New York City’s Battleships
Beginning in the late 1880s, several states began to institute a “Naval Militia” as part of their military forces, to have a maritime capability in emergencies, and to provide the Navy with a reserve component similar to the National Guard. This movement was welcomed by some far-sighted naval officers, and received some support from Congress. Within less than a decade, nearly 18 states had a naval component in their militia, totaling about 4,500 men, at a time when the Navy had only about 12,000 personnel. The Navy soon began to provide ships to support the training of the Naval Militia, and during both world wars some Naval Militiamen took their training ships to sea.
Naturally, the ships lent to the Naval Militia were older ones, even obsolete. And they were always small vessels. Except in the case of New York.
Formed in 1889, the New York Naval Militia has had the unique distinction of having “owned” two battleships, each the last of its type in the fleet.
- The USS New Hampshire. Laid down in 1819, New Hampshire, a 74-gun ship-of-the-line, was not launched until 1864. Technically the last wooden battlewagon in service with the U. S. Navy, she was for many years a receiving ship in various East Coast ports. In 1893 she was assigned to the New York Naval Militia as a floating armory. Tied up at a pier on the North River (the traditional name for the Hudson as it passes Manhattan), she was renamed Granite State in 1904, to free her name for the new New Hampshire (BB-25). Granite State was destroyed by fire in 1921.
- The USS Illinois (BB-7), lead ship of a class of three 11,500-ton battlewagons with a primary armament of four 13-inch guns, was laid down in 1897, commissioned in 1901, and passed into the reserve in 1920, by which time she was totally obsolete. Partially demilitarized in 1924, and the last pre-dreadnought battleship still technically on the Navy list, she was assigned to the New York Naval Militia, with her designation changed from BB-7 (i.e., Battleship No. 7) to IX-15 (Miscellaneous Vessel No. 15). Tied up on the North River, in 1941 her name was changed to Prairie State (IX-15), to release her name for the proposed new battleship Illinois (BB-65). Prairie State served through 1956, when she was sold for scrap.
The Naval Militia rendered yeoman service in the Spanish-American War and World War I, but began to decline with the institution of the Naval Reserve shortly before World War I. Nevertheless, a few naval militias remained in existence until World War II, and it was Minnesota naval militiamen aboard the old four stack USS Ward (DD-139) who sank the Japanese mini-sub off Pearl Harbor early on December 7, 1941. Following World War II, only New York continued to retain a naval militia, which today has its own “fleet” of small patrol boats performing security duty around vital installations in the state and on special occasions. In recent years, several other states have chosen to reactivate their naval militia.
1. The “USS Recruit”. Although not owned by the NYNM, the Recruit was arguably also a New York “battleship”. A half-sized replica of the real thing built of wood in Manhattan’s Union Square in 1917, she served as the headquarters for the Navy’s recruiting effort in New York City. Recruit was 200 feet long, 40 feet in the beam, and was “armed” with six mock 14-inch guns in three double turrets, two forward and one aft, plus ten wooden 5-inch guns and two real 1-pounder saluting guns. She had a modest superstructure that included two six-storey-tall basket masts, officers’ quarters and berthing for her “crew” of 40, plus office space offices, examining rooms, and some working spaces. During the war Recruit helped the Navy enlist some 25,000 men. In 1920 the “ship” was dismantled and supposed to be re-erected in Coney Island, but noting came of the project, and the “ship” ewventually disappeared.
2. The Illinois Naval Militia also once had its own unique “battleship.”
"Tarzan in Cuba"
Fans of Tarzan know that he’s had adventures not only in several parts of Africa, but also as England, France, India, California, New York, Sumatra, the South Pacific, and even the Center of the Earth, but few initiates know of his visit to Cuba.
In 1958, Johnny Weissmuller, sometime Olympic champion and perennial movie Tarzan, went to Cuba to play in a celebrity golf tournament. Now this was in the final days of the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, as Fidel Castro’s insurgents were spreading across the country, fighting to replace one brand of tyranny with another.
Driving to the golf course one day with a couple of friends and some bodyguards, Weissmuller's car was surrounded by a band of guerrillas who appeared suddenly out of some roadside woods.
The guerrillas rousted everyone from the car, lined them up, and disarmed their bodyguards.
For a moment it looked like the guerrillas were going to impose some “revolutionary justice” on the rich-looking Americans, or perhaps just hold them for ransom.
At this critical moment, Weissmuller had a bright idea.
He suddenly belted out the famous “Tarzan yell”.
For a moment, the guerrillas were stunned. Then, recognizing their prisoner, one of them cried out, “Tarzan! Tarzan!”, a shout the others quickly took up, along with cries of “Welcome to Cuba!” and other friendly comments, while crowding forward to shake Weissmuller’s hand and ask for his autograph.
Soon afterwards, Weissmuller and his party arrived at the golf course, escorted rather in triumph by some very cheerful guerrillas, who made sure he arrived safely.
What Batista or Castro thought of the incident is unrecorded.