The North Carolina Class Battleships: The First of the Modern U.S. Navy Battleships

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

After spending the time to take two days each to write two detailed articles on issues related to the novel Coronavirus 19 I needed a break. I could have started another COVID 19 article tonight but I needed a break, especially after I listened to today’s COVID 19 Task Force Press conference, which was more of a cheerleading fan rally than anything seriously informative. But I have to leave that here for now, I don’t have the emotional energy to write about it right now, after all there will be plenty of other chances to chronicle this and more.

So tonight I am going back to different classes of naval warships. This is another 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. The first deal that the German Scharnhorst class and another covered the Italian Vittorio Veneto class. In between my commentary on current events, as well as the Holocaust, I plan to go back to the French Dunkerque and Richelieu classes, the British King George V class, and the United States South Dakota class. The German Bismarck, Japanese Yamato, British Vanguard and American Iowa classes will be covered in a subsequent series.I will probably write about the battleships that each of these nations planned but either did not complete or never left the drawing board, including  the fantastical German ships of the various H classes.

So until tomorrow, I hope that you enjoy this.


Padre Steve+

Turret base of USS Washington being lowered into barbet

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.

North Carolina Class 16″ Gun Turret

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. These designed included everything from an improved version of the Standard Type which had culminated in the Maryland Class and the never built South Dakota Class.

The Type VII Design, a Return to the Standard Battleship 

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 officially 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.

Initial Type XVI design with 14″ guns

The Navy worked to achieve the maximum speed, armament and protection that it could within the 35,000 ton limitations of the Washington and London Naval Treaties. 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 a main battery of 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 were afforded more protection to their turrets, barbets and conning tower. Likewise, they had slightly less armor than the French Richelieu class due to the Design of the class which placed all main battery guns forward, using all or nothing armor protection. However, the design was a compromise and the armor could not have protected the ships from 16” shellfire, and there were weaknesses in the anti-torpedo defenses which were shown when North Carolina was torpedoed during the Guadalcanal campaign along with the USS Wasp. 

View of USS Washington Conning Tower showing Mk 38 5″ gun directors and SG Surface Search Radar

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.

Other designs were considered in the selection process, but 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.

USS North Carolina BB-55

The North Carolina Class was comparable in many ways with the Japanese Nagato Class in speed, protection and armament, but they had a far greater cruising range which made them excellent for operations in the Pacific either parts of Fast Carrier task forces, the Battle Line of the Third or Fifth Fleet, or centerpieces of surface action groups.

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 in the late 1930s. Likewise, the design change to 16” guns from the original 14” guns, as well as labor issues which not only lengthened the time of their construction and raised their cost from $50 million to $60 million dollars each.

North Carolina during underway replenishment in the Pacific

USS North Carolina was laid down on 27 October 1937, launched on 13 June 1940 and commissioned 9 April 1941. However, 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.

Torpedo Damage to North Carolina

When North Carolina 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 damage from the hit sparked great debate in the Navy regarding her protection with some wondering if too much had been sacrificed in her design, despite this no modifications were made to the ships of the Iowa class.

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.

USS Washington BB-56 on high speed run in 1945

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.

Following her overhaul, Washington 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. Washington scored hits on Kirishima with at least 9 of her 16” shells and over 40 5” shells. Kirishima was mortally wounded. despite the best attempts of her crew to save her, she was scuttled the following day. After mauling Kirishima, Washington then drove off the other Japanese ships sparing Henderson Field from certain heavy damage.

Washington blasting Kirishima at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal 14-15 November 1942

Washington’s victim the IJN Battleship Kirishima

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.

North Carolina and Washington in Reserve

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. The rejection of these attempts to modernize and recommission the ships ensured their fates.

Fireworks over the North Carolina in Wilmington (US Navy Photo)

Though the North Carolina class was 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.


Filed under historic preservation, History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific

6 responses to “The North Carolina Class Battleships: The First of the Modern U.S. Navy Battleships

  1. Steven

    Hey Padre,

    Nice article. I especially appreciated the oft-neglected discussion of the origins of the project, and what the USN was considering in terms of a Battleship in the mid-1930s.

    I’m not sure I would agree the ships were not proof against 16-Inch fire, full stop. They were not proof against the American idea of 16-Inch shell fire, which was a world where heavy was good and heavier was better. There’s a reason the Americans insist the Japanese 18-Inch rifles were no better than their own 16-Inch. I’m not sure that’s true in an engineer’s notebook, but I believe it to be close enough not to matter when ships are hitting and being hit.

    Great point about their Ack-Ack fit, too. The Americans choice of the 5-Inch/38-Calibre rifle was just inspired, and as you pointed out, their fire control was far more advanced than that of any other Navy. While they benefited from the British R&D in RDF, that made an superb system supreme.

    I’m not sure you ought to give Kirishima credit for being a Battleship, though. Even the Japanese did not consider her or her sisters a match for modern Battleships or Battle Cruisers. Though I have to say, caught at that range, by those powerful American rifles, I doubt any ship could have survived.

    South Dakota’s woes were at least partly self-inflicted, though the design faults were not her crew’s fault, and readiness is all in wartime.

    My sister is of the opinion that Japanese complacency really cost them. She says the waters off Guadalcanal are “lousy” for fighting heavy ships, and that the had the Japanese employed their torpedoes in a doctrinal manner, they might well have struck one or both the American Battleships.


    • Don McCollor

      (Don McCollor)…another inspiration was the dual and quad 4omm. mounts…

      • padresteve

        Great guns, combined with the 5” 38s, and 20mm Oelikons were probably the best AA batteries of the war of any Navy.

      • Kristin High

        DM & PS,

        Don’t leave out the USN’s 3-Inch/50-Calibre Mk.21-Mk.24 rifle. Coupled with the USN’s awesome RDF DCT and the Anglo-American VT fuse, the 3-Inch/50 was as effective as eight Bofors or 2-Pdr Pom-Pom.

        Neither the British nor the Americans were entirely happy with their close-in weapons once actual combat began, and their unhappiness only increased as enemy combat aircraft grew tougher. The advent of Special Attack squadrons in the Pacific made a fundamental shift in air-surface defence, blurring the line between mission-kill and hard-kill to the point it was almost immaterial.

        In this instance the weaknesses of the 20mm and 40mm weapons was acute. Although the 2-Pdr was considered superior to the Bofors against Special Attack aircraft, the difference was insufficient to alter either battery; mostly it came down to RoF. The 20mm Oerlikon was well past effectiveness—even as a mission-kill weapon—but had a superior RoF to the heavier 40mm weapons. All could take RDF DCT.

        The **relatively** low rate of fire in the 40mm weapons offset their significantly better burst radius and probability of damage. This weakness kept the 20mm Oerlikon in service, despite the adverse effects the huge numbers of weapons needed had on stability, because it rapidly became apparent that simply crippling an aircraft in the terminal approach was not sufficient to achieve mission kill, when the mission was Special Attack.

        The preferred solution was an RDF fuse,—the VT fuse. The difficulty was that even the British and Americans could not miniaturise it sufficiently to arm a shell in the 40mm class. The solution was the supern USN 3-Inch/50-Calibre rifle. Already the Mk.20, 21, 22, and 23 were set up for automatic fire, and the Mk.24 was actually fitted with the recoil recovery spring which allowed the automatic fit to be designed. The 3″ round could take the VT fuse, and an auto-loading fit designed by the Americans allowed for sufficient RoF.

        Although not fielded during WWII, the weapon was prototyped by September of 1945, and wartime development would have seen it deployed by Spring or Summer of 1946 (it was actually ready by 1948, postwar). The Americans believe one of their Mk.33 mounts scored a damaging hit on a MiG fighter in the Gulf of Tonkin in 1972, which would be nothing short of amazing.

        The Royal Navy’s 5.25-Inch/50-Calibre rifle was a less successful design than the American 5-Inch/38-Calibre, but mostly because of the design of the gunhouse, rather than an inherent weakness of the rifle itself. Mostly. There remains a worry about RoF, even with the RPC in Vanguard. And a gun is more than just the rifle, after all. Certainly the RN 4.5-Inch/45-Claibre rifles were superior as Ack-Ack weapons, and their employment in the Mediterranean Sea does not give any hint that they were too light for actual surface combat.

        Overall, though, one must allow that the USN 5″/38-Calibre Mk.12 rifle in the MK.25/30 single-rifle or Mk.22/28 twin rifle gun house (the “Single-” or “Twin-Twin Enclosed Base Ring Mounts” in USN nomenclature) with the Mk.37 RDF DCT was the best of the “heavy” Anti-Aircraft mounts, and far and away the best destroyer weapon.


      • padresteve

        Good observations. I didn’t include the later USN 3” because they were not fielded during the war. The rate at which they replaced their predecessors after the war is testament to their superiority in the role, and the VT fuse was one of the most successful designs of the war in land and sea based rolls. I didn’t include the RN 4.5s because they weren’t mounted on the KGVs as the series was limited to the battleships of the era. When I get around to the Queen Elizabeth’s, the Revenge Class, and the battlecruisers that mounted them I will discuss them. If I ever get around to the treaty cruisers of the era, as well as the USN and RN inter-war destroyers they will have a place there as well. I have always been an admirer of the Tribal Class, the HMS Kelly and her sisters, and the O Class, all which did stellar work wherever they served. I also have a soft spot in my heart for the County Class Cruisers. I need to write about them and the other treaty cruisers in detail sometime.

  2. Pierre Lagacé

    We all need to take a break Padre. Thanks for posting about these battleships.

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