Stephen M. Younger, Silver State Dreadnought: The Remarkable Story of Battleship Nevada. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2018. 320 pp.
Review by Maj Jason Naaktgeboren
Senior Instructor, Department of History, USAF Academy
In Silver State Dreadnought, Stephen M. Younger takes on the ambitious effort of telling the comprehensive history of what he argues was the first “superdreadnought,” the USS Nevada. At first glance describing the life of a single warship may not seem to be the most arduous endeavor, however most warships were not Nevada. From the laying of her keel in 1912 until her final demise in 1948, Nevada faithfully served for over three decades, survived two World Wars, and even a nuclear blast. In between she participated in WWI convoy duty in the Atlantic, survived the scrapyards in the interwar era and most notably the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor before serving admirably in both the Atlantic and Pacific Theaters of WWII. By the time the war had ended, Nevada found herself obsolete and in poor repair, yet still survived two atomic detonations before her irradiated hull was finally sent to the depths as a target ship 37 years after her contract was initially awarded.
Younger’s exploration of Nevada’s history is truly in-depth, beginning with her contract and design phase, and following the progress of her construction and sea trials. One particularly interesting narrative woven into the book is that of Nevada’s sister ship, Oklahoma. While both vessels were of the same class and would frequently sail together, the two ships were significantly different both in terms of build and luck. Both ships were authorized by congress on March 4, 1911, however their fates quickly diverged as Nevada was fitted with the most advanced turbine engines of the day, while Oklahoma received a traditional reciprocating powerplant. Both, however, would be equipped with the revolutionary ‘all or nothing’ armor concept and would be the first oil-fired dreadnoughts which would vastly improve their cruising speed and range, an indicator of what planners expected the future of naval warfare to hold. Interestingly despite an impressive main armament of 10 14-inch guns and a secondary battery of 21 5-inch guns, only four guns were allocated for air defense.
Younger’s history of the “Cheer Up Ship” is largely drawn from entries in the ship’s log and war diaries, and are rounded out with an assortment of additional primary sources, such as personal letters and diaries, newspaper articles, and official reports from various government agencies including the Bureau of Construction and Repair, the Bureau of Ordnance, and of course, the Department of the Navy. A robust collection of secondary sources adds additional depth and analysis to each of the chapters, especially those dedicated to the interwar period and World War II. Younger specifically set out to tell the story not only of the ship, but also that of her crew, without devolving into a monotonous cycle of new commanders, exercises and inspections. The result gives a fascinating insight into the daily life, uncertainty, and rigors of the U.S. Navy from the era just before World War I to the introduction of the atomic age following the Second World War as Nevada regularly shifted between Norfolk, Guantanamo Bay, Puget Sound and San Pedro, with Fleet Problem exercises in between.
Occasionally Younger’s reliance on the ship’s log leads to some superficial analysis that results in portions of the book reading more as a stream of consciousness rather than a well-focused history. One such example is that of Seaman Effle, who in 1939 reportedly returned to the ship late for muster in civilian clothing and without a liberty card. His justification was that he had rescued a woman who jumped into the ocean, saving her from an attempted suicide (121). While an interesting anecdote, it seems rather out of place in a chapter otherwise dedicated to preparing for the coming war with Japan and offering no detail as to what became of Effle or the woman he rescued afterward. Similarly, Younger includes a photograph captioned “Fire at Guantanamo Bay, January 14, 1920,” yet never addresses such an incident in the text, but later goes into extensive detail regarding the menu for the ship’s Christmas dinner (53). Perhaps the weakest portion of Silver State Dreadnaught was Younger’s coverage of the attack on Pearl Harbor, during which Nevada was famously the only American warship to get underway. He attempts to address this shortcoming by noting the day’s events left the logbook “jumbled a bit,” however with the wide availably of sources on the attack this portion certainly could have been more robust.
Younger himself is not a historian by trade, but instead has an academic background in physics, having earned his PhD in that field from the University of Maryland in 1978. He is currently a senior policy scholar for the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars having published more than 70 papers in physics, public policy, and anthropology. For most of his career, however, Younger worked with nuclear weapons, both as a designer at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and later as the Senior Associate Director for National Security at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. This background explains why the book’streatment of Operation Crossroads, the 1946 nuclear tests at Bikini Atoll, for which Nevada was to serve as ground zero for Able, a 23-kiloton bomb dropped from a B-29, is its strongest component. Nevada’s luck, which Younger chronicled throughout his work, held, as the bomb missed by over 2,000 feet. Days later, Nevada would also survive the Baker test, however the 23-kiloton subsurface blast left her so irradiated that she could not even be sold for scrap.
Overall Younger achieves his goal and delivers an objective yet detailed account of one of America’s most famous warships without straying into minutia or getting bogged down with technical jargon. Academics and serious historians will likely find Dreadnought too light on analysis and strategic depth to be satisfied, however for those with a more casual interest in the evolving role of surface warfare during the World Wars or the early development and use of nuclear weapons will likely find this book an excellent addition to their personal library.