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Oklahoma Journeys

USS Oklahoma Commissioned, 1917


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Battleships and naval superiority are probably not the first things you think of when you hear the word Oklahoma, yet in 1917 those ideas and words were on the minds of many Oklahomans. In 1917, the United State’s Navy commissioned, what was for that time, the most modern and powerful warship ever built. It’s the USS Oklahoma this week on Oklahoma Journeys from the Oklahoma History Center.

From the Oklahoma History Center, this is Oklahoma Journeys. I’m Michael Dean.

In 1914 thoughts of naval power and warfare on the high seas probably did not cross the minds of many Oklahomans, yet those concepts were household topics in March of that year. In March 1914 the daughter of then governor Lee Cruce, Lorena, stood on a high scaffold in New York City and christened the newest of the U.S. battleships, the USS Oklahoma. After assurance that the champagne used for the christening wouldn’t be consumed by humans (Oklahoma, after all, was a dry state at the time), Lorena Cruce smashed the bottle on the ship’s bow, and it slid gracefully into the water.

It was to be three years later, however, before the Oklahoma was fully outfitted and ready for duty. The USS Oklahoma along with her sister ship the USS Nevada sported the latest in U.S. Navy technology; they were the first battleships in the U.S. fleet to use fuel oil instead of coal, and they both held technologically-advanced engine designs. Following completion in 1917 the ship underwent its shakedown cruise, and with the exception of a few minor glitches, passed the test with flying colors. It was in this week of 1917 that the USS Oklahoma became a fully commissioned vessel in the United States Navy. During World War One, the ship was held up for repairs and served as escort for only one Atlantic convoy. Following the Great War, the Oklahoma went on to a variety of important tasks. Under President Wilson, the mere presence of the Oklahoma at places like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Vera Cruz, Mexico, and the Panama Canal, helped to enforce and strengthen the influence of the United States.

Throughout most of the ‘20s and ‘30s the battleship served in the Pacific fleet and remained there until 1936 when she was sent to Spain to rescue civilians caught in the middle of the Spanish Civil War. By 1940 threats of a new war brewing sent the Oklahoma into battle mode and back to the Pacific fleet. As the now aging ship sat, moored at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, Japanese forces made their now infamous strike on Sunday, December 7, 1941. One of the dozens of naval victims of that assault, the USS Oklahoma was hit by seven torpedoes and capsized shortly thereafter. The ship lost 448 men, the second largest loss of life the Navy suffered in the Pearl Harbor attack. The USS Oklahoma proudly served the United States for 24 years and did so, as various crewmembers have pointed out, without ever firing a shot in anger.

The story of the USS Oklahoma is just a part of the military history of Oklahoma. The research library at the Oklahoma History Center holds extensive interviews with a number of crewmen who served aboard the Oklahoma, from the original commissioning crew in 1917 to the survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor; all are available for you to read. The Oklahoma History Center is located just east of the state capitol on NE 23rd Street in Oklahoma City.

Oklahoma Journeys is a production of the Oklahoma History Center, dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing our state’s past. I’m Michael Dean.