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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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The Next Generation: The North Carolina Class Battleships

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.

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. 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.

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 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.

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.  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 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.

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 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.

Torpedo Damage to North Carolina

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.

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.  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 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.

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.

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

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.

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