Many people remember the USS Missouri, the great gray battleship of World War II days, the flagship of Admiral William Halsey on which the Japanese surrendered in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945. Most people don’t know, though, that there have been three other USS Missouris.
The earliest was a steam frigate, a lightly armed ship – 14 cannon – having all of its armaments on the main deck, and combining steam power with sails. This first USS Missouri was a magnificent ship, displacing 3,220 tons, wood made, with three tall masts. She had a tall smokestack too, belonging to a steam engine that powered two immense covered side wheels.
She was launched from a New York City shipyard on Jan. 7, 1841 and commissioned in early 1842. She sailed to Washington, D.C., to show off her new steam technology to government officials and went on to the Gulf of Mexico. In the summer of 1843, she was asked to convey an American diplomat to Alexandria, Egypt. She sailed east, arriving at Gibraltar on Aug. 25 and becoming the first steam-powered warship to cross the Atlantic.
This was the end of her voyage, though. She accidentally caught fire in the night of Aug. 26, exploded and sank. The only casualty, according to contemporary accounts of the disaster, was Bess – not the future wife of Harry S. Truman, who wouldn’t be born for another 42 years – who was, as she was described at the time, “an unfortunate bear.” The captain of this first USS Missouri was never given another command.
The next USS Missouri was a 13,500-ton battleship, built in the Newport News shipyard in Virginia and commissioned in December 1903. William Halsey would take his first cruise as a young naval officer in this USS Missouri, probably never dreaming what awaited him almost 42 years later in Tokyo Bay on another Missouri.
The first battleship Missouri, like its namesake frigate, suffered a tragedy early in its career. On April 13, 1904, an accident in one of her gun turrets took the lives of 36 of her crew. She was refurbished, though, and served off the U.S. East Coast, in the Caribbean and in the Mediterranean. Then she was painted white and from December 1907 to February 1909 she sailed around with world as part of President Theodore Roosevelt’s “Great White Fleet.” During World War I, she was used to train sailors and, at the war’s end, to bring troops home.
The third USS Missouri – the famous one – was built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard from January 1941 to January 1944. She was christened at the time of her launching by Margaret Truman, daughter of Missouri Senator Harry S. Truman, and the senator gave a speech. She was almost 900 feet long, displacing 45,000 tons. Her bulkheads carried almost a foot of armor, and her three gigantic turrets were protected by almost 20 inches of armor. She had nine massive 16-inch guns, 20 smaller guns, and 129 anti-aircraft guns.
She supported the American invasion of Iwo Jima in February 1945 and then provided three months of continuous service in support of the Okinawa campaign. Her big guns also inflicted great damage on targets on the Japanese home islands. Admiral William Halsey, commander of the Third Fleet, transferred his command to the Missouri on May 18, 1945. Representatives of the government of the Empire of Japan signed a surrender document during a 23-minute ceremony on the ship’s deck on Sept. 2, 1945.
The Missouri also saw action in the Korean War and, after being “mothballed” for 30 years, was recommissioned in 1986 and saw service in 1991 in the first Gulf War. She was decommissioned again in 1992 and, after a few more years in mothballs, she was towed in 1998 to Hawaii and docked about 500 yards from the USS Arizona memorial at Pearl Harbor. Her bow was pointed to the sunken Arizona to indicate that the battleship on whose deck World War II officially ended was watching over the American sailors interred in one of the battleships sunk on the day World War II began for the United States.
The fourth USS Missouri is a submarine, commissioned on July 31, 2010. She is almost 400 feet long and can operate for more than 30 years before her nuclear reactor needs refueling. She is armed with Tomahawk missiles and advanced torpedoes. Her capabilities include anti-submarine and anti-ship warfare, mine placement and minefield mapping, special forces delivery and support, and surveillance. Let us hope that her tour of duty is quieter than that of her famous namesake, the “Mighty Mo” of World War II fame.
The Truman Library’s exhibit, The USS Missouri: The Show Me State’s Naval Presence, on which this article is based, is on display in the Truman Library’s lower level exhibition gallery.
Michael J. Devine is director of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence.