Sunday, December 3, 2023

John Blackshoe Sends: Serendipity History – Swordfish and Warships (Part 1 of 3)

Here is a nice 504 pound, 12 foot long swordfish with 47 inch bill, caught out of Morehead City, North Carolina, the port where Marines embark for their cruises.
"The time has come," the Walrus said, "To talk of many things: Of shoes—and ships—and sealing-wax— Of cabbages—and kings— And why the sea is boiling hot— And whether pigs have wings." Through the Looking Glass - Lewis Carroll

We won’t stray as far afield as the Walrus, and will try to stick to Swordfish and Warships.  And remember, this is no malarkey.

Swordfish (Xiphias gladius), also known as broadbills in some countries, are large, highly migratory, predatory fish characterized by a long, flat, pointed bill. They are a popular sport fish of the billfish category, though elusive. Swordfish are elongated, round-bodied, and lose all teeth and scales by adulthood. These fish are found widely in tropical and temperate parts of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, and also the Mediterranean Sea.  They live from near the surface to a depth of 1,800 ft., and occasionally even deeper than that.  They commonly reach 10 feet in length, and the maximum reported is 14 feet 11 inches in length weighting about 1,430 pounds.  Young swordfish have teeth and scales but all of those are shed as they mature.

Swordfish “swords” are basically a bony extension of the upper jaw, and usually about one-third the overall length of the fish.  The sword grows with the wide part of the blade horizontal, while humans like their sword blades oriented with the wide part vertical for use as a slashing weapon.  The sword fish does not “spear” its prey, but instead smacks it to stun or injure their intended meal, usually smaller fish, octopus, and also some crustaceans, although sometimes they do spear things. (Note-  Sailfish and Marlins are similar looking, but different species. So forget about them… Source)

Swordfish are found almost everywhere there is salt water in temperate climates, which is also the habitat for ships, especially warships.

“Swordfish” is a cool sounding name, with connotations of being a predator, big, aggressive, and operating in a nautical environment.  Thus we have named two U.S. submarines USS SWORDFISH (probably because sailors cannot pronounce “USS Xiphias gladius” and it won’t fit on a ball cap).    The Brits called a pre-WW2 aeroplane a “Swordfish” as well.   

Swordfish are really good to eat (except you might die of mercury poisoning if you eat a pound every day for life).  And the swordfish bill or sword is a neat souvenir item.   We will get around to all of these things, but it will take three installments, with this being part 1 of 3.

Sailors love souvenirs, almost as much as they love other opportunities to spend money when finally set ashore in foreign ports.   Since at least the 1870s, swordfish bill souvenirs have been made, virtually throughout all areas where swordfish are caught intentionally or as an unintended byproduct of commercial fisheries.  The meat is a good seller, but the swords are only useful as a nearly free leftover which artists can decorate and sell to sailors or tourists for silly money.

Mystic Seaport in Mystic, Connecticut (a wonderful place to visit!) has a number in their collection, (but not on display) dating circa 1870 to mid 1900s.

The one marked by the red V is very similar to one we will discuss below.
And the Smithsonian also has some.

Really neat, huh?   But I was only vaguely aware of “swordfish swords” when I saw this one for sale at an antique arms show.

Then I noticed that the ship was the battleship USS UTAH (BB31) and it had the date 1925.
Okay, as a Navy guy with Utah connections, I just had to spend all my beer money on this instead!
Source: Author’s collection.
So, I needed some story to justify my uninebriated purchase to my amazingly tolerant wife.  The “blade” is 39.5 inches long, and the handle brings it up to 50 inches overall, so it is a bigger than average example.  Okay, size matters, but also makes it harder to find a spot on the wall, so gotta find out some other selling points.


USS UTAH was a coal burning “Dreadnaught” battleship with five turrets with two 12”/47 guns each and eight 5”/51 guns on each side in broadside mounts, plus smaller anti-torpedo boat 6 and 3 pounder guns.   The USS UTAH was built 1909- 1911 at the New York Shipbuilding Company.   Everyone knows that that shipyard was located in ________, __.   (Hey, it's a trivia question ... ¹)

She was one of the first ships to arrive for the Vera Cruz, Mexico “incident” in 1914 and during WW1 performed convoy and port protection, but mainly did routine training cruises most of her career.

USS UTAH appearance circa 1923

USS UTAH (BB-31) in the 1920s.  Barge loaded with 12 inch and 5 inch ammunition waiting to be loaded.  Crew painting the bottom in drydock using brushes on long poles.   (Paint rollers were not invented until 1940, so that must have been an “interesting” job.)
So, where was USS UTAH operating in 1925?

She left New York on 22 Nov 1924 with General John J. Pershing aboard for a goodwill tour of South America; starting with a transit of the Panama Canal.

USS UTAH in Culebra Cut of the Panama Canal
After entering the Pacific, they crossed the equator on 3 December with the usual “Crossing the Line” festivities.  General Pershing signed the Shellback certificates along with Davy Jones, Neptunus Rex, and the ship’s captain.  On 9 December they visited Callao, Peru, and on Christmas Day, General Pershing and his group left USS UTAH to visit to other South American cities inland.  USS UTAH subsequently called at the Chilean ports of Valparaiso (probably around 1 January 1925) and Punta Arenas before rounding Cape Horn and calling at Montevideo, Uruguay.  Reembarking General Pershing and his entourage there, the battleship then visited: Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; La Guaira, Venezuela; and Havana, Cuba, before ending her diplomatic voyage at New York City on 13 March 1925.  (Source)

UTAH conducted midshipman training cruises over the summer of 1925 before commencing modernization at the Boston Navy Yard in October 1925. 

On this “Dreadnaught” type battleship, the crew still slept in hammocks on the “gun deck” near the broadside mounted guns.  They did not have a central “mess decks” for eating, but dined in small “messes” similar to what might be called a “work center” of a dozen or so men.  Someone would be sent to the galley to bring back the chow and coffee in the containers shown in these two photos.  Tables and benches stowed on the overhead would be taken down and set up at meal time.

USS UTAH galley with mess buckets and coffee pots. 
USS UTAH gun deck.  Note open breech of 5” gun at center, mess tables stored in the overhead, and hammock hooks evenly spaced on the I-beams.
USS UTAH crew with some souvenirs after a port visit in Panama in 1923.
After each port visit, sailors would come back to the ship with various souvenirs, including monkeys, parrots, goats, and maybe crabs and other reminders of their fun ashore.  The occasional decorated swordfish bill was another souvenir option, but I suspect mainly for Chiefs or Officers, as these were probably a bit more expensive, and harder to stow for the voyage home in the meager space in a seabag.

My guess is that my swordfish “sword” with the battleship USS UTAH painted on it is from the 1924-25 South American cruise, purchased from a vendor in Chile or possibly Uruguay or Brazil.  In the late 20th century U.S. Navy ships still circumnavigated South America in our winter months (but delightful summer in the Southern Hemisphere) on UNITAS cruises for goodwill and interoperability exercises.   I was fortunate enough to make such a cruise visiting all the ports of USS UTAH’s 1925 cruise (except Havana), but souvenir selections were far less interesting in my day.  Good times!  

So, other than souvenir hunting in 1925, what happened to USS UTAH (BB-31)?   The overhaul at the end of 1925 converted the old coal fired boilers and bunkers to use oil; eliminated one of the stacks; added catapults for seaplanes and replaced the after cage mast to a stick type.  

But, by 1931 USS UTAH was pretty much obsolete, and converted to a target ship, reclassified from “BB-31” battle ship to an auxiliary as “AG-16”, with the main guns removed and heavy timbers placed on the decks to minimize damage from any of the inert bombs or shells which might hit. 

USS UTAH (AG-16) Note main and secondary guns all removed, but turrets remain.
On 7 December 1941 USS UTAH was moored on the back side of Ford Island but even as a target ship, it still looked like a battleship to the Japanese, who attacked her and sank her with 58 crew members going down with the ship.  So, 58 bodies are entombed in the ship, right?

USS UTAH Memorial, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
No, actually there are 59 sets of remains aboard the hulk of the USS UTAH in Pearl Harbor! Chief Yeoman Albert Walker was a survivor, but in his locker were the cremated remains of his infant daughter who died at birth in the Philippines.  They were waiting for a Chaplain to be aboard ship to do a burial at sea (as had been done for another daughter who died at an early age) but no Chaplain had yet been available.  So, 59 is the correct number.  One of the entombed victims is Chief Water Tender Peter Tomich, awarded the Medal of Honor for his insistence on remaining in the boiler room to secure the boilers as the ship was about to capsize, undoubtedly saving many lives.

After other more modern ships were salvaged, an unsuccessful attempt was made to raise USS UTAH, but having no military value in 1944, she was left in place, as a memorial.

Anyway, that’s one story about swordfish and a warship.  Parts 2 and 3 will have more stories about swordfishes and warships.

¹ Trivia Answer
New York Shipbuilding Company was located in Camden, NJ.  The company name was incorporated, intending to build a yard in the New York City area, but their land deal fell thru and they ended up in Camden, NJ, across from Philadelphia. Between 1899 and 1968 
“New York Ship produced over 670 merchant and naval ships, including 13 aircraft carriers, 26 cruisers, 51 destroyers of all types, 3 nuclear submarines, 12 naval support ships of all types, and 387 civilian merchant vessels. In addition, 9 battleships were constructed for the U.S. Navy, and another one for Argentina, making New York Ship the second largest private shipyard manufacturer in the United States.” (Source)


  1. A cool post JB, thanks for the research.

  2. The real meaning of the morning reveille in the Navy, "heave out and trice up". It was the hammocks.
    Good story. It is interesting to camp out at Ford island and wander around and see all the remains of 7 December.

  3. Excellent stuff, well presented; Brother!
    Boat Guy

  4. The souvenir goat... Back in the early 80s I was TAD (with a helo) on the CGC Gallatin, we had liberty on Haiti and one of our helicopter pilots brought back a young goat. We kept it hidden (sort of, it was an open secret), not too much later we docked at Gitmo, my job was to get rid of the goat... I smuggled it off the ship in a parachute bag and found some Jamaican workers who wanted it, when I came back to the ship the XO found me and made a comment about no more goats on board, right? I was amused...

    1. A friend who was involved in helping arm the Mujahadin in the 1980s once remarked that all Afghan recipes start with "First, steal a goat..."

    2. One wonders about what type of "crabs" they got as souvenirs. But since they were Navy, one suspects!

  5. Some amazing photos of the Utah! I wonder if some of those "souvenirs" became lunch. Really interesting about the 59 remains. Nice post.

  6. I learned some new stuff today, always fun to do that.

    Nice post, thanks JB.

  7. Thanks JB, for wonderful stuff. I cannot relate to 99% of it all - EXCEPT - we used to get fed out of similar containers whilst on alert at Itazuke.

  8. JB,
    Excellent post, although this concerned me "...with the main guns removed and heavy timbers placed on the decks to minimize damage from any of the inert bombs or shells which might hit." Hopefully, one, it was unmanned at the time and two, they hit frequently.

    1. As a target ship, USS UTAH was minimally manned, and used primitive radio control technology to control some aspects of operating the ship-probably mainly conning/steering the ship from well below the armor levels instead of having bridge team and lookouts posted topside. I doubt if they were able to automate any of the main propulsion controls, so that was all still done live.
      It was those Chair Force types like disobedient Billy Mitchell who took a lot of the fun out of being a battleship sailor.

  9. A historical justification to address the purchase of a sword? My hat is off to you, Sir. Well done.

    50" is a respectable length. What is the weight on it?

  10. In the late 60's, my father was sailing as engineer for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute when their submarine was attacked by a swordfish during a dive . The swordfish speared the fiberglass and foam fairing under a window, and got stuck. It rode up to the surface and on deck. The steward already was working on dinner, so they had it for lunch the next day.


Just be polite... that's all I ask. (For Buck)
Can't be nice, go somewhere else...

NOTE: Comments on posts over 5 days old go into moderation, automatically.