Mighty Vessels

American warships have been named Alabama even before we became a state in 1819. The first of the five U.S. Navy ships to bear the state’s name was laid down in the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Maine. It was to be one of nine ships of the line authorized by Congress in 1816 during the aftermath of the War of 1812. Although she was ready for launch in 1825, she remained in the shipyard until 1864 to save the government money. Due to the damage caused by the CSS Alabama, the most deadly commerce raider in the Civil War, it was decided that the previously unused ship would be renamed and launched as the New Hampshire. Under her new title, the wooden sailing vessel, already 40 years old, served the U.S. Navy as a supply ship for the blockading squadrons off the Carolinas. She continued to provide support and training for the Navy until she burned and sank in 1921 off the New York coast.

The USRC Alabama

Another Alabama was built in New York City in 1819. Though it was not a Naval vessel, it served in the United States Revenue Cutter Service (USRC), a precursor of today’s Coast Guard, from 1819 to 1833. Costing $4, 500, the wooden topsail schooner sailing vessel displaced 56 tons and stretched 52 feet long, with a draft of less than 6 feet of water. With armament consisting of a single pivot gun, alongside the USRC Louisiana, she captured the pirate ship Bravo after a fight on Aug. 31, 1819. USRC Alabama was stationed in Mobile, and spent most of her service in the Caribbean suppressing piracy and the slave trade there. She was sold in 1833 after failing to make a trip to New York.

Battleship No. 2

In 1851, the second USS Alabama, a side-wheeled wooden merchant ship, was built in New York. During the Civil War, she was used to transport troops. Eventually the Navy bought the vessel and converted her to a warship. She was stationed in various blockading spots along the Atlantic coast of the Confederacy for the duration of the conflict. In 1864, she captured CSS Admiral off Charleston and aided in the closing of the last major port for blockade-runners, Wilmington, N.C. The second USS Alabama was decommissioned and sold in 1865 and served as a merchant ship until she burned in 1878.

The USS Alabama (BB-8) is seen anchored off New York City in 1905. U.S. Naval Historical Center

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The CSS Alabama

The most famous warship named Alabama, at least in the South, was the CSS Alabama. Captained by Raphael Semmes, this Confederate commerce raider captured 65 vessels during her two years on the high seas, a remarkable record which has never been surpassed. Built in England, she was secretly commissioned in 1862. She sank in 1864 after her years at sea left her with ruined powder and a barnacled bottom. Semmes’ Alabama had been the terror of the high seas. After the war, Adm. Semmes was accused of being  a pirate, which he was not, and nearly hanged by the federal government. Semmes was never allowed to reclaim his U.S. citizenship so he retired to his adopted hometown of Mobile, where he was highly respected. Divers later recovered many objects from the wreck of the CSS Alabama, sunken deep in treacherous waters off Cherbourg, France; the relics are now on exhibit in the History Museum of Mobile.

A white phosphorus bomb explodes over the USS Alabama (BB-8) during bombing experiments at San Marcos Proving Area, Chesepeake Bay, Md., September 1921. These bombings were conducted by Army Corps Bombers. U.S. Naval Historical Center

Battleship No. 3

The third naval vessel to be named USS Alabama was a battleship No. 8 (BB-8; 11, 565 tons displacement) laid down in 1896 and commissioned in 1900. She cruised in the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico in her first years of service in the Navy. In 1908, she was part of Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet that circumnavigated the globe. She sailed with that fleet from

Hampton Roads around South America to San Francisco where she had to go in for repairs. Thus she missed out on the rest of the voyage, although she did later sail west across the Pacific, around India, through the Suez Canal and the Mediterranean and Atlantic, docking finally in New York. Thereafter, she had a period of quiet service as a training ship that included preparation for World War I. In 1920, the old ship was finally decommissioned. A year later, the Army used her as part of the target fleet that Billy Mitchell, father of the U.S. Air Force, and his aircraft bombed and sank, thus proving the power of air attack.

The “Lucky A”

The construction of the fourth USS Alabama (BB-60; 35.000 tons displacement) began in 1940. The South Dakota-class battleship joined the fleet in 1942. USS Alabama was a sophisticated, heavily armed, fast battleship. For most of the war, she served as an escort for various fast aircraft carriers using her array of anti-aircraft guns, not her main firepower 16-inch guns, against attacking Japanese planes. The ship participated in attacks on Japanese islands and was involved in the eventual liberation of the Philippines, as well as several important fleet actions throughout 1944 in the islands campaign. Along with other ships, she used her main armament to bombard Saipan. Then, the ship resumed her role defending the carriers, which were fighting off large numbers of kamikaze attacks. These suicide attacks were very damaging to many ships in the American fleet, including her sister ship USS South Dakota, but Alabama sustained no losses. She never lost a man in combat during World War II, earning the nickname “Lucky A.” At the end of the war, Alabama along with other fast battleships, bombarded targets in the home islands near Tokyo. Action was suspended when Japan surrendered, and USS Alabama returned to San Francisco in late 1945. She was eventually decommissioned and put in mothballs in 1947 in Bremerton, Wash., where she remained until 1964, when Mobilians Jimmy Morris, Stephens Croom and Henri Aldridge spearheaded the effort to save her from a trip to the scrapyard. Gifts of money from across the state, especially from schoolchildren, contributed toward preserving the ship and moving it to its present location at Battleship Memorial Park. In exchange for their donations, children were given lifetime passes to visit the ship. A few are still in existence.

Taking a tour of Battleship Park has become a tradition for Mobilians and
the city's visitors alike. Photo by Sharon Whelton.

The Current Ship

The most recent USS Alabama (SSBN-731) is a nuclear-powered fleet ballistic missile submarine. Her keel was laid in 1980 at Groton, Conn., and she was commissioned in 1985. She is an Ohio-class ship, displacing 18, 750 tons when submerged. By comparison, USS Drum, now on display at Battleship Park, displaced just more than 2, 000 tons when submerged. The current USS Alabama has been in continuous service since joining the fleet in 1985. After extensive training and shakedown cruises, she visited Mobile in February 1986 for Mardi Gras. Assigned to Bangor, Wash., she had made 47 patrols when she was extensively refit in 1999 to carry the fleet’s latest missiles. She now carries 24 Trident II D5 nuclear missiles, each with multiple, independently targeted warheads, and a complement of torpedoes. This USS Alabama continues to be homeported in Bangor, Wash. 

text by Michael Thomason

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