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Battleships

Battleships. Descended from the wooden ship of the line in the age of sailing warships, the steel battleship in the U.S. Navy was usually distinguished from its foreign counterparts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by its heavy gun armament, sturdy protection, and relatively slow speed. Although initially ordered by Congress for coastal defense in the 1890s, battleships soon took on the mission of control of the seas, which they held until eclipsed by aircraft carriers during World War II. Denounced for decades as obsolete, the battleship ultimately survived in the navy until 1995 by adapting to other roles.

U.S. battleships fell into three distinct subtypes: the twenty‐seven mixed‐battery ships (typically with four 12‐inch and eight 8‐inch guns, 18 knots speed), constructed between 1888 and 1908; the twenty‐two all‐big‐gun “dreadnoughts” (with armaments from eight 12‐inch to eight 16‐inch guns, 18 to 21 knots) completed between 1910 and 1923; and the ten fast battleships (nine 16‐inch guns, 27 to 33 knots) built in 1937 to 1944. In addition to these vessels, Congress authorized seven dreadnoughts in 1916 and seven fast battleships in 1940, none of which was finished.

Technically, American battleship designers pioneered the “all‐or‐nothing” scheme for armor protection with the Nevada class of 1912. Light armor plating, which would serve only to detonate armor‐piercing shells, was deleted, and the weight saved used for thicker protection of vital areas. Later, the ten fast battleships were in advance of their foreign contemporaries in mounting dual‐purpose secondary batteries effective against both antisurface and antiaircraft targets.

Operationally, the early mixed‐battery ships saw little combat as a type. Aside from the Maine, which exploded (probably accidentally) in February 1898, only five had been completed in time for the Spanish‐American War. Although not seriously tested, their performance at Santiago was judged impressive enough to justify an accelerated program of battleship construction. Sixteen of these warships flexed America's muscles during the cruise of the Great White Fleet (1907–09), but returned home already outmoded by the revolution in battleship design wrought by HMS Dreadnought. Dispensing with all medium‐caliber guns in favor of ten 12‐inch rifles, the Dread‐nought gained weight of fire and long‐range accuracy through simplified fire control. During World War I, the obsolete vessels of the Great White Fleet were relegated to training and convoy duty. By 1923, all had been retired from active duty.

The “dreadnoughts” of the World War I era played a much more active role in the nation's defense. Eight served in British waters during 1918; fifteen were on hand in 1941. Except for the Arizona and the Oklahoma, both sunk in the attack on Pearl Harbor, all were modernized, and some were virtually reconstructed with the most modern antiaircraft armament, radar, and fire control equipment. Six of these veteran warships won at Surigao Strait during the Battle of Leyte Gulf on 25 October 1944, the last action between big‐gun warships; but their most significant contribution was artillery support for amphibious assaults from Attu and Tarawa to Normandy and Okinawa. So impressive were the dreadnoughts in this role that five were maintained in the U.S. Navy's reserve fleet through the 1950s.

As for the ten fast battleships completed during World War II, only two engaged their opposite numbers when, at the Battle of Guadalcanal on the night of 14–15 November 1942, Washington and South Dakota inflicted mortal damage on the Imperial Japanese Navy's Kirishima, helping prevent the Japanese from landing substantial reinforcements on the island. But the fast battleships proved themselves useful in many other roles: as logistics support ships for smaller combatants, as flagships, as antiaircraft escorts for aircraft carriers, and especially as shore bombardment vessels. Indeed, the last four ships of the Iowa class would see action in five separate conflicts over a half century—an unprecedented record. Well‐ protected, maneuverable, carrying up to 150 antiaircraft guns, and the fastest battleships ever with their speed of 33 knots, the Iowas were the finest big‐gun ships built by any navy.

Despite these merits, the battleship as a type had obviously yielded pride of place by the end of World War II to the carriers as the “backbone of the fleet.” In the subsequent great demobilization, only the Missouri remained on active duty by 1949. The Korean War brought back the other three Iowa‐class ships for shore bombardment duties during which they fired many more rounds than in World War II. Their effective performance in this role kept them in the reserve fleet after their decommissioning later in the decade when all their earlier cousins had become museum ships or scrap.

With the Vietnam War, the New Jersey, after an “austere” modernization, made one combat tour in 1968. Much praised by soldiers ashore for the effectiveness of her gunfire, the New Jersey nonetheless returned to mothballs in 1969 with the diminution of the American role in the war.

Narrowly escaping the cutter's torch during the 1970s, the four Iowas then became a controversial element in the Reagan administration's buildup of the navy. Recommissioned with upgraded electronics and long‐range cruise missiles, the battleships served as the centerpieces of surface warfare action groups. The debate over their reactivation flared with questions about the accuracy of the New Jersey's gunnery during the Lebanon crisis of 1983–84 and the reasons for the Iowa's lethal turret explosion in 1989.

Battleship proponents found vindication with the performance of the Missouri and Wisconsin, which fired both missiles and big guns to much effect during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. Unfortunately, the large size of their crews told against them during the downsizing of the military; all four were once again in mothballs by 1992 and were ordered stricken from the navy's lists in January 1995.

Thus, the U.S. Navy had carried battleships on its rosters for little more than a century. For most of that time, they drew opposition, especially from airpower advocates, for their size and expense. During their first fifty years, they probably did take up too much of the navy's attention and resources at the expense of smaller vessels (such as carriers, cruisers, and destroyers) and other missions (such as antisubmarine warfare). But wartime experience proved them tough ships–only three of the fifty‐nine (Maine, Oklahoma, and Arizona) were permanently sunk. As ship killers, the battleships saw little action; yet they ultimately justified their existence in important subsidiary missions, the most significant being gunfire support for troops ashore.
[See also Mahan, Alfred T.; Navy Combat Branches.]

Bibliography

John C. Reilly, Jr. and and Robert L. Scheina , American Battleships 1886–1923, 1980.
Norman Friedman , U.S. Battleships, 1985.
Paul Stillwell , Battleship New Jersey, 1986.
Malcolm Muir, Jr. , The Iowa Class Battleships, 1987.
Jonathan G. Utley , An American Battleship at Peace and War: The USS Tennessee, 1991.
William H. Garzke, Jr. and and Robert O. Dulin, Jr. , Battleships: United States Battleships, 1935–1992, 2nd ed., 1994.

Malcolm Muir, Jr.

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