How The US Navy Used WWI Ghost Ships To Practice Bombing

Published: 17 April 2024

By Jonathan H. Kantor
via the Slash Gear website


When World War I ended in 1918, the United States entered a relatively long period of peacetime — this period lasted until 1939. However, the U.S. didn’t enter full active combat operations in World War II until the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. From that point forward, the U.S. went on full-scale military operations and defense support, ensuring everyone who could support the war effort did so in whatever way possible.

Combat aviation improved throughout and after WWI, and in the decades of peacetime that followed, the U.S. trained heroes that would develop burgeoning aviation and radio technology. Since bombardiers required extensive training to ensure they could properly aim at and hit their targets, new methods arose to provide targeting support. This wasn’t a significant concern for the U.S. Navy, which implemented training for emerging technologies as soon as the Great War ended.

Instead of bombing targets on the ground, which they did throughout the conflict, a lot of training went into hitting targets on the water. While the U.S. could have accomplished this with any number of dummy boats and rafts, that’s not how things turned out. Instead, the Navy outfitted a number of WWI warships with various automation technologies for remote operation, allowing bombers to practice bombing live targets in the form of ghost ships.

A repurposed battleship got a new life

The U.S. Navy decommissioned the USS Iowa (BB-4) when WWI ended, but instead of setting it up as a museum or scuttling it to create an artificial reef, the U.S. Navy gave it a second life. The vessel was outfitted with remote-control radio equipment, enabling its operation without requiring anyone on board. In October 1920, the Navy rechristened the Iowa as Coast Battleship No. 4; its guns were removed, numerous compartments were sealed, automatic bilge pumps were installed, and its boilers were outfitted to burn oil.

The installed upgrades made remote operation possible, so an officer aboard the USS Ohio (BB-12), which served as a control ship, drove the remote vessel. Remote operations were limited, but the controller could steer the ship to starboard or port and place it on a steady course in one direction. This initial training operation kicked off on June 29, 1921, and personnel utilized numerous surface vessels and aircraft (including blimps) to seek out and find Coast Battleship No. 4 with the goal of striking the vessel.

Sinking the ship wasn’t an option, as the bombs dropped by Navy and Marine Corps aircraft were 100 lb. sand-filled practice bombs and ten 500 lb. bombs. After the exercise, the vessel was redesignated IX-6 and used as an experimental radio-controlled vessel. The initial test was successful, but not because most bombs missed their targets — it was useful in providing real experience for aviators hoping to strike moving vessels on the water. Of the 85+ bombs dropped, only two hit the ship.

Read the entire article on the Slash Gear website.
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