This is the fourth in a series of six articles on the battleships built under the provision of the Washington and London Naval Treaty limitations in the 1930s. I am not including the ships which were completed in the immediate aftermath of the Washington Treaty limitations. This series looks at the modern battleships that the World War II combatants would produce in the 1930s which saw service in the war. Part one covered the Italian Vittorio Veneto class entitled The Pride of the Regina Marina: The Vittorio Veneto Class Battleships. Part two French Firepower Forward: The unrealized potential of the Dunkerque and Richelieu Class Battleships covered the French Dunkerque class and Richelieu class Battleships. Part three covered the British Royal Navy King George V Class battleships entitled British Bulwarks: The King George V Class Battleships Part Five which was to be a subsection of this article will be on the South Dakota Class. I have already published the final part which covers the German Scharnhorst Class entitled Power and Beauty the Battle Cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau . The German Bismarck, Japanese Yamato, British Vanguard and American Iowa Classes will be covered in a subsequent series.
The United States finished the First World War as the rising economic and potential military power in the world. The British Empire was economically reeling beset by massive debts, heavy loss of life and an empire which was beginning to smell the fresh breezes of independence. The United States retreated into isolationism and a naïve and unfounded optimism that war could be outlawed while turning its back on the one organization that might have helped bring nations together, the League of Nations. In this environment the United States sponsored the Washington Naval Conference of 1922 which produced the Washington Naval Treaty. The treaty stipulated limitations on total battleship tonnage, main armament and the maximum tonnage allowed per ship. Ships already in existence could not be replaced until they reached the age of 20 years. A battleship “building holiday” of 10 years was mandated with the major signatories allowed to complete a few ships that were already under construction. Whole classes of new construction were cancelled and many ships under construction were scrapped on the ways or completed only to be scrapped or sunk as targets. The Royal Navy completed two ships of the Nelson Class, the United States completed the 3 ship Maryland Class using a 4th vessel the incomplete USS Washington as a target and the Japanese were allowed to complete two ships of the Nagato Class. The Royal Navy completed the Battleship Eagle and Battle Cruisers Furious, Glorious and Courageous as Aircraft Carriers, the U.S. Navy the incomplete Battle Cruisers Lexington and Saratoga and the Japanese the Battle Cruiser Akagi and Battleship Kaga as carriers. The treaty limits of the Washington Conference were renewed in the London Treaty which also sought to limit the main batteries of new battleships to 14 inch guns.
The U.S. Navy began a study of new designs for a fast battleship class to comply with the treaty restrictions in May to July of 1935. A minimum of 35 different designs were submitted and reviewed by the Navy and also reviewed by the faculty of the Naval War College. After a considerable amount of debate a design called the Type XVI was selected. The design originally called for twelve 14” guns mounted in three quadruple turrets. Other designs considered called for twelve 14″ guns in triple turrets. When the Japanese opted out of the treaty and the Italians began building the Vittorio Veneto Class with 15” guns the U.S. Navy adopted the “escalation clause” and the design was modified to mount nine 16” guns in triple turrets primarily due to the expectation that the Japanese Imperial Navy would mount larger guns in its new ships.
The Navy worked to achieve the maximum speed, armament and protection that it could within the 35,000 ton treaty limitations. There was debate among Admirals and designers as to how to solve the problem with some factions leaning toward greater speed and lighter armor and armament and others weighing in on a slightly slower ship with greater firepower and protection. The Type XVI (modified) design original called for twelve 14” guns in quadruple turrets but this was changed to nine 16” guns in triple turrets. The main armor belt was 12” inclined 15 degrees with 16” armor on the turret faceplates and barbets having 16” side armor. Their conning tower was also protected by 14” armor. This gave them heavier armor than the Italian Vittorio Veneto Class. They had a lighter belt than the British King George V Class but more protection accorded to their turrets, barbets and conning tower while they had slightly less armor than the French Richelieu class due to those ships all guns forward and all or nothing armor protection.
Their top speed of 27 knots was slower than their European counterparts but their range was far superior to all being able to steam over 20,000 miles at 15 knots and 6,610 miles at 25 knots. Their top speed and ranged decreased slightly during the war with the addition of more anti-aircraft guns and sensors. Most of the designs considered had speeds from 27-30 knots depending on whether the designers sacrificed speed for armament and protection or protection and firepower for speed. One design, the Type VII resembled earlier classes of battleships with a speed of only 23 knots in favor of much heavier protection on a shorter hull.
The North Carolina Class was comparable in many ways with the Japanese Nagato Class in speed, protection and armament but with a far greater cruising range.
The North Carolina’s also were superior to their contemporaries in their anti-aircraft armament as well as their electronics, radar and fire direction suites which were all continuously upgraded throughout the war.
The construction of the ships was slow due to material shortages, the design change to 16” guns and labor issues which not only lengthened the length of their construction but raised their cost from $50 million to $60 million dollars each.
USS North Carolina was laid down on 27 October 1937 launched on 13 June 1940 and commissioned 9 April 1941 though it was months before she was operational due to severe longitudinal vibration of her propeller shafts which was corrected by a modified propeller design. Despite the efforts to keep to the treaty limitations the ships displaced 36,600 long tons and had a full load displacement of 44,800 long tons. By 1945 the ships full load displacement had increased to 46,700 long tons for North Carolina and 45,370 long tons for Washington.
When she completed her shakedown cruise she was sent to the Pacific where she joined Task Force 16 and the USS Enterprise on 6 August 1942. She defended Enterprise during the Battle of the Easter Solomons on 24 August and during an 8 minute period she shot down between 7 and 14 Japanese aircraft. On 15 September she was badly damaged by a torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-15 which necessitated her withdraw to Pearl Harbor for repairs. The gravity of the hit sparked great debate in the Navy regarding her protection with some wondering if too much had been sacrificed in her design. Upon her return to service she operated with TF 38 and TF 58 protecting the carrier task forces in their operations against the Japanese as well as with TF 34 the Fast Battleship Task Force under the command of Vice Admiral Willis Lee. Serving throughout the Pacific campaign she took part in every major operation in the Central Pacific except Leyte Gulf and against the Japanese mainland. Her Marines and Sailors took part in the initial occupation of Japan. She was decommissioned and placed in reserve on 1 June 1960 and survived scrapping to be bought by the State of North Carolina for $250,000 and turned into a memorial at Wilmington North Carolina. She remains a National Historic Landmark and is maintained by the USS North Carolina Battleship Commission. She is exceptionally well maintained and much of the ship is open for tours.
The USS Washington was laid down 14 June 1938 launched on 1 June 1940 and commissioned 15 May 1941 though like North Carolina had propeller shaft vibrations which delayed her operational availability. She became the first U.S. Navy Battleship to take an active part in the war when she joined the British Home Fleet in March 1942 operating with the Royal Navy escorting Arctic convoys bound for the Soviet Union against possible forays of the Battleship Tirpitz and other heavy German surface units until 14 July when she returned to the United States for a brief overhaul. She then was deployed to the South Pacific to join U.S. Forces operating against the Japanese at Guadalcanal and became the Flagship of Rear Admiral Willis Lee. During the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on the night of 14-15 November she and the USS South Dakota sailed with 4 destroyers to intercept a Japanese task force. The Japanese force led by the Battleship Kirishima included 2 heavy and 2 light cruisers as well as 9 destroyers. The Japanese hit the Americans hard early in the battle sinking 3 of the 4 American destroyers and inflicting significant topside damage to South Dakota which caused a power outage and knocked her out of the action. Washington sailed on undetected by the Japanese and opened a devastating barrage against Kirishima scoring hits with 9 16” shells and 40 5” shell. Kirishima was mortally wounded and was scuttled by her crew the following day. Washington then drove off the other Japanese ships sparing Henderson Field from certain damage.
Washington continued operations in the South and Central Pacific until she was damaged in a collision with USS Indiana which resulted in her losing nearly 60 feet from her bow on 1 February 1944. She received temporary repairs before returning to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard to receive a new bow and other modernizations returning to action in May 1944. She remained in operation against the Japanese the rest of the war. She was decommissioned in 1947 and struck from the Naval Register on 1 June 1960 and sold for scrap.
Various improvements and ideas were suggested while the ships remained in reserve as some in the Navy wished to reactivate them to include lightening them to increase their speed and conversion into Helicopter Carriers all of which were rejected.
Though the North Carolina’s were a compromise design they performed admirably throughout the war. They and their brave crews are remembered in Naval History and the preservation of North Carolina has ensured that they will never be forgotten.