notes, and accidentally rediscovered the Dreadnoughts.
I always found it odd that my buddy played what’s commonly referred to as a dreadnought guitar. And a high school in the next town calls their team the Dreadnaughts. (I still don’t understand the alternate spelling.) I was familiar with the Navy’s use of the word and long a fan of battleships. Though I never got to serve aboard one, I was at sea aboard a guided missile cruiser in the Caribbean with the USS Iowa during the turret explosion in 1989.
Still, I had no business researching World War I during my Cold War project, but the word drew me in. I couldn’t resist looking into these ships.
I’d gone down the rabbit hole a number of times on a number of topics over the years, but for days I was wrapped up in the world of these heavily-armed and mighty ships. The design of which originated in England. They were so impressive it’s no wonder the US Navy quickly emulated and improved the designs.
Again, I was far afield from the Cold War, but right about that time, I also I discovered a bunch of Navy recruiting posters from 1917 in the Library of Congress online archive. Two caught my eye.
In “America calls - enlist in the Navy” by J.C. Leyendecker, the Statue of Liberty shakes hands with a sailor in dress whites holding a rifle near the bayonet.
In “Join the Navy, the service for fighting men” by Richard Babcock, a sailor in his winter blue uniform rodeo rides a torpedo through the water (image at top of post).
Being a writer means I always look for a story, and so I began wondering if there was a kid, let’s call him Wyatt, from a farm of some type in a landlocked state. Now, what if Wyatt saw one or both of those posters at the post office or maybe in his principal’s office at school. Maybe he saw himself as the guy in the poster with Lady Liberty's arm around him. I think they looked a lot alike.
And what if Wyatt figured he’d get off the farm and go serve his country. Given the choice of being a doughboy or a sailor those recruiting posters were all he needed to know.
The Statue of Liberty played to Wyatt’s sense of patriotism. The torpedo riding poster catered to his wild side that likely had gotten him paddled a few times at school and then at home. Maybe Wyatt lied about his age and enlisted in the Navy? What if he got away with it? Maybe he would’ve gotten lucky enough to receive orders to one of the dreadnoughts, say, the USS Florida.
Commissioned in 1911, USS Florida (BB-30) was almost brand new when Wyatt got aboard. He must’ve been in awe.
She ran five hundred twenty-one and a half feet, just a little shorter than either of the ships I served aboard—eight feet and forty-six feet, respectively. Her complement of one thousand officers and men was a third less than my first ship and more than double my second. Which means even someone Wyatt’s below-average height had few places to stretch out aboard ship.
Aboard ship, new recruits were lined up to have their musculature assessed. Wyatt was muscular but short. He was deemed worthy to shovel coal in a boiler room twelve hours a day whether he was better suited for something else or not. And there wasn’t just one hungry beast, but twelve boilers, all burning hot and demanding to be fed.
The retina-burning glare through the open furnace door got Wyatt at least once every day.
It was too hot for shirts down there. His skin was coated in coal dust, rained black sweat. Somedays, at least one of the shovelers would pass out and have to go topside for a while.
Temperatures could exceed one hundred thirty degrees. These coal shoveling sailors didn’t know anything about hydration and instead worked through cramps of all degrees and tried desperately to not become one of the ones who passed out. And we all know the drawbacks of inhaling coal dust over the long term.
If he had been a little taller, Wyatt might’ve been selected to hoist ammo shells into one of the twelve-inch guns. He could’ve been a loader or rammer who hoisted projectiles. Both were demanding work for even the strongest young men, but he would’ve enjoyed it more to contribute to explosions than tending fires no one ever saw. Yet, in my mind, a salty old chief explained the importance of his role and Wyatt bought into the chief’s words and did his job flawlessly every day all day until he could go get some rest.
The berthing spaces of these ships were filled with hammocks that were stowed between reveille and taps, leaving open deck space to serve as the mess deck for the hungry crew. They ate their meals in the same space from tables that swung down from bulkheads amongst the aromas of coal residue, dirty socks, and three hundred armpits at a time.
In between meals during any length of downtime, these open berthing spaces also served as gambling halls and makeshift boxing rings for sanctioned or unsanctioned boxing matches, known as “smokers” which were held to help the men blow off steam and be entertained, which was essential for camaraderie and morale during the long and monotonous work days at sea.
The best I figure it, Wyatt held a record of 7-1 and stayed friends with all the men he fought.
Afterward, those men went to stand watch or to sleep in their hammocks. All their possessions hung on hooks in their sea bags.
Toward the end of November 1917, the Florida, along with the rest of Battleship Division 9 (New York, Wyoming, and Delaware) steamed across the Atlantic where they were integrated into the 6th Battle Squadron of the Grand Fleet.
Wyatt worked countless hours shoveling coal while steaming around the North Sea escorting convoys off the coast of Scotland on up to Norway.
In April 1918, the battleships set out to intercept the German fleet. The shovelers and rammers were never more important as they both exerted their strength to rise to the occasion. Whatever the ship needed to succeed, they would provide.
But word must’ve gotten back to the Germans as they reversed course and headed home before the Florida or the others got there.
Despite her mighty firepower, the only shots the Florida fired were at German U-boat wakes, which turned out to be incorrect sightings.
The biggest danger the Florida faced in World War I was during a convoy where dense fog rolled across the North Sea so heavily, she was separated from the convoy. I imagine communications were spotty at best. Not having visuals of the other ships increased danger of collisions. Through luck and expert seamanship, Florida emerged unscathed.
The Florida class, of which only a sister ship, the Utah was built, before designs were further refined. Despite, or because of her status as the flagship for the 1st battleship division, she served as a training ground for Naval Academy midshipmen. She had a twenty-year career before being scrapped.
While I thought my research would reveal some dramatic sea battles, I quickly learned the large battles of the great war weren’t fought at sea, though the Navy still played an important role.
The Florida cannot boast of any heroic performance in World War I (though it did prove heroic in the Battle of Veracruz in the Mexican Revolution), but that’s why it’s so interesting to me. In fact, the Florida spent much of World War I the same way I spent the Cold War.
And like me, she was built in New York but forever known as Florida.
Whether alone or in conjunction with the ships in her division, the deterrence was unmistakable. That ship helped win that war. It wasn’t a particular day that proved their value, but rather the sum of all the days they were ready to kick ass.
The long deployments, the work, the constant preparedness, the hurrying and waiting, the jubilations of blowing off steam reminds me of my service seventy years after them.
Wyatt undoubtedly cheered the Armistice, but I wonder if he was disappointed he and his ship didn’t do more or if he looked upon it as a blessing. Considering his wild side, it’s tough to know. But I am confident he took pride in having played a small part in ending the war. I know how he must’ve felt. Shortly after the Berlin Wall came down, my six-year enlistment was up and while Wyatt went back to the farm toting that pride, I brought mine back to Florida.
Jeffery Hess is the author of the novels Beachhead and Tushhog and the short-story collection Cold War Canoe Club as well as the editor of the award-winning Home of the Brave anthologies. He served six years aboard the Navy’s oldest and newest ships and since 2007, he’s lead the DD-214 Writers’ Workshop for military veterans. His new novel about an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam is forthcoming in 2019 from Down & Out Books. Find or follow online at jefferyhess.com – facebook.com/jefferyhesswriter – twitter @realjefferyhess – instagram @jefferyhesswriter