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An Experiment in Failure: The Beautiful, Flawed, Expensive, and Expendable Alaska Class Large Cruisers

Line drawing of Alaska in 1945

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

The three ships of the Alaska Class were among the most confusing and curious designs of warships ever built for the US Navy. They had their genus in the early 1930s when the Germans deployed the Deutschland Class Pocket Battleships, which in reality were heavy cruisers with 11” guns designed for long range commerce raiders. Both the Americans and French began to design something larger and faster. The French produced the excellent Dunkerque Class which could be classed as as either a Battlecruiser, or Fast Battleship. The American designs languished on the drawing board due to bureaucratic conflicts between those who believed a specialized ship to track down commerce raiders was necessary, and those who thought such designs were a waste of money and resources.

Alaska and Guam Together 

However in the late 1930s a rumor of Japanese “super cruiser” put them back into the planning stage  with President Franklin Roosevelt being a supporter of the concept. In truth the Japanese had no such ship on the drawing board, but still the process of trying to figure out what the ship and its mission would be perplexed designers. Add this to political pressure and  the resulting confusion had nine different designs underway at the same time, everything from a 6,000 ton modification of the Atlanta Class anti-Aircraft cruiser, an enlarged heavy cruiser, to a 38,000 ton fast battleship. Eventually the Naval General Board Chose in essence what was a greatly enlarged, up-armored and up-gunned modification of the Baltimore Class heavy cruisers.

The confusion even manifested in what the Navy decided to call the class. Based on their size, speed and armament they looked like Battlecruisers, but if you compared them to other battlecruisers they had severe deficiencies in armor and anti-torpedo defenses when compared the the old but still effective British Hood, Repulse, and Renown, the French Dunkerque Class, the German Scharnhorst Class, and the Japanese Kongo Class, which were all battlecruisers or fast battleships.

The Navy classed them as Large Cruisers and deigned them as CB. The Navy designated Heavy Cruisers as CA, Light Cruisers as CL, and the US Navy’s one attempt to build large Battlecruisers, the Lexington Class were designated as CC before they were cancelled with two of the four ships , Lexington and Saratoga completed as Aircraft Carriers. Likewise the naming of the class straddled the line between States and Cities. Battleships were named after States, cruisers were named after cities, but the Alaska Class were named after territories. While Alaska and Hawaii became states later, they were not states at the time. The ambiguity of their names reflected the confusion of their design and mission.

They were designed to hunt and kill the German Pocket Battleships, the imagined large Japanese Cruisers, and as a counter the battlecruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau which in 1939 and 1940 had created havoc in the Atlantic raiding convoys and sinking the Royal Navy Aircraft Carrier HMS Courageous.


USS Missouri (Top) with USS Alaska (below) at Norfolk Naval Station 1944

As designed the ships were 809 feet long and 91 feet wide, displaced 27,000 tons, and mounted 9 12” guns in three turrets, and and were capable of 33 knots.  They used the expanded hull design of the Baltimore Class, and used the same propulsion system as the Essex Class Aircraft Carriers. The ships mounted a large anti-aircraft battery of twelve 5” 38 caliber Dual Purpose guns, fifty-six 40mm cannons in quad and twin mounts, and thirty four 20mm light anti-aircraft guns. But even this was less than they could have mounted. That was because instead of placing the ship’s aviation facilities on the fantail as was done on the Brooklyn Class Light Cruisers, the Heavy Cruiser Wichita, the Cleveland Class Light Cruisers, the Baltimore Class, and all the modern battleships, to the earlier midships aviation facilities including port and starboard catapults. The Navy’s experience in combat during the Guadalcanal Campaign showed this arrangement to be a vulnerability in surface actions. Despite this the design was not changed.

Their armor protection was proof against 8” and 11” shells but could not withstand the heavier shells of battleships. In addition, to keep the ships at their designed displacement, no below the waterline torpedo protection was provided. The lack of that would have made them vulnerable That being said they had a good anti-aircraft battery, could keep pace with the fast carriers, and conduct shore bombardment operations against the Japanese mainland. None engaged any type of ship that they were designed to fight. The Alaska and Guam were the only two ships of the class completed and which saw service in the war. They were both decommissioned having served barely two and a half years active service each. Hawaii was launched but construction was suspended when she was 84% complete, and she was never commissioned.

The Scharnhorst: She and the Gneisenau were the threat that the Alaska’s were designed to counter

Alaska was laid down in December 1941 shortly after Pearl Harbor, launched 15 August 1943 and commissioned on 17 June 1944. Her sister ship, Guam was launched on 12 November 1943 and commissioned 17 September 1944.  The final ship of the class to be built the Hawaii was launched after the war in November 1945 with her construction halted when she was 84% complete in 1947. Three planned ships, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Samoa were never laid down.

Aerial View of USS Alaska

While fast and large with more than adequate firepower the purpose that they created for no longer existed by the time that they were commissioned.  Of the German Pocket Battleships, Graf Spee had been scuttled in 1939, while Lützow the former Deutschland, and Admiral Scheer were bottled up in the Baltic. The Scharnhorst had been sunk by a 12 ship British task force led by the HMS Duke of York on December 26th 1943 after mounting an attack on a Murmansk convoy at the Battle of North Cape.  Her sister Gneisenau had been heavily damaged in the “channel dash” and bombing in Kiel. While being refitted to replace her nine 11” guns with six 15” guns the work was discontinued after the sinking of the Scharnhorst. Her main battery and secondary armament were removed and used to reinforce the Atlantic Wall, mostly in Norway.

The USS Guam in 1945

With their natural opponents no longer a factor in the war the Alaska and Guam were sent to the Pacific where they spent their time escorting fast carrier task forces, conducting naval gunfire support missions off Okinawa and conducting sweeps in Japanese waters as part of the initial blockade of Japan.  Following the war Alaska and Guam were active in Operation Magic Carpet the return of US servicemen from the Far East to the United States. Alaska and Guam were decommissioned in February 1947 remaining in reserve until stricken from the Naval List. Alaska was scrapped in 1960 and Guam being in 1961. The fate of Hawaii was be debated for years. Suggestions included to complete here her as the first guided missile cruiser (CG) and later a Command Cruiser (CC) were rejected as too expensive and she was sold for scrap in 1959.

Incomplete and undervalued the Hawaii being towed to the breakers in 1959

The era of the Battle Cruiser which began with the launching of the HMS Invincible in 1907 culminated in with launching of the HMS Hood, or arguably the  Dunkerque or Scharnhorst Classes, but not with the Alaska Class. They looked a lot like battlecruisers, but that is where the similarity ended.  It was an ignominious ending for expensive and practically unused ships being broken up. But it had to be. Their lack of underwater protection, barely average armor protection, ill designed aviation facilities, and main battery which was unique, expensive, and had a tendency to break down ensured that they could not have another mission. Instead, for a much more affordable cost, Baltimore Class cruisers were converted into guided missile cruisers or retained as naval gunfire support ships. Likewise, Cleveland Class light cruisers were converted to guided missile cruisers. One of the Baltimore Class, the Norfolk was converted into a Command Cruiser, and two others converted into the light fleet carriers, and later command ships, Wright and Saipan. 

In light of the need for a combination of substantial naval gunfire support, on a platform large enough to support the latest Aegis air defense radars and missiles to protect an Expeditionary Strike Group, capable of ballistic missile defense, and equipped with combat proven 6”, 8”, or 16” guns for naval gunfire support missions, Tomahawk Cruise missiles, and the latest anti-ship missiles and close in protective missiles and guns is needed. The existing Zumwalt Class, Arleigh Burke Class, and Ticonderoga Class, are incapable of fulfilling such a role. The ships would have to be cable of independent operations, and have the capacity to incorporate new technologies including laser weapons, newly developed combat drones capable of ship to shore, ship to ship, and ASW operations, are needed. The ships would have to be capable of extended independent operations, and have substantial protection against current anti-ship weapons, and torpedoes. It seems  to me that a new class of Battle Cruisers, in effect a new, enlarged and much improved Alaska Class would be in order.

The Alaska Class was a failure in design and practice. By the time they were completed their primary mission no longer existed, and the compromises in their design ensured that they would be incapable of any real modernization that would make them effective components of a modern Navy. It was not the first or last time the US Navy, the Royal Navy, or any other Navy has design and built a lemon.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Forgotten on the Far Side of Ford Island: USS Utah, USS Detroit, USS Raleigh and USS Tangier

USS Utah BB-31 in 1920s

When you visit Pearl Harbor most eyes are drawn to the USS Missouri and the USS Arizona Memorial on Battleship Row.  On the mooring quays the names of the Battleships California, Oklahoma, Maryland, West Virginia, Tennessee and Arizona mark the places where the proud Battle Force of the U.S. Pacific fleet was moored on the fateful morning of December 7th 1941.  Movies such as Tora! Tora! Tora!, In Harm’s Way and Pearl Harbor have recorded the attack in varying degrees of accuracy for audiences worldwide in the 1960s, 1970s and 2000s. All record the attack on Battleship row and the attacks on the Army Air Corps at Hickam Field but all overlook the former battleship moored on the west side of Ford Island, the two elderly light cruisers and the Seaplane Tender moored nearby.

USS Utah AG-16 in 1935

Of course these ships hold little interest to most people, they were elderly, Utah had been converted to a gunnery training ship years before and the Omaha Class light cruisers Raleigh and Detroit were obsolescent and after Pearl Harbor would serve in the backwaters of the Pacific war.  The Tangier a new Seaplane Tender occupied the berth aft of Utah.


The USS Utah AG-16, ex-BB-31 was one of the early U.S. Navy Dreadnought battleships of the Florida Class. Utah was 521 feet long, displaced 21,825 tons and mounted 10 12” guns making her comparable to British Dreadnoughts of the Neptune and Colossus class and slightly inferior to the German Helgoland class.  Utah was commissioned on 31 August 1911 and served at the Vera Cruz incident where a Naval “battalion” of 17 officers and 371 her prevented the delivery of arms from Germany to Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta.  The in the clash with Huerta’s forces the sailors distinguished themselves earning 7 Congressional Medals of Honor.

Utah served as part of the U.S. Battle Squadron sent to operate with the Royal Navy operating out of Ireland conducting convoy protection missions and preparing to engage the German High Seas Fleet if called upon.  Utah served from 1919-1931 as a battleship conducting training and goodwill missions to Europe and South America before being converted to a gunnery training and target ship (AG16) in 1931 per the stipulations of the Washington Naval Conference. In 1941 she was modernized and equipped with weapons being installed on modern destroyers before resuming training duties with the fleet at Pearl Harbor.

On the morning of December 7th Utah was moored on the West side of Ford Island and at colors the ship was struck by a torpedo forward and began to heal to port. With the flooding causing the list to increase the senior officer on the ship, LCDR Isquith the Chief Engineer ordered Utah abandoned and while most of the crew was able to escape some were trapped below including Chief Water Tender Peter Tomich who remained below to ensure that the boilers were secured and his sailors safely out of the boiler rooms.  Tomich was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his sacrifice.  By 0812 the mooring cables had snapped and Utah lay on her beam sinking into the harbor her war over.  6 Officers and 58 crewmen died the majority trapped in the ship.  The ship would be partially righted to clear an adjacent berth in 1944.

The Raleigh and Detroit were Omaha Class Light Cruisers 555 feet long, displacing 7050 tons and mounting 12 6” guns and 10 21” torpedo tubes and were capable of 3 knots. This made them more heavily armed than the contemporary Japanese Nagara Class or the British C, D  or E Class light cruisers and larger than all but the two ship E Class. However by the beginning of the war they were inferior to all newly constructed ships.

USS Raleigh CL-7 fighting to stay afloat

The cruiser Raleigh took a torpedo that caused her to list so sharply that it was feared she would capsize, however the heroic efforts of her crew and service force craft and sailors kept her afloat and allowed her to fight another day. Most of her war would be fought in the Aleutians and following the war she would be decommissioned and scrapped.

USS Detroit CL-8 1945, final configuration

Detroit was able to get underway during the attack and avoid damage to join other ships which had escaped to form an ad hoc task group to find the Japanese strike force.  She would also serve in the Aleutians through 1944 when she became flagship of the Replenishment Group servicing the U.S. Carrier Task Forces of the 3rd and the 5th Fleets. She would be present in Tokyo Bay for the signing of the peace treaty ending the war. She too would be decommissioned and scrapped shortly after the war.

Tangier would serve in many parts of the Pacific as a mobile base for PBY Catalina’s which conducted reconnaissance, anti-submarine and search and rescue operations in support of the fleet for the duration of the war. She was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrap in 1961.

USS Utah Memorial (Google Earth)

Today a monument is located on Ford Island near the rusting hulk of the Utah. It replaced a bronze plaque which had been placed on the wreck in the late 1940s. The Memorial was officially dedicated on Memorial Day 1972.  The monument is not listed on most tourist brochures and the memorial attracts few visitors. I was able to visit the memorial in 1978 while on a Navy Junior ROTC Cadet Cruise to Pearl Harbor and back.  The official USS Utah association website is linked here: http://ussutah.org/ and the Historical Naval Ships Association webpage on Utah is here: http://hnsa.org/ships/utah.htm and the Naval History and Heritage Webpage is here: http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-u/bb31-y.htm

The Raleigh, Detroit and Tangier have no memorials.  Despite the anonymity of these ships and the men who served on them they all played a role in the war and they should not be forgotten.

Peace

Padre Steve+

 

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