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Protecting Puget Sound: The Triangle of Fire | History Files


December 5, 2019

Washington has some lovely state parks that were once a part of the coast defense system. Fort Casey on Whidbey Island was one of the forts. Also Fort Worden at Port Townsend, and Fort Flagler on Marrowstone Island across Port Townsend Bay.

Those three parks were once the keystones of the Triangle of Fire, designed to prevent a battle fleet from steaming into Puget Sound to bombard Seattle and the Naval Shipyard in Bremerton. Incidentally, a fleet entering Puget Sound would have steamed right by Edmonds if it had been inclined to bombard lesser targets.

The idea of the design of the Triangle of Fire was that the three forts were close enough together to support each other. Each had weapons of 10-inch and 12-inch bore, and smaller, quicker weapons with bores of 3, 4 and 6 inches. Battleships of 120 years ago generally carried 12-inch rifles as their largest weapon. There were exceptions.

Three Navy battleships, including the famous USS Oregon, carried 13-inch rifles in their main battery. The difference of 1 inch doesn’t seem important, but a 13-inch rifle propelled a shell about 25% heavier than a 12-inch rifle.

If a fleet steamed into Admiralty Inlet, it would come under fire first by Fort Worden. If the fleet steamed farther, Forts Casey and Flagler would join the combat. The key was that if an enemy decided to eliminate the forts one by one, there would be time to prepare minefields in Puget Sound, and time to gather a squadron of torpedo-carrying small warships.

If enemies recognized that possibility and tried to steam through quickly, they would meet the combined fire of the three forts.

There was also a contingency plan. If a fleet tried to steam through Deception Pass to avoid the Triangle of fire, the small Fort Whitman waited on Goat Island near the mouth of the Skagit River. Fort Whitman mounted smaller quick-firing guns. But it was placed in an ambush position.

If a fleet succeeded in steaming through Deception Pass without grounding itself, it suddenly came into contact with Fort Whitman at close range, where it was almost impossible to miss. The small, quick-firing guns would be able to do a significant amount of damage before the heavier guns of the battleships overwhelmed the fort.

The choice for an enemy fleet was much like the classic Scylla and Charybdis – the lesser of two evils. Which danger would you choose if you commanded the invading fleet? Both offered undesirable consequences.

If the invading fleet succeeded in reaching central Puget Sound, there was another fort awaiting then. Fort Ward, on the south end of Bainbridge Island, waited in ambush, and a minefield was controlled by another location across Rich Passage near Manchester.

The entire design of the defense was to whittle the force of attackers. They might ultimately get through, but at heavy cost. With this defense, the Navy could concentrate in the Atlantic and not reduce its fleet strength by sending battleships to the Pacific.

Why would they do that? Didn’t the fleet need to be in the Pacific Ocean to defend against the Japanese navy? But at the time these forts were designed, the principal enemy was not Japan, although Japan might have been a small ally of the expected enemy. Japan at that time was an ally of the British Empire, and its ships were mostly built in Britain.

The expected enemy in the 1890s was the British Empire itself, and the Royal Navy was the strongest in the world. Our lovely state parks were designed as coast defense forts against the Royal Navy. And there was fear that because the Royal Navy had a base at Esquimalt, just west of Victoria, it had a local base to gather and provision a battle fleet.

That feared war never developed. By the time there was war in the Pacific, the Triangle of Fire was obsolete. Aircraft of the Japanese navy’s Kido Butai (first air fleet) could have quickly subdued the Triangle of Fire.

Fortunately, those aircraft never attacked Puget Sound, either.


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