The South Dakota Class Battleships: The Best of the Treaty Battleships

USS South Dakota Class Line Drawing

This is the fifth 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 Classbattleships entitled British Bulwarks: The King George V Class Battleships Part Four  which was about the North Carolina Class is entitled The Next Generation: The North Carolina Class Battleships. 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.

As the world edged closer to war in the late 1930s the U.S. Navy followed up its decision to build the two ship North Carolina class battleships with additional fast battleships. Initially the General Board wanted two additional North Carolina’s but the Chief of Naval Operations William H. Standley wanted a different design.

USS South Dakota BB-57 in 1943

Design work started in 1937 and several designs were proposed in order to correct known deficiencies in the preceding North Carolina class to include protection and the latest type of steam turbines.  As in the North Carolina’s the Navy struggled to find the optimal balance between armament, protection and speed. In the end the Navy decided on a shorter hull form with greater beam which necessitated greater power to maintain a high speed. The armor protection was maximized by using an interior sloped belt of 12.2 inch armor with 7/8” STS plates behind the main belt which made the protection the equivalent to 17.3 inches of vertical armor. The Belt continued to the bottom of the ship though it was tapered with the belt narrowing to 1 inch to provide addition protection against plunging fire which struck deeper than the main belt. As an added feature to protect against torpedo hits a multi-layered four anti-torpedo bulkhead system was included, designed to absorb the impact of a hit from a 700 pounds of TNT.

In order to accommodate the machinery necessary to provide the desired speed of 27 knots on the shorter hull the machinery spaces were rearranged.  The new design placed the boilers directly alongside the turbines with the ship’s auxiliaries and evaporators also placed in the machinery rooms. Additional design changes made to save space included making the crew berthing areas smaller. This included that of officers as well as the senior officers and shrinking the size of the galley’s and the wardroom from those on the North Carolina’s. The resultant changes allowed the ships to achieve the 27 knot speed, improved protection and the same armament of the North Carolina’s within the 35,000 treaty limit.

Two ships of the design were approved and with the escalator clause invoked by the Navy two more ships were ordered all with the nine 16” gun armament of the North Carolina’s.  The leading ship of the class the South Dakota was designed as a fleet flagship and in order to accommodate this role two of the 5” 38 twin mounts were not installed leaving the ship with 16 of these guns as opposed to the 20 carried by the rest of the ships of the class. The final design was a class of ships capable of 27.5 knots with a range of 17,000 miles at 15 knots mounting nine 16” guns with excellent protection on the 35,000 tons and full load displacement of 44,519 tons.

The lead ship of the class the USS South Dakota BB-57 was laid down 5 July 1939 at New York Shipbuilding in Camden New Jersey, launched on 7 June 1941 and commissioned on 20 March 1942.  Following her commissioning and her shakedown cruise South Dakota was dispatched to the South Pacific. Soon after her arrival she struck a coral reef at Tonga which necessitated a return to Pearl Harbor for repairs.  When repairs were complete she was attached to TF 16 escorting the USS Enterprise CV-6 during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 26 October 1942.  During the battle she was credited with shooting down 26 Japanese aircraft but was struck by a 500 lb bomb on her number one turret. She joined TF-64 paired with the battleship USS Washington during the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on14-15 November 1942. During the action South Dakota suffered a power outage and was hit by over 40 shells from Japanese ships which knocked out 3 fire control radars, her radio and main radar set. 3 destroyers were also lost but the Washington mortally wounded the fast battleship Kirishima and destroyer Ayanami which were scuttled the next day and damaged the heavy cruisers Atago and Takao. She returned to New York for repairs which completed in February 1943 and joined the carrier USS Ranger CV-4 for operations in the Atlantic until April when she was attached to the British Home Fleet. She sailed for the Pacific in August 1943 and rejoined the Pacific Fleet in September and joined Battleship Divisions 8 and 9 and supported the invasion of Tarawa providing naval gunfire support to the Marines. The rest of the war was spent escorting carriers as well as conducting bombardment against Japanese shore installations. She was present at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay and returned to the United States in 1945 and was decommissioned and placed in reserve on 31 January 1947. She was stricken from the Naval Register on 1 June 1962 and sold for scrap in October of that year. Various artifacts of this gallant ship to include a propeller, a 16” gun and the mainmast are part of the USS South Dakota Memorial Park in Sioux Falls South Dakota and 6,000 tons of armored plate were returned to the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission for use in civilian nuclear programs and a second screw is displaced outside the U.S. Naval Museum in Washington D.C.  She received 13 battle stars for World War II service.  South Dakota had the dubious distinction of having the youngest sailor of the war 12 year old Calvin Graham who confessed lying about his age to the Gunnery Officer Sergeant Schriver. Graham was court-martialed and given a dishonorable discharge spending 3 months in the ship’s brig before he was able to be returned to the United States where just after his 13th birthday he entered 7th grade.

USS Indiana BB-58 Bombarding Japan in 1945

The second ship of the class the USS Indiana BB-58 was laid down at Newport News Naval Shipyard on 20 November 1939 launched on 21 November 1941 and commissioned on 30 April 1942.  She served throughout the Pacific War by serving with the fast battleships of Vice Admiral Willis Lee’s TF-34, escorting carriers during major battles such that the Battle of the Philippine Sea or as it is better known the Marianas Turkey Shoot. She returned to the United States for overhaul and missed the Battle of Leyte Gulf but served at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and operations against the Japanese home islands.  Following the war she was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrap in September 1963.   A number of her relics are preserved at various locations in Indiana and her prow is located in Berkeley California.

USS Massachusetts BB-59 in January 1946 in the Puget Sound

The third ship of the class the USS Massachusetts BB-59 was laid down on 20 July 1939 at Bethlehem Steel Corporation Fore River Yard in Salem Massachusetts and launched on 23 September 1941 and commissioned on 12 May 1942. After her shakedown cruise she was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet where she took part in Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of French North Africa. During the operation she engaged French shore batteries, damaged the battleship Jean Bart and sank 2 cargo ships and along with the heavy cruiser Tuscaloosa sank the destroyers Fougueux and Boulonnais and the light cruiser Primauguet. Following her assignment in the Atlantic she sailed for the Pacific where she began operations in January 1944. She took part in almost every major operation conducted by the Pacific Fleet escorting the Fast Carrier Task Forces and operating as a unit of TF-34 the Fast Battleship Task force including the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  She ended the war conducting operations against the Japanese home islands.  She was decommissioned in 1947 and stricken from the Naval Register on 1 June 1962. She was saved from the fate of Indiana and South Dakota as the people of Massachusetts with the assistance of schoolchildren who donated $50,000 for her renovation and preservation as a memorial. She became that in 1965 at Battleship Cove in Fall River Massachusetts and she remains there designated as a National Historic Landmark.  During the naval build up of the 1980s much equipment common to all modern battleships was removed for use in the recommissioned battleships of the Iowa class.

USS South Dakota at the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands

The final ship of the class the USS Alabama BB-60 was on 1 February 1940 at Norfolk Naval Shipyard. She was launched on 21 February 1942 and commissioned 16 August 1942. Following her shakedown cruise and initial training off the Atlantic coast she joined the repaired South Dakota and operated as part of TF 22 attached to the British Home Fleet. She conducted convoy escort operations, participated in the reinforcement of Spitsbergen and in an operation which attempted to coax the German battleship Tirpitz out of her haven in Norway. Tirpitz did not take the bait and Alabama and South Dakota returned to the United States in August 1943.  After training with the fast carriers she took part in the invasion of the Gilberts taking part in Operation Galvanic against Tarawa and the Army landings on Makin Island. As 1944 began Alabama continued her operations with the fast carriers and the fast battleships of TF-34.  She took part in operations against the Marshalls and took part in the invasion of the Marianas Islands and the Marianas Turkey Shoot. From there she supported the invasion of Palau and other islands in the Caroline Islands followed by operations against New Guinea and the invasion of the Philippine and the Battle of Leyte Gulf before returning to the United States for overhaul. She returned to action during the invasion of Okinawa and in shore bombardment operations against the Japanese Mainland. When the war ended the Alabama had suffered no combat deaths and only 5 wounded following the misfire of one of her own 5” guns earning her the nickname of “Lucky A.”  Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller served as a Chief Petty Officer and gun mount captain on Alabama during the war. She was decommissioned on 9 January 1947 and stricken from the Naval Register on 1 June 1962. The people of the State of Alabama formed the “Alabama Battleship Commission” and raised $1,000,000 including over $100,000 by schoolchildren to bring her to Alabama as a memorial.  She was turned over to the state in 1964 and opened as a museum on 9 January 1965. She was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1986.  She has been used as a set in several movies and continues to serve as a museum preserving the legacy of the men that served aboard her and all of the battleship sailors of World War II.

In the 1950s a number of proposals were considered to modernize the ships of the class to increase their speed to 31 knots using improved steam turbines or gas turbines. The Navy determined that to do this would require changes to the hull form of the ships making the cost too prohibitive.  The ships were certainly the best of the treaty type battleships produced by any nation in the Second World War. The damage sustained by South Dakota at the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal would have not only put most battleships of her era out of action but might have caused enough damage to sink them. Their armament was equal or superior to all that except the Japanese Yamato Class and their protection was superior to most ships of their era.

It is good that both the Massachusetts and the Alabama have been preserved as memorials to the ships of the class, their sailors and the United States Navy in the Second World War. Because of the efforts of the people of Massachusetts and Alabama millions of people have been able to see these magnificent ships and remember their fine crews. Both have hosted reunions of their ships companies since becoming museum ships and with the World War Two generation passing away in greater numbers every day soon these ships as well as the USS Texas, USS North Carolina, USS Missouri, USS New Jersey and USS Wisconsin will be all that is left to remember them unless a home can be found for the USS Iowa which stricken from the Naval Register awaits an uncertain fate as a resident of the “Ghost Fleet” in Suisun Bay California.  No other nation preserved any other dreadnought or treaty battleship thus only these ships remain from the era of the Dreadnought.


Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy, world war two in europe, world war two in the pacific

10 responses to “The South Dakota Class Battleships: The Best of the Treaty Battleships

  1. John Erickson

    Very well done, Padre. Your closing comments that these ships are all the memories we will soon have left is particularly apt today. A friend of mine, a Korean war Air Force veteran, died early Saturday, and we will bury him tomorrow. With him goes a tremendous amount of history, of which he shared some small bits with me. All too soon, the brave men and women, who put their lives on hold to defend this country and freedom around the world, will be gone, and with them will go the first-hand accounts of important points in history. We need to keep these ships alive, we need to hear these stories firsthand, so that future generations will know of the sacrifices made to give them the lifestyle they enjoy today.
    And never fear, Padre. The funeral procession will go past my house, and we will have as many flags out as possible. We will send him off proudly!

  2. Piet

    Apparantly not designed to withstand 16 inch gunfire?Stern sighted aircraft catapults danger of blast from main guns-Not perhaps the best some people prefer the North Carolina class but a damn good ship

    • padresteve


      Thank you for you comments. It is a close call between the tow classes. The South Dakota class were better gun platforms due to their beam and had somewhat better protection, Other than that the North Carolina class stacks up very well. The Iowa’s were based on the South Dakotas. Thanks for stopping by,

      Padre Steve+

  3. ARS

    Nice post. As a Historic Ship enthusiast and active volunteer aboard one (the USS Salem actually) as well as frequent visitor of others, including the USS Massachusetts which is very close to where I live, I have one little nit to pick, maybe 2.

    The North Carolinas could not stand up to her own armament nor torpedos. The South Dakotas could not stand up to torpedos either, but had only limited ability to withdstand its own guns. Technically, the South Dakota class vessels should have been immune to the older Colorado class16″ rounds, but before the start of the war, the 16″ 45 caliber guns were given improved ammunition, a somewhat heavier AP projectile. The South Dakotas were proof against gunfire from this new round in a narrow band from 18,000 yards to 24,000 yards.

    I personally have seen the machinery and engineering spaces of the USS Massachusetts quite extensively and done tours of these spaces. I can tell you that indeed, the engine rooms really don’t have “all the equipment”. Out of four engine rooms, the first three (B-1 through B-3) have two steam turbine triple phase generators each. The last engine room has merely one. This is a list of each machinery space’s “special abilities”:

    B1: open to the public has a pair of degaussing generators, but there are others in the forward and aft electrical distribution rooms.

    B2 has a switchboard, which is necessary as it is the “lead” engine room from where they can most easily direct steam into and out of all the other machinery spaces. However, this can also be controlled remotely from Broadway.

    B3 is the most ordinary. It has no special powers or anything extra.

    B4 lacks one steam turbine generator, making room for a vertical evaporator (the only one in any machinery/engine room) as well as a backup high pressure compressed air pump and a heating system drain collector, again, the only one in an engine room. So B-4 is the most “atypical”.

    The aft electrical distribution room, aft of B-4 and below the 3rd turret magazines, is above the aft Cooper Bessemer auxiliary diesel generators. There are other auxiliary diesel generators, immediately forward of B-1 in the same compartment as the main evaporators. And this large compartment is also home to all the other compressed air motors.

    So no, the engine rooms don’t have all the goodies, but they did place redunant ones there.

    I wish I could say that it was only the Navy to pilfer parts, I’ll leave it at that. This is a fate suffered by almost all museum ships (except one!), but has at least been somewhat undone by groups like Tin Can Sailors, which are large enough to send scavanging parties to WW-2 era ships that were broken up, particularly at the tail end of this period. The USS Des Moines (what a tragedy that was) and USS Saratoga were gold mines. Did you know that the Mark 37 director that sits on top of the USS Joseph P Kennedy DD-850 was sourced from the USS Des Moines?

    My favorite of all is the Salem. Her automatic 8 inch guns give her the same firepower as an Iowa, but it only weighs and costs about 30% as much. Damage resistance wise and everything, the Salem class (not Des Moines, little known but there is a difference) was the most advanced “big gun” ship, built around the experiences of the WW2 era, particularly around Guadalcanal. Sigh, this was a time when this country actually used to learn from its mistakes!

    It sounds like you like this kind of thing. Shoot me an email, I am very involved in this museum ship kind of thing. We have a special study group that does these tours from time to time, if you’re ever in the New England area I think you’d have a blast.

    Happy holidays

    • padresteve


      Thank you for your comments and work on Salem. I drove by her a few times driving between Newport RI and Boston when attending courses at Newport in 1999 and 2006. The Navy and Marine Corps want a real Naval Gunfire Support platform that can put lead on target. We have sunk billions into the DDX program and it can’t hold a candle to what Salem and her sisters could do. Back to the future would be a great idea.



      • ARS

        IMHO the Salem is still one of the most deadly and advanced warships out there. It has the same broadside weight as an Iowa and a much higher accuracy. Granted, those 8′ shells don’t quite have the same range or penetration, but the few WW-2 Battleship vs Battleship, or even Cruiser vs Battleship experiences such as at Guadalcanal show that you don’t have to have a single penetrating hit to cause a mission kill. The Salem’s 9 naval rifles could fire a round every six seconds. Six seconds does not seem like a lot until you see the USS Newport News fire support videos off of Vietnam. From inside the gunhouse, you literally see the arms, rammers, ejectors all working in constant movement that you cannot with your eye follow everything that is going on. The accuracy was judged to be 17/18 at 25,000 yards on a small patrol craft sized target with 2 salvoes fired. Did you know the USS Newport News actually shot down jet aircraft over Vietnam using her 8″ guns at a range of 21 nautical miles?

        The thing that makes these Cruisers so amazing is that they are armored. Modern torpedoes seem so deadly, breaking ships in half and whatnot, until you realize that modern ships have hulls and keels that are paper thin, and the warheads of the modern torpedoes have shrunken to follow suit to only about 300lbs or so. The General Belgrano, a former Brooklyn class US light cruiser, was sunk at the Falklands not with modern torpedoes, but the sub skipper actually chose WW-2 era type torpedoes with updated guidance systems because he knew he was firing at an armored vessel. It only had a deck of 3 inches of armor, and maybe 3 1/2 inches of belt armor, but that is still nearly a citadel of structure that gives tensile strength and extra “back” to the ship against breakage if you will. Now the Salem has close to 5 inches of deck, and 8 inches of belt which translates to 11 inch effectiveness due to a 17 degree slope and layering of armor (uses concrete in bewtween layers that you can see looking from the dock down at her belt armor).

        Missiles and torpedoes would make the Salem cringe like any other warship, but a lot less so because her back would be very, very difficult to break and would require huge warheads. Remember that while technology is better now, modern torpedoes are faster because they are lighter in terms of much smaller warheads. A larger torpedo would be heavier, easier to avoid and more cumbersome to use even with today’s technology. Imagine the Salem armed with today’s electronics, a fleet of 10-12 drones in her huge hangar, a bunch of 25mm gatling AA guns, and some SAM’s and surface to surface missiles. While the Salem would be exponentially more expensive to build than a USS Cole, imagine the Salem in the Cole’s place nearly 12 years ago, not only capable of shrugging off a kamikaze or a mine hit like a mosquito bite, but able to identify and swat these little buggers like an entire fleet of USS Cole’s could never dream. Or imagine how many Salem’s, with updated radar, missiles, satellite surveillance, and drone capability, would it take to pacify the Somali pirates and keep the Red Sea and Indian ocean open (maybe 1 tops?). Or, in current events, imagine the political effect of sending a pair Salem class cruisers armed to the teeth with the latest technologies into the Straight of Hormuz. I will tell you first hand that veterans who served on her in the Mediterranean fleet advised me she came very close to WW-3, but every time the Russians were effecting a buildup in the Black Sea, her and her sister ships’ presence in the Bosphorous would send them running with their tails between their legs as they were absolutely terrified of the Salems. And it was the USS Newport News that finally caused a speedy resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis by turning her forward turret on a Russian Freighter that was refusing to stop, and upon inspection was found to contain nukes.

        Oh, I could go on. The Salem had nukes, and there is evidence on board. The Salem was used as an ASW ship, and there is evidence on the fuses some of which read “Sonar room”. Also telling is the sonar bulb below her bow which was spotted in her 1998 dry-docking next to the USS Massachusetts.

        We are very proud of what she represents: the crux of the American WW-2 experience won with the casualties and suffering of her naval ranks. The Salem is a touching reminder that their deaths did not go in vain. She is a wistful reminder of a time when our country used to learn from its mistakes and be able to make things, great things and reward those involved instead of all this speculation leading to the extraction of value rather than creating it.

        If you’re ever in the New England area and wish to see the Sea Witch, shoot me a message. You’ll feel like a kid again climbing her ladders and exploring her hardware, hearing all the stories from many of the wonderful veterans and other volunteers that have toiled hard to save her. You’ll have a blast!

        Happy New Year

  4. ARS

    One last nit to pick Regarding the South Dakota BB 57.

    She did not suffer *THAT* much damage, which is very telling considering she suffered a mission kill. Do read Neptune’s Inferno by Jim Hornfischer, the Tom Clancy of WW-2 surface combat.

    One other little known detail was that her forward guns were already damaged from a bomb hit taken during the naval air battles a few weeks prior to her surface engagement off Guadalcanal, and because of the blast, while the turret was not damage, parts of the naval rifle were seen to suffer some warp and it was decided not to fire those guns of turret 2 for fear of a misfire like happened on the USS Newport News in Vietnam, whose results could be catastrophic. So she went into the battle definitely 2 guns, and perhaps a whole turret already down from that bomb hit.

    She was hit only by one or two 14″ shells from the Kirishima, one of which jammed her aft turret. Other hits pretty much shut down her radar and made her deaf and blind. The biggest problem was the recoil of her guns caused the fuses in her electrical distribution room to jump, shutting off power. The same thing happened to the USS MAssachusetts off the coast of North Africa, but the civilian crews were still on board “shaking things down” and righted the problem. The South Dakota had no such luck and steaming deaf and blind, took a number of smaller caliber hits, none of which penetrated her armored citadel, but still rendered her incapable of engaging the enemy.

  5. Love the page. BTW there is nothing progressive about socialism. The “Progressives” in the USA are in fact socialists. It is regressive. There is nothing democratic about it either, it is top down dictatorial. There is no life liberty and pursuit of happiness when the people belong to the state. The Soviet Union, China, Cuba, North Korea, East Germany, Fascist Italy, Venezuela and even Nazi Germany (socialist workers party) are all good examples of where socialism leads. Lets not bring this kind of progressive to the USA.

    • padresteve

      Thank you for liking my page. I do appreciate that. Howver, I am a progressive, and one who sill serves my country. I am a progressive like Marine Corps Major General Smedley Bultler who castigated the politicians and corporations who profited by war and threw those they sent to fight the wars to the curb, just as Senator Tom Colburn did last week. do not want to be critical but your history obviously comes from Fox News pundits, Glenn Beck and others who do not know anything about history and American progressives dating back to Teddy Roosevelt as Socalists. They use fear to demonize fellow Americans who are critical of the modern robber barons who pay their salaries and write the laws that their state and federal legislators pass. Please read some actual history, written by real historians and not guys who either dropped out of college, or if they went yo college majored in business. But again I thank you for reading and hope that you come back. Merry 3rd Day of Christmas!

  6. Pingback: First D-Day Book I Ever Read – World War Two | Cool World War Two Links

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