The US Navy Made A Remote Controlled Battleship

The USS Iowa (BB-4), a pre-dreadnought battleship, was a significant addition to the United States Navy in the late 19th century, marking a transition to modern naval warfare.

She played a pivotal role in the Spanish-American War, notably in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba, demonstrating the effectiveness of heavy armament in naval combat.

After her active service, the USS Iowa was modified to be completely remote controlled. It was here, she would be used as a target ship, a role that would end in her demise.


Design Of The USS Iowa

The USS Iowa was conceptualized during a time of profound transformation in naval warfare. The late 19th century was marked by a transition from wooden sailing ships to steel-hulled, steam-powered vessels. The design of BB-4 was influenced by this evolution, aiming to create a battleship that could project power and withstand the rigors of modern naval combat.

The overall design philosophy centered around three key aspects: firepower, armor, and speed. The idea was to build a battleship that could outgun and outrun its contemporaries. This concept led to the inclusion of heavy armament, substantial armor plating, and a powerful propulsion system.

Read More Operation Magic Carpet – Bringing The Troops Home After WW2

The USS Iowa’s primary armament consisted of four 12-inch guns, which were a significant step up from the smaller caliber guns used on older battleships. These guns were housed in two twin-gun turrets, one forward and one aft. In addition to her main battery, she carried eight 8-inch guns, six 4-inch guns, and several smaller caliber guns for defense against torpedo boats.

The hull of the USS Iowa was an all-steel construction, a relatively new practice at the time. The use of steel not only provided greater structural integrity but also allowed for better distribution of weight and more efficient hull shapes. This transition to steel was a significant leap forward from the wooden hulls of earlier naval vessels.

The armor scheme of the Iowa was comprehensive, designed to protect the ship from gunfire and explosive shells. The belt armor, which wrapped around the waterline, was up to 14 inches thick in places, providing crucial protection to the hull and vital machinery. Above the belt, there was additional armor to protect the upper works, gun turrets, and conning tower. This armor was a mix of Harvey and nickel steel, offering superior resistance against the artillery of the time.

USS Iowa in harbor, 1900.
USS Iowa was marked improvement from previous battleships of the time.

The propulsion system of the USS Iowa was a blend of the old and new. She was equipped with vertical triple-expansion steam engines, a technology that was becoming standard for warships of that era. These engines were powered by five cylindrical boilers, providing the steam necessary to drive two propeller shafts.

Despite being fitted with a full rig of sails, a nod to naval tradition, these were more symbolic than practical. The steam engines allowed the Iowa to reach a top speed of approximately 16 knots, making her one of the fastest battleships of her time. The choice of steam over sails marked a definitive shift in naval engineering, emphasizing speed and maneuverability over the traditional reliance on wind power.

Read More HMS Glowworm – The Destroyer That Rammed The Admiral Hipper

The USS Iowa was built at the William Cramp & Sons shipyard in Philadelphia, a leading shipbuilder of the era. Her keel was laid down in 1893, marking the beginning of her construction. The ship was launched on March 28, 1896, a significant event attended by high-ranking officials and naval officers. Following her launch, the Iowa underwent fitting out, a process where her armaments, armor, and other essential equipment were installed.

Service History

Commissioned on June 16, 1897, the USS Iowa became an active unit of the United States Navy’s North Atlantic Squadron. In the early years of her service, the Iowa was primarily engaged in routine peacetime activities, which included training exercises, fleet maneuvers, and ceremonial duties. These operations were essential for testing the capabilities of the new ship and for training her crew in the tactics and technologies of modern naval warfare.

The USS Iowa’s role shifted dramatically with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898. This conflict marked her transition from peacetime operations to active combat. The Iowa was a part of the U.S. Navy’s North Atlantic Fleet under the command of Rear Admiral William T. Sampson.

Read More Germany Built A Weather Station In Canada During WWII

Her most notable action came during the Battle of Santiago de Cuba on July 3, 1898. This battle was a decisive naval engagement that resulted in the destruction of the Spanish Caribbean Squadron. The Iowa played a significant role in this victory. Her heavy guns were instrumental in the destruction of several Spanish ships, including the cruiser Vizcaya. The Iowa’s performance in this battle not only demonstrated the effectiveness of the pre-dreadnought design in combat but also highlighted the importance of heavy armament and armor in naval battles.

USS Iowa in a drydock in Port Orchard, 1900.
USS Iowa in a drydock in Port Orchard, 1900.

Following the end of the Spanish-American War, the USS Iowa returned to peacetime activities. However, her post-war service was not limited to routine operations. The Iowa was involved in several training missions, playing a critical role in preparing new generations of sailors for naval service. Her use as a training ship underscored the shift in naval tactics and technologies and the need for sailors to be adept in these new systems.

The Iowa was also involved in various exercises and fleet maneuvers, which were essential in developing and refining naval strategies and tactics. These exercises helped the U.S. Navy to evaluate and improve its combat readiness in the years leading up to World War I.

Read More Three U-Boats Missing Until 1985, Now Under a Car Park

The USS Iowa was decommissioned on March 31, 1919, following the end of World War I. Her decommissioning was part of a broader reduction in naval forces after the war and the shifting focus towards newer classes of warships. After her decommissioning, the Iowa was briefly placed in reserve before being struck from the Naval Vessel Register in 1923. She was subsequently sold for scrap under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty, which aimed to limit naval armaments and prevent an arms race.

The Remote Controlled Battleship

After being decommissioned, USS Iowa was renamed ‘Coast Battleship No. 4’. In 1920, she underwent modifications in order to make her remote controllable, where a wirless reciever could operate the ships speed and steering. After the modifications were complete in August 1920, the ship was moved from Philadelphia to Hampton Roads without any crew on board, being controlled remotely from the deck of USS Ohio.

In June 1921, Coast Battleship No. 4 would be used in experiments to see the effectiveness of aircraft against warships. Navy aircraft attacked the ship using dummy bombs. Out of 80 bombs dropped, only 2 met their target.

Read More Operation Catechism – The Final Blow To The Tirpitz

Coast Battleship No. 4, after being laid up in Philadelphia, underwent a reclassification as an “unclassified miscellaneous auxiliary,” receiving the hull number IX-6 on July 21st.

In April 1922, she set sail for a shooting exercise off the Virginia Capes, with Shawmut acting as the control ship. However, the exercises were abruptly cancelled, leading to her return to port. The ship was later relocated to the Pacific Ocean through the Panama Canal for a firing drill in February 1923, as a part of Fleet Problem I. This exercise was designed to simulate an assault on the Panama Canal Zone, with Shawmut again serving as the command vessel.

Coast Battleship No. 4 under fire during the exercise off Panama.
Coast Battleship No. 4 under fire during the exercise off Panama.

The initial phase of the drill involved the new battleship Mississippi firing its 5-inch secondary battery at Coast Battleship No. 4 from approximately 8,000 yards (7,300 meters). Subsequent exercises included two sets of firing practices using Mississippi’s 14-inch main guns at greater distances. The second of these exercises, conducted on March 23, resulted in Coast Battleship No. 4 being hit by three projectiles. This bombardment caused significant damage and led to her sinking. As a mark of respect, the battleship Maryland honored the sunken vessel with a 21-gun salute.

Following this incident, Coast Battleship No. 4 was formally removed from the Naval Vessel Register on March 27. Her remains were eventually sold to marine salvage operators on November 8th.