Overview of USS Utah's History as a Battleship

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Resilience and adaptation are terms that can certainly be applied a ship that started an eventful timeline as a Battleship, and ultimately morphed into the one of the first training drones used by the US Navy, as is in the case of the USS Utah. Understanding the history of the USS Utah will give senior enlisted leaders a sense of understanding of adapting to the needs of mission, and putting the needs of others above self. This essay will discuss the background of the ship as a Battleship, the continuation of service as a target drone, and the sinking of the ship during the attack on Pearl Harbor.


The USS Utah (BB 31) was constructed as a Florida class battleship, and commissioned in August of 1911. She was the sixth battleship commissioned be the United States Navy. Her armaments were ten twelve-inch guns, and could make a top speed of twenty-one knots on steam-based turbines (Farley, 2019). In the beginning of service to the fleet, the USS Utah made voyage to the Mediterranean in 1913, and participated in the Vera Cruz incident the following year (Utah, BB 31) in April 1914. The Vera Cruz incident was the first combat action seen by the ship. (Klobuchar, 2017). With ensuing chaos of the Mexican Revolution, President Wilson determined that seizing Vera Cruz would be instrumental in increasing American influence, while decreasing the influence that the Germans possessed in the region (Farley, 2019). Due to the success of the operation, American forces successfully gained and held control of Vera Cruz, and marked the beginning of a distinguished career for both ship and crew.

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When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917, the USS Utah was not initially activated to go off to war, but was later tasked in 1918 to conduct convoy escort operations in 1918. Successful in her assignments, the USS Utah was tapped to become the flag ship of the Sixth Battle Squadron, ferried President Wilson to France for participating in the negotiation of the Treaty of Versailles, and continued as a flag ship until 1922 (Farley, 2019).

With continued demand for her services, the USS Utah was tasked with a good will tour of South America from 1924-1925, hosting General John Pershing, after which she returned home for modernizations (Utah, BB 31). The USS Utah received upgrades of anti-aircraft weapons, an aircraft catapult, and oil fired boilers, before embarking on a second good will tour of South America with President Elect Herbert Hoover onboard for the cruise (Farley, 2019). At this point, having discussed the USS Utah in her time as a battleship, transition can occur to the conversion that took her from designation BB, and moved her to AG.

Continuation of Service

In 1930, the London Naval Treaty was introduced, which required both the United States and the United Kingdom to reduce their total amount of battleships to fifteen each. The USS Utah was identified as one of the battleships to be eliminated (Farley, 2019). However, the treaty allowed for ships to remain in service for experiments and training, but only after they had been stripped of weaponry. The USS Utah was recalled to the shipyard in 1931, had her guns removed, and was fitted with radio control gear that allowed for the ship to be steered and make adjustments for speed using radio signals (Farley, 2019). This essentially made the USS Utah, one of the first drones ever used by the United States Navy. The ship was re-designated AG 16, marking her as an Auxiliary General (AG) ship, and changing her mission to be used as a floating target for other ships to shoot at, a significant example of utilizing an evolving mission set to fit with current naval requirements, and staying relevant when other battleships were decommissioned and scrapped. With the new mission, the USS Utah received additional retrofits to protect the crew that remained onboard. Armored plates were installed to protect sailors from projectiles that were being fired at her (Dorr, 2011). She continued to serve in this capacity until December 1941. Now that the continuation of service has been discussed, transition can occur to the sinking of the ship during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Sinking of the Ship

On the morning of December 7th, 1941, Pearl Harbor was attacked by Japanese aircraft. Although the Japanese wing commander identified that the USS Utah was in a state of demilitarization and issued the order to attack other targets, six of the Japanese aircraft initiated targeting runs on the ship, hitting her with two torpedoes (Farley, 2019). Through the chaos that ensued onboard the ship, several members of the crew demonstrated exemplary courage during the attack. Of fame within the chief petty officer community, chief watertender Peter Tomich disregarded personal safety, ordered his sailors to escape the engine room and abandon ship while he shut down the boilers that could have exploded when submerged. His selfless act saved his sailors but cost him his life (Isquith, 2016). In another act of selflessness, master-at-arms chief petty officer Terrance operated a small boat in the water surrounding the capsized USS Utah while under enemy fire, picking up sailors who were being cut free from the ship, and ferrying them to the shoreline before returning (Isquith, 2016). Fireman second class John Vaessen operated an electrical switchboard maintaining the lighting on the ship while under attack and held station in disregard to his own safety. The act of keeping the lighting onboard made escape possible for Sailors who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to find their way (Isquith, 2016). Although the ship was ultimately lost, only fifty eight out of a crew of four hundred and seventy one, died in the attack (Farley, 2019).


This essay has discussed the background of the USS Utah as a battleship, the continuation of service as a target drone, and the sinking of the ship during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Senior enlisted leaders should use the example set by the USS Utah to continue to evolve their capabilities as mission sets evolve, and also to take example from the crew members who risked and lost their lives in putting the needs of others above self. In pause to reflect, remember, and learn, we can let those who have gone before, continue to be inspirations to adaptability and service with honor.


  1. Dorr, R. (2011, December). Utah Was the 'Not So Famous' Battleship Sunk During the Pearl Harbor Attack. Retrieved from https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/utah-was-the-not-so-famous-battleship-sunk-during-the-pearl-harbor-attack/.
  2. Farley, R. (2019, July). RIP: How the Radio-Controlled Battleship USS Utah Sunk. Retrieved from https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/rip-how-radio-controlled-battleship-uss-utah-sunk-65446.
  3. Isquith , S. (2016). Japanese Attack on USS Utah at Pearl Harbor - December 7,1941. Retrieved from http://www.ussutah1941.org/japanese-attack-on-utah.html Klobuchar, R. (2017, June).
  4. Navy Senior Enlisted Academy. (2016). Three-part communications. Newport, RI: U.S. Navy Senior Enlisted Academy.
  5. Utah (BB 31). (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/us-navy-ships/battleships/utah-bb-31.html.
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Overview of USS Utah’s History as a Battleship. (2022, September 01). Edubirdie. Retrieved July 16, 2024, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/overview-of-uss-utahs-history-as-a-battleship/
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