Big Sky, Empty Sea

Down in Groton, Connecticut, the latest submarine destined to serve in the United States Navy is being built. the PCU (“Pre-Commissioning Unit,” to be renamed “USS” upon commissioning) New Hampshire, SSN-778, will be a nuclear-powered attack submarine and is scheduled to be commissioned in 2009.

This will be the third “New Hampshire” to take to the seas in service to our nation. The first was authorized in 1816 but not actually launched until 1864, and never really did very much. She was renamed “Granite State” to free up the name for a new battleship — the last pre-dreadnought built for the US, and obsolescent for two years the instant she was commissioned in 1908. She served in a support role in World War I, and was scrapped in the 1920’s in accordance with the Washingon Naval Treaty.

Naturally, I’m proud that my state will be honored by this Virginia-class sub, and fully expect her to serve with honor and distinction. But I feel a smidgen guilty about it. We’ve had our turn. Another state really deserves the same honor.

Up through World War II, the biggest and baddest warships afloat were battleships. Nations reserved the proudest names for the battlewagons. Germany honored Otto von Bismarck and Alfred von Tirpitz. Japan chose to remember two provinces with Yamato and Musashi. Great Britain often named battleships after monarchs, naval heroes, or just plain “cool” names that epitomized strength and might.

Here in the United States, we chose to honor those very states that made up our nation. And through the battleship era, every single state was honored with at least one battleship.

Except one.

Hell, even those states that weren’t states got warships. Alaska and Puerto Rico were “large cruisers” during World War II. A third large cruiser was named after Hawaii, but scrapped partially built. There is currently a submarine named after Hawaii, a sister ship of the New Hampshire, that was commissioned earlier this year.

But of the 48 states in the Union during World War II, one was never honored with a battleship.

Back before the days of the battleships, the biggest and baddest things afloat were armored cruisers, They received the honor of state names, and there was a USS Montana, commissioned in 1908. Later, all the armored cruisers were “demoted” to city names, and Montana ended her days as the “USS Missoula.”

But there never was a battleship Montana.

(Update: The following was part of my original planning for this article, but I forgot it when I went to actually type.)Even more insulting, twice Congress ordered a USS Montana, and both were canceled.

The first was of the first, aborted “South Dakota” class of battleships, one of the “Cherry Tree” ships — so named because they were “cut down by Washington.” Of those six dreadnoughts, followups to the highly-successful Colorado class, five of their names were re-used — three on the 30’s South Dakota battleships (South Dakota, Indiana, and Massachusetts), one each for the North Carolina and Iowa classes (North Carolina and Iowa respectively), but the sixth one — good old Montana — got shafted again.

During World War II, the Navy planned out the “ultimate” US battleship of the war. Dwarfing the mighty Iowas, they would have carried an even dozen of the guns that the Iowas carried (the outstanding 16″/50 caliber Mark 7 naval rifles, of which the Iowas had nine).

However, it soon became evident that the day of the battleship was past, and the five “ultimate” dreadnoughts were never built. Thus passed into history the USS Ohio, USS Maine, USS New Hampshire, the USS Louisiana, and the lead ship, the one that would have lent her name to the class, the USS Montana.

It’s long past time to rectify this historical slight. Every other state has had at least one warship named after it in the past century. We owe the state — and the people — of Montana their own warship.

Hell, it’s become almost a joke. Whenever someone needs a fictional US warship, they often use the name “USS Montana.” The fiction has been perpetrated in movies, cartoons, TV shows, and even commercials.

There are a dozen more Virginia-class submarines in the pipeline, including three currently on order, that have not yet been assigned names. Let’s do the right thing and give one of them the name of the Big Sky State.

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