TBT: Nemo Magis Fortiter

On October 13, 1775, the Continental Congress authorized two armed vessels which would put to sea with a crew of 80 men for a period of three months. Their mission would be to interdict Royal Navy ships bringing supplies to the British Army forces then fighting George Washington’s colonial army. This legislation created the United States Navy.

Since that day, American sailors have defended freedom around the world; on, above and beneath the surface of the sea. Today, for only the second time in history, some of those sailors protect our country aboard a ship which carries the name USS Illinois.

The newest fast-attack submarine in the U.S. fleet, Illinois (SSN-786) was commissioned October 29, 2016, at Groton Naval Shipyard in Connecticut. Illinois’ first commanding officer, Commander Jessie Porter, told the assembled crowd, “the crew of Illinois has assumed our watch – a watch that will continue for the next 30 years – always waiting for the call, always ready.”

The capabilities of the newest Virginia-class fast-attack submarine would have dazzled the sailors who first put to sea aboard the battleship USS Illinois (BB-7) in 1901. Launched just weeks after the end of the Spanish-American War, the battleship Illinois was commissioned into the fleet in September 1901.

Illinois helped lead the Navy’s transition from the 19th to the 20th century. Constructed in an era in which the major navies of the world were engaged in a feverish competition to build bigger, faster and stronger ships, Illinois was what would come to be known as a “pre-dreadnought” battleship, a forerunner of the famed “Dreadnoughts” of World War I. She was among the last U.S. ships to be propelled by coal-powered, fire-tube boilers and protected by Harvey armor. However, she also carried more advanced technologies, including rotating turrets for her four 13-inch main guns and faster-firing secondary armament. As only the seventh battleship in the U.S. Navy, Illinois helped usher in the tradition of naming the fleet’s most powerful ships, the battleships, after states.

During her service life, Illinois served primarily with the Atlantic fleet in peacetime. She was a part of one of the U.S. Navy’s proudest achievements of the age: the round-the-world voyage of the Great White Fleet. Determined to demonstrate America’s arrival as a power on the world stage, President Theodore Roosevelt, a life-long advocate of sea power, dispatched 16 battleships, all painted a gleaming white, to circle the globe, making courtesy visits to foreign ports and showing the capability of the United States fleet. Along the way, Illinois even participated in a relief expedition to aid victims of an earthquake in Sicily.

Illinois returned to the Atlantic Fleet anchorage at Hampton Roads, Virginia, some fourteen months after setting out. President Roosevelt was there to greet the ships as they returned home. For Illinois, however, it was the end of not just a voyage, but also the ship’s service as a warship. Illinois was decommissioned in April 1909, but remained with the fleet for more than 40 years as a training ship.

In 1941, the ship was renamed Prairie State, in order to make the name Illinois available for a new battleship. This ship, then only in the design phase, would be the most fearsome surface combatant the world had ever seen.

As World War II raged around the globe, the U.S. Navy began a buildup preparing for the day that the war might reach America’s shores. The Iowa-class battleships were designed to carry tremendous firepower, armor strong enough to stand up to hits from the largest naval guns ever built, and enough speed to escort the new aircraft carriers which were becoming essential to the fleet. The new USS Illinois (BB-65) was to be the fifth Iowa-class battleship.

Construction started at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in December 1942 with completion projected for May 1945. But events soon took a different course, as airpower began to demonstrate the obsolescence of battleship fleets. With the war drawing to a conclusion, construction was halted and then finally cancelled in August 1945. The war ended with a surrender ceremony on the deck of what would have been Illinois’ sister ship, USS Missouri. The United States Navy would never again build a battleship.

Though the second battleship Illinois was never built, the ship’s bell was, and it survives today. It remains in the hands of the Naval ROTC at the University of Illinois, where it is displayed at Memorial Stadium.

More than fifty years after the end of World War II, the U.S. Navy began construction of its newest class of fast-attack submarines. By this time, the Navy had reconfigured its policy for assigning ship names. With the last of the battleships decommissioned in the early 1990s, state names were now used for submarines, starting with the ballistic-missile submarines of the Ohio class. In 1999, the lead ship of the new class of fast-attack submarines, USS Virginia (SSN-774) was laid down at the Groton Naval Shipyard. Virginia was commissioned five years later, followed by Texas, Hawaii and North Carolina.

A series of upgrades was designed into the later ships of the Virginia-class, known as Block III, which would include USS Illinois, the third ship of this third group. Illinois improves on the original Virginia-class design by carrying an upgraded sonar system and an increased missile-firing capability. The newest USS Illinois is 377 feet long; nine feet longer than the 1901 battleship; and when submerged can travel at better than 25 knots, which is around eight knots faster than the battleship’s top speed. While the battleship’s range was limited by the amount of coal she could carry, the submarine’s nuclear reactor gives her at least 30 years before she will have to be refueled.

The ship’s motto is Nemo Magis Fortiter, Latin for “none more brave.” It is a phrase which comes from the third verse of the Illinois State Song, where it recognizes the bravery of Illinois soldiers in the Civil War: “There were none more brave than you, Illinois, Illinois.”

On April 29, 2015, crew members of USS Illinois visited Springfield and were honored by the General Assembly. The House had previously adopted a resolution applauding the upcoming commissioning of the ship. Governor Bruce Rauner pledged the state’s support for the USS Illinois Commissioning Committee, the non-profit established to support the ship and the crew.

Today the newest USS Illinois and her crew of 130 is somewhere beneath the Atlantic, proudly defending freedom.

For more information on the USS Illinois and the USS Illinois Commissioning Committee, visit http://ussillinois.org/.