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Wings of Gold: U.S. Navy Carrier Aircraft 1941-1945

F4F-4 Wildcat of VF-41 in 1942

In 1941 with war raging in Europe and with the Japanese continuing their war in China and occupying French Indo-China the United States rushed to build up its Naval Air Arm and the Arm Air Corps.  New models of aircraft of all types were being rushed into production to replace aircraft already known to be obsolescent.  The Navy brought aircraft already accepted into full production even as it planned more advanced models.  The events in Europe and Asia demonstrated that new fighter designs were needed quickly.

As 1940 dawned the standard fighter aircraft found on U.S. Navy carriers were the F2-A Brewster Buffalo, the Grumman F-3F biplane.  In February 1940 the Navy accepted its first F4F-3 Wildcat which in an earlier for had been rejected in favor of the Brewster Buffalo.  The new Grumman fighter was powered by a 1200 hp Pratt & Whitney R-1830-76 double row radial engine, mounted 4 .50 cal. Machine guns and was heavily armored.  It had a maximum speed of 331 mph range of 845 miles and ceiling of 39500 feet. This would serve it and its pilots well as they aircraft was incredibly tough, often amazing experienced Japanese pilots in their A6M2 Zeros in their ability to suffer heavy damage and remain in the air.  The plucky Wildcat would become the main line of defense in the Pacific against the advancing Japanese Imperial Navy in the months following Pearl Harbor.

The early F4F-3s were superseded by the F4F-4 model which incorporated folding wings, additional armor and an extra two machine guns.  This decreased its maximum speed to 320 mph, rate of climb and ceiling but nonetheless the aircraft gave a good account of itself in Navy and Marine Corps service.  F4F-3’s and F4F-4s served in the British Royal Navy where it was called the Martlet until the end of the war.  When Grumman closed out F4F production in 1943 to concentrate on its replacement the F6F Hellcat production was continued by General Motors and Eastern Aircraft as the FM1 and FM2 Wildcat. The FM1 was identical to the F4F-4 but armament was reduced to 4 machine guns and bomb racks for two 250 lb bombs or depth charges were added.  The FM2 was based on an updated version of the F4F and had a more powerful engine as well as a higher tail assembly to account for the increased torque of the engine.  These aircraft served aboard the tiny Escort Carriers and performed valiantly, especially in the Battle off Samar during the Battle of Leyte Gulf.  A total of 7860 Wildcats of all varieties were built.  They accounted for 1327 enemy aircraft shot down with the loss of only 191 Wildcats.

Aces Capt Joe Foss USMC and CAPT David McConnell USN both Medal of Honor Winners and CDR Jimmy Thatch (below)

The top aces who flew the Wildcat were all Marines, CAPT Joe Foss (26 victories) MAJ John Lucian Smith (19 victories) and MAJ Marion Carl (16 victories in the F4F and 2 in the F4U Corsair). Foss and Smith both won the Medal of Honor.  Foss would go on to become Governor of South Dakota and the first Commissioner of the American Football League in 1959. Smith retired as a Colonel in 1960 and Carl as a Major General.  Other distinguished F4F aces included LT Butch O’Hare, the first U.S. Navy ace and Medal of Honor winner and LCDR Jimmy Thatch who developed the highly successful “Thatch Weave” which enabled the U.S.pilots whose machines were slower and less maneuverable than the speedy and nimble Zeros to achieve good success against their Japanese foe.  Thatch retired as an Admiral in 1967.  O’Hare rose to become commander of the Enterprise Air Group and was killed in action in November 1943. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is named for this brave aviator.

F6F Hellcat

The Grumman F6F Hellcat took over front line fighter duties on the Fleet Carriers from the Wildcat in early 1943 and established itself as the dominant fighter in the Pacific Theater of Operations.  Although it had a resemblance to the F4F the F6F was a totally new design built on combat experience against the Japanese.  The aircraft was built around the powerful Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine which produced 2000 hp.  The Hellcat mounted six .50 caliber machine guns and had a rate of climb of 3500 feet per minute and a 37300 ft operational ceiling.

Faster than the Zero and other Japanese fighters and piloted by more experienced pilots the Hellcats took a brutal toll of Japanese aircraft.  They accounted for more Japanese aircraft kills than any other with 5163 confirmed kills with a loss of 270 aircraft an overall 19:1 kill ratio. They were piloted by 305 Navy and Marine Corps aces including Meal of Honor winner Captain David McConnell the Navy’s Ace of Aces, and highest surviving United States ace of the war that scored all 34 of his victories in the Hellcat.  The greatest achievement of the Hellcats were when they swept the rebuilt Japanese Naval Air Arm from the skies in the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot. By November 1945 12275 Hellcats had been built with 1263 going to the British Royal Navy. After the war the Hellcat was replaced by the F8F Bearcat as the primary fighter and served in a night fighter and trainer role until the 1950s.  The French Navy used the Hellcat in to provide heroic close air support to beleaguered French Soldiers in Indochina.

USMC F4U-4 Corsair providing close air support

Flying alongside the F6F was the Vaught F4U Corsair. The Corsair first flew in 1940 and the Navy was slow to adopt it due to difficulties in carrier operations and negative reviews of Navy pilots.  However Marine Corps aviators flying the Corsair had great success and legendary aviators like MAJ Gregory “Pappy” Boyington and VMF-214 the Black Sheep.  The Navy would adopt the aircraft later in the war as the Corsair’s carrier operation deficiencies were remedied, but its real success was a land based aircraft operated by the Marines.  Likewise the first squadrons to operate the aircraft successfully from carriers were the Marine Corps VMF-124 and VMF-213.

Early F4U-1

The Corsair mounted the same Pratt & Whitney R-2800 engine as the F6F but had a highly streamlined gull wing design as well as a turbo-charger which allowed it a top speed of 425 mph.  Later models such as the F4U-4 had a top speed of 445 mph. The F4F was armed with six .50 cal machine guns as well as rockets and a bomb load of 2000 pounds and the F4U-4 could carry 4000 pounds of ordnance.

Less than 10000 of the over 64000 combat sorties flown by F4Us were flown from carriers, the vast bulk of the sorties coming from land based Marine Corps squadrons.  The Corsair was often used as a fighter bomber where its capabilities to drop sizable amounts of ordinance including rockets, bombs and the nearly developed Napalm in a close air support role cemented the importance of Marine Air for future generations.  They were beloved by the Marine Corps and U.S. Army infantrymen in their brutal battles with the Japanese on many hellish island battlefields.  Corsairs accounted for 2140 confirmed kills during the war against a combat loss of 189 aircraft. The aircraft remained in production until 1952 with 12571 aircraft of all variants being built.  Many Japanese pilots considered the Corsair to be the best fighter of the war.

During the war many Corsairs served in the British Royal Navy and Royal New Zealand Air Force with good success, and after the war the French Navy had success with them in a close air support role in Indochina and Algeria.  Following the war the Corsair remained in service for many years in the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as well as the French Navy and other smaller navies and air forces until the 1960s.

The Douglas SBD Dive Bomber was arguably the most effective Naval dive bomber of World War II, and possibly the best single engine dive bomber of all time. Other aircraft may have been faster or carried a larger bomb load, but the SBD, which served at a time when the U.S. Navy did not have air superiority and battled seasoned Japanese pilots and aircrews, achieved remarkable results,

The SBD was developed from the Northrop BT-2, after Douglas took over Northrop. The first model of the Dauntless, the SBD-1 began operations with the U.S. Marine Corps In 1940, the SBD-2 with the U.S. Navy in 1941. The SBD-3 which included more armor for the crew, and self sealing fuel tanks began entering service in late 1941.

The SBD combined a heavy bomb load, excellent bombing optics, great defensive armament, rugged construction, excellent handling characteristics and maneuverability, and superb dive bombing capabilities. It became the workhorse of the U.S. Navy between 1941 and 1944, flying about 25% of all missions flown from Navy carriers during that time. SBDs sank or damaged six Japanese Aircraft carriers, one Japanese and one French battleship, 14 cruisers, 6 destroyers, and many other ships including transports and submarines. It was the Dauntless which turn the tide of the Pacific war when at Midway they sank the Japanese aircraft carriers Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, and Hiryu and the heavy cruiser Mikuma. The SBD also accounted for more enemy aircraft in aerial combat than were lost to enemy aircraft, an amazing accomplishment by any bomber of any type.

In late 1944 after the Battle Of the Philippine Sea the Dauntless was phased out of U.S. Navy squadrons by the SB2C Helldiver. Though the Helldiver was bigger, faster, and carried a higher bomb load, many pilots preferred the Dauntless due to its superior handling characteristics, especially at low speeds, essential to landing on a carrier. It is hard to believe that the United States would have prevailed in 1942 without the Dauntless.

It was used in combat by other allies, a variant, the A-24 Banshee was built for the U.S. Army Air Force. The French operates it from the carrier Arromanches in Indochina until 1949.

SBD Dauntless Dive Bomber above and at Midway below

TBF Avenger above and below

The TBF Avenger torpedo bomber was developed as a replacement for the TBD Devastator by in 1940 by Leroy Grumman of Grumman aircraft. Production began in 1941 and the first combat by the aircraft was at the Battle of Midway. During that battle, 6 aircraft from VT-6, based at Midway while the rest of the squadron flying TBD Devastators from the USS Hornet attacked the Japanese carrier strike force. All of the TBD were shot down, as well as 5 of the 6 TBFs.

Despite the inauspicious start the TBFs became one of the deadliest aircraft of the Second World War. They helped sink the largest Battleships ever constructed, the Japanese Musashi and Yamato, as well as many other warships and auxiliaries. They conducted bombing missions of land targets, and operated from Escort Carriers in Anti-Submarine Warfare operations and supporting invasions and shore operations. The Avenger was particularly effective in the ASW role and was credited with sinking about 30 German U-Boats and Japanese submarines during the war.

The TBF was the largest single engine aircraft of the war, only the P-47 Thunderbolt was anywhere close to its size. Despite this the TBF was able to operate from the smallest aircraft carriers. Powered by a 1900 HP Wright R-2600-20 Twin Cyclone 14 Cylinder radial engine it could cruise at over 30,000 feet at a top speed of 275 MPH while carrying 2,000 pounds of bombs or a Mark 13 Aerial Torpedo. They also carried racks for 5″ High Velocity Aircraft Rockets and depth charges.

After the war it served in a variety of roles in the U.S. Navy, Royal Navy, Canadian Navy, French Navy, and other militaries until the 1960s. In peacetime it was used for many years as a fire fighting aircraft in the United States and Canada.

LTjg. George H. W. Bush in the cockpit of his Avenger

The most famous man to pilot a TBF/TBM was LTjg George H. W. Bush, later the President of the United States whose aircraft was shot down over Chuchi Jima In 1944.

SB2C Helldiver above and in French Service below

The replacement for the Dauntless was the SB2C Curtiss Helldiver. The Helldiver was bigger and faster than the Dauntless but for its size it was underpowered, and had a shorter range that the beloved Dauntless. The Helldiver had very poor performance in flight, had unreliable electrical and hydraulic systems and frequently was poorly manufactured. The defects made it less than popular among the aircrews which had previously flown the Dauntless who came to call it the Beast. The problems would lead to a Congressional investigation headed by Senator Harry Truman. During the hearings Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Air, Artemis Gates said: “When we needed the SB2C Helldiver neither we nor it was ready.”

The British Royal Navy and Australian Air Force evaluated the Helldiver and rejected it for service, cancelling their orders for it.

Despite the many flaws of the aircraft the superbly trained pilots and air crews made the most of it, sinking hundreds of Japanese ships and watercraft. From late 1944 until the end of the war it established a good combat record, though it never had to fight against the well trained Japanese pilots that the Dauntless aircrews had to face.

However, the Navy, and most air forces were moving away from the dive bomber as an attack aircraft. The U. S. Navy found that its F6F Hellcats, and F4U Corsairs could carry as heavy as payload in rockets and bombs as the Helldiver though the ordnance decreased their range. But even so the fighters were far better able to defend themselves against enemy fighter aircraft.

The aircraft served in the U. S. Navy and Naval Reserve until 1950. It also served in Greece where it was used in counter-insurgency (COIN) missions during the Greek Civil War, and by the French Navy during the Indochina campaign, including providing closer air support to French troops at Dien Bien Phu. The Italian Air Force was the last to operate the Helldiver, retiring it in 1959.

With the advent of rockets the dive bomber was replaced by single seat fighters and attack aircraft. The Helldiver was the last purpose built dive bomber. In the U.S. the Hellcat, Corsair, the postwar F8F Bearcat, the P-51 Mustang, and the P-47 Thunderbolt took over ground attack missions. The A4D Skyraider was designed as a ground attack aircraft, and eventually jet powered fighter-bombers would enter service.

These amazing aircraft and the men that flew them established a tradition of excellence that the Naval Aviators of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps continue today.

Peace

Padre Steve

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Filed under aircraft, History, Loose thoughts and musings, Military, US Navy, World War II at Sea, world war two in the pacific

The Doomed Fleet: The Ships of the Kido Butai and Their Fates After Pearl Harbor

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“We won a great tactical victory at Pearl Harbor and thereby lost the war.” Captain Tadaichi Hara 

Note: I have written this article as a compliment to The Ships of Pearl Harbor: A Comprehensive List with Short Histories of Each Ship

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Isoruku Yamamoto 

The 22 surface warships of Japanese Task Force that struck Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 turned west after the last aircraft were recovered. No ships were lost or damaged in the attack. Only 29 aircraft and 55 aircrew were lost. Additionally 5 midget submarines and their 10 crew members were lost, one became the first Japanese Prisoner of War when his sub beached off Diamond Head.

Though the Japanese had heavily damaged the Pacific Fleet, sinking or damaging all 8 battleships that were in port at Pearl Harbor on December 7th the victory was incomplete. Pearl Harbor’s fleet support facilities, dry docks and fuel tank farms remained allowing the fleet to maintain it as a base. Likewise no carriers were in port and they as well as the submarine force were soon in action against the now vastly superior Imperial Navy which after Pearl Harbor wreaked havoc on US, British, Dutch and Australian forces in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean.

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Kirishima and Akagi 

Little did the heady Japanese expect that in less than six months that four of the six carriers that carried out the attack would be at the bottom of the Pacific and another heavily damaged. That was only the beginning. When the Japanese forces encountered the American carriers at Coral Sea and Midway the tide turned in the Pacific. Yamamoto’s remarks to Matsumoto and Konoe were more prophetic than even he might have imagined. Less than 18 months later Yamamoto himself would be dead, killed when a Betty bomber carrying him was ambushed and shot down near Buin New Guinea.

Of the 22 surface ships involved in the attack only one, the Fubuki Class Destroyer Ushio survived the war. What follows is what happened to the other ships in the order of their loss.

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Kaga

The aircraft carrier Kaga was designed as a battleship but converted to an aircraft carrier during construction as part of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. She was active throughout the 1930s in the war against China and participated in every major action of the 1st Air Fleet until she was sunk at Midway on June 4th 1942. Hit by at least 4 bombs  by dive bombers from the USS Enterprise while her flight deck was crowded with fueled and armed aircraft and decks strewn with bombs and torpedoes that in the rush of battle had not been returned to her magazines. That evening with the fires still burning her survivors were taken off and she was scuttled by torpedoes fired by destroyer Hagikaze. Over 800 of her crew of over 1700 including her Captain and most senior officers were lost.

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Soryu

The Aircraft carrier Soryu at 18,800 tons was roughly the same size as the American Yorktown Class. She was commissioned in 1937 and after Pearl Harbor fought as a unit of the First Air Fleet. She was present at Midway and sunk by dive bombers from the USS Yorktown. Hit by 3 bombs she was ordered abandoned within 15 minutes and sunk   on the evening of June 4th taking down 711 of over 1100 crew members.

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Akagi

The aircraft carrier Akagi was the Flagship Vice Admiral Nagumo of the 1st Air Fleet at Pearl Harbor and during the operations against Allied forces in the Western Pacific. She retained that role at Midway when on the morning of June 4th 1942 she was hit by a 1000 pound bomb from one of three attacking aircraft from Scouting Six from the Enterprise. With her aircraft on deck fully armed and fueled for a strike against the American carriers she was highly vulnerable. The explosion triggered a chain reaction as fuel and ordnance turned the great ship into a blazing inferno. Admiral Nagumo transferred his flag to the light cruiser Nagara. Damage control teams fought a losing battle against the conflagration but the next morning Admiral Yamamoto ordered his former ship scuttled. 267 Japanese sailors died on Akagi.

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Hiryu damaged at Midway

The carrier Hiryu, a close sister of Soryu also participated in the success of the First Air Fleet up to Midway. As flagship of of Carrier Division 2 avoided damage in the initial strike. Her aircraft heavily damaged Yorktown but she suffered the same fate as the other carriers that evening. Hit by four 1000 pound bombs from dive bombers from Enterprise she burned throughout the night and was scuttled on June 5th with the loss of 389 sailors and aviators.

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Asashio Class

The 2000 ton Asashio class destroyer Arare was torpedoed and sunk by the submarine USS Growler on July 5th 1942 off Kiska Harbor Alaska with the loss of 104 of her crew. At the time of her loss she was escorting seaplane tender Chiyoda on a supply mission.

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The Kongo Class battleship Hiei was sunk during the first Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. She was the first Japanese battleship sunk during the war. Heavily damaged during a close quarters surface engagement she was sunk by aircraft from Enterprise off Savo Island on November 13th 1942. 188 of her crew were lost with the ship.

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Kirishima

The Battleship Kirishima, a sister ship of Hiei was present with Hiei in the First Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. She survived that fight and was attached to another surface raiding group. The next night while engaging the USS South Dakota, Kirishima was targeted by the Battleship USS Washington and sunk by gunfire. 212 crewmen went down with the battleship.

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Kagero

The destroyer Kagero, the lead ship of her class was among the most deadly destroyer types produced in the war. Armed with six 5” guns and 8 24” Long Lance Torpedo tubes she and her sisters wrought fearful damage on allied surface forces in many of the vicious battles in the South Pacific. During a supply run Kagero stuck a mine and was disabled. Unable to maneuver she was sunk by US aircraft on May 7th 1943 off Rendova with the loss of 18 sailors.

The Kagero’s sisters also suffered. Akigumo was torpedoes and sunk by the submarine USS Redfin on April 11th 1944 off Zamboanga the Philippines. Tanikaze was torpedoed and sunk by USS Harder on June 9th 1944 with the loss of 114 sailors.

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Shokaku

The 27,000 ton carrier Shokaku was one of the newest and most modern carriers in the fleet at Pearl Harbor. She was heavily damaged at Coral Sea and missed the Midway operation. At the Battle of Eastern Solomons her aircraft damaged the Enterprise. At the Battle of Santa Cruz she was again damaged but her aircraft mortally wounded the USS Hornet which was sunk by destroyers. She was part of a reconstituted carrier strike force at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. While sailing to the battle she was struck by 3 torpedoes from the USS Cavalla on June 19th 1944 with the loss of 1272 of over 1800 souls on board.

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Zuikaku’s crew saluting the colors before abandoning ship

The Battle of Leyte Gulf accounted for many of the surviving ships of the Kido Butai. Carrier Zuikaku, sister of Shokaku had fought at Coral Sea, as well as Eastern Solomons and Santa Cruz. She was damaged and lost most of her air group at Philippine Sea. Repaired she was assigned to Admiral Ozawa’s decoy group of four carriers with very few aircraft at Leyte Gulf. Hit by seven torpedoes and nine bombs the gallant ship sunk with the loss of 842 of her crew of over 1700.

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Chikuma

The Heavy Cruiser Chikuma was served mostly as an escort to the carrier forces and was at Midway as well as Eastern Solomons and Santa Cruz. On October 25th at Leyte Gulf she succumbed to multiple bomb and torpedo hits delivered by US carrier aircraft in the Battle off Samar. Nearly all of her survivors rescued by destroyer Nowaki were lost when that ship was sunk the next day.

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The elderly Nagara Class light cruiser Abukuma was torpedoed and heavily damaged by a torpedo fired by the US PT-137 at the Battle of Surigao Strait and disabled. She was bombed and sunk by US Army Air Force Aircraft off Negros on October 26th with the loss of 250 sailors.

The Kagero Class destroyer Shiranui had a long and distinguished career and survived a torpedo hit from USS Growler in July 1942 which blew off her bow. She was bombed sunk with the loss of all hands on October 27th 1944 after surviving the Battle of Surigao Strait.

The Fubuki Class destroyer Akebono was sunk at pier side at Cavite Naval Yard, Manila Bay by US Army Air Corps bombers on November 27th 1944.

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Hamakaze 1941 and Isokaze below

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Three of the survivors were sunk during the last offensive sortie of Japanese warships. On April 7th the Kagero Class Isokaze and Hamikaze and Asashio Class Kasumi were sunk by US carrier aircraft while escorting the battleship Yamato on her suicide mission at Okinawa.

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Wreck of Tone at Kure

The Heavy Cruiser Tone, sister of Chikuma survived many battles and was sunk at anchor in Kure harbor by US carrier aircraft on July 24th 1945. Her hulk was scrapped between 1947 and 1948.

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Ushio after the war

Only Fubuki Class destroyer Ushio survived the war. A survivor of many battles she helped sink the submarine USS Perch in 1942. Surrendered to the US Navy she was scrapped in 1948.

Admiral Yamamoto was right when he told cabinet minister Shigeharu Matsumo to and Japanese prime minister Fumimaro Konoe “In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success.” 

Peace

Padre Steve+

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

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.

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