USS Washington BB56

The USS Washington BB56 was a North Carolina class battleship that became the only one of the ten fast battleships in the US Navy to sink a Japanese capital ship.

The Washington was laid down in June 1938, launched almost exactly two years later and commissioned on 15 May 1941, just as the US Navy was taking an increasing role in the fight against the U-boats.

The Washington remained relatively unaltered during the Second World War. Only her light and medium anti-aircraft armament saw significant changes. The original quad 1.1in and single .50in guns were replaced by large numbers of 20mm Oerlikon guns and 40mm Bofors guns. The Washington ended the war with 15 40mm quad mountings and 83 20mm guns.

When she was commissioned the US Navy intended to keep the Washington and her sister ship North Carolina in the North Atlantic. After Pearl Harbor the North Carolina was sent to the Pacific, but the Washington remained in the Atlantic, serving as the flagship of Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox, Commander, Battleships, Atlantic Fleet and of Battleship Division 6.

While working up the Washington was based at Casco Bay (Maine). On 25 March the Washington and the carrier Wasp were both sent to Scapa Flow to allow the Royal Navy to send part of the Home Fleet to participate in the invasion of Madagascar. On 27 March Admiral Wilcox fell overboard in mysterious circumstances (possibly after suffering a heart attack). His body was never recovered.

Although the Washington hadn't completed her working up period she took part in two operations while based at Scapa. The first came in May 1942 when she was part of the force covering convoys PQ15 and QP11, traveling to and from Murmansk. In late June she was part of the force that covered convoy PQ17. When the Germans appeared to be preparing to send the Tirpitz to attack this convoy the Admiralty recalled the escort and ordered the convoy to scatter, allowing the Germans to inflict heavy losses on the isolated merchant ships.

After this trip the Washington departed for the Pacific, arriving at Noumea on 9 October. She was allocated to TF64 which was used to escort convoys travelling between Noumea and Guadalcanal.

On 11 November 1942 South Dakota and Washington formed part of Task Force 64, which had the task of protecting the Enterprise and TF16. On the night of 14-15 November the two battleships took part in the only surface engagement between any of the American 'fast' battleships and Japanese capital ships. During the third phase of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal a Japanese force under Admiral Kondo attempted to get down the 'slot' in an attempt to regain control of the waters around Guadalcanal. In the first part of the battle two American and one Japanese destroyer were sunk. The South Dakota suffered an electrical fault and was then the target of heavy Japanese fire that forced her out of the fight. The Washington soon gained revenge. Her fire control radar worked and she was able to hit the Japanese battleship Kirishima with nine 16in (out of 75 rounds fired) and more than forty 5in rounds. This was the only occasion on which an American fast battleship fired on a Japanese battleship, and the fight was somewhat uneven, being between a brand new ship on one side and a 30 year old updated battlecruiser on the other. The Kirishima escaped from the immediate battle but her steering was badly damaged and the Japanese were forced to scuttle her at 3.20am on 15 November. The Kirishima was built as a Kongo class battlecruiser, but was rebuilt in 1927-30 and reclassified as a battleship.

In late November 1942 the Washington joined North Carolina (from January 1943) and Indiana to provide convoy escort in the waters around Guadalcanal.

In November 1943 Washington, South Dakota and Massachusetts formed part of TG50.1, protecting the carriers Yorktown, Lexington and Cowpens. Starting on 19 November aircraft from this force attacked the Japanese positions on Mili, in the Marshalls, preventing the strong garrison from interfering in the invasions of Tawara and Makin.

The Washington then formed part of TG 50.4, with Alabama and South Dakota. This group protected the carriers Bunker Hill and Monteray during the fighting on Makin.

In December 1943 Washington, South Dakota, Massachusetts, Indiana and North Carolina formed TF50.7 under the command of Rear Admiral Lee. This task force, covered by the carriers Bunker Hill and Monterey took part in a heavy bombardment of Kwajelein on 8 December, firing 810 16in shells. 

Eight of the fast battleships took part in Operation Flintlock, the invasion of the Marshalls (29 January 1944). Washington, Indiana and Massachusetts formed part of TG58.1, providing an escort for the carriers Enterprise, Yorktown and Belleau Wood. This task group took part in the invasion of Kwajelein and was positioned off Roi and Namur. On 1 February the Washington and the Indiana collided, suffering minor damage that took some months to repair. The Indiana turned across the Washington's path in the dark, and the Washington rammed her. The Washington suffered the most serious damage and needed a new bow.

Seven of the fast battleships were present at the Battle of the Philippine Sea (June 1944). New Jersey, Iowa, Alabama, Washington, North Carolina, South Dakota and Indiana formed TG58.7 (Battle Line), under Admiral Lee. Their role was to serve as a bombardment force during the invasion of the Mariana Islands and to engage any Japanese surface force that threatened the carriers. The battle itself proved to be an entirely aerial affair, and so although the battleships were attacked from the air they were never involved in a surface battle.

In September-October 1944 the fast battleships New Jersey, Iowa, Alabama, Washington, Massachusetts and Indiana formed part of Task Force 38 during Admiral Halsey's series of raids on targets around the Philippine Sea. Alabama, Washington, Massachusetts and Indiana formed part of TG 38.3 under Admiral Lee, with the Washington serving as his flagship.

This powerful US fleet attacked Palau (6-8 September), Mindinao (10 September), the Visayas (12-14 September) and Luzon (21-22 September). Japanese resistance to this raid was so weak that the Americans decided to bring the invasion of the Philippines forward from December to 20 October and to skip the southern islands and begin with an invasion of Leyte.

The fleet then carried out a second set of raids, this time hitting Okinawa (10 October), Luzon (11 October and 15 October) and Formosa (12-14 October). This time the Japanese responded in some force, but the resulting battle off Formosa (12-16 October 1944) was a crushing defeat for them. The Americans shot down over 600 Japanese aircraft, crippling their air power just before the battle of Leyte Gulf.

The fast battleships had a frustrating time during the Battle of Leyte Gulf (23-26 October 1944). At first they were split into three pairs. Iowa and New Jersey formed TG38.2. South Dakota and Massachusetts formed TG38.3. Washington and Alabama formed TG38.4. Each of these groups protected part of Halsey's carrier force, which was spread out to the north of Leyte Gulf. They faced two of the four Japanese fleets approaching for the 'decisive battle' - Kurita's powerful battleships, approaching from the west, and Ozawa's empty carriers, coming from the north. On 24 October Kurita's fleet came under constant air attack, and the super-battleship Musashi was sunk. Halsey was convinced that Kurita no longer posed a threat, and so when Ozawa's carriers were detected late in the day he decided to take his entire fleet north to deal with them. The six fast battleships were formed into Task Force 34, and were sent north to act as the vanguard of a dash towards the Japanese carriers. Admiral Lee, commanding the battleships, protested against this move, believing correctly that it would allow Admiral Kurita to pass unopposed through the San Bernardino Strait and potentially attack the weaker US 7th Fleet in Leyte Gulf. Halsey overruled Lee's protests and the battleships headed north. During the morning of 25 October the fast battleships moved ever further to the north, away from Kurita's powerful force, which was now engaged in a desperate battle with a group of escort carriers (Battle of the Samar Sea). During the morning Halsey received a series of increasingly desperate calls for help from the south, but it was a message from Nimitz at Hawaii that eventually convinced him to send the battleships south. At 10.55 Lee was ordered to head south at top speed, at which point he was only 42 nautical miles from the Japanese carriers (all of Ozawa's carriers were sunk by American aircraft in the battle of Cape Engano). By this time the worst of the crisis to the south was over, but Kurita was still in a potentially dangerous position off the east coast of the Philippines. Once again Lee missed the chance for a surface battle. Kurita retreated through the San Bernardino Strait at 10pm on 25 October and Lee arrived off the straits at 1am on 26 October. This was the last occasion on which US and Japanese battleships were close enough for a possible surface battle. For the rest of the war the fast battleships would perform a valuable role, mainly providing anti-aircraft fire to protect the carriers along with some shore bombardment, but they would never again have a chance to perform their main role of surface warfare.

In 19-22 February 1945 the Washington took part in the bombardment of Iwo Jima, supporting the invasion of that island. The battleship continued to support that operation until mid-March, taking part in a carrier raid on Tokyo on 25 February. She then supported the carriers during attacks on Kyushu on 18-19 March, bombarded Okinawa on 24 March, returned to Kyushu on 29 March and finally to Okinawa on 19 April.

After this the Washington returned to the US West Coast, arriving on 23 June. This refit continued into the autumn, meaning that she missed the rest of the war in the Pacific.

On her return to service the Washington joined the Atlantic fleet. On 2 November 1945 she went into the dockyard once again, this time for conversion to an impromptu transport ship. After two weeks of work her crew requirement had been reduced to 929 and extra bunking had been added. After all of this effort the Washington only made one trip as part of the Magic Carpet operation, transporting 185 officers and 1,479 enlisted men from England to New York late in 1945.

The Washington was decommissioned on 27 June 1947 and was struck from the Navy List on 1 June 1960. She was sold for scrap in 1961.

Displacement (loaded)

44,377t

Top Speed

28kts

Range

17,450nm at 15kts

Armour – belt

12in-6.6in on o.75in STS backing

 - armour deck

5.5in-5in with 1.45in weather deck and 0.62-0.75in splinter deck

 - bulkheads

11in

 - barbettes

14.7in-16in

 - turrets

16in face, 7in roof, 9.8in side, 11.8in rear

 - CT

14.7in-16in, 7in roof

Length

728ft 9in

Width

108ft 4in

Armaments

Nine 16in/45 guns in triple turrets
Twenty 5in/38 guns in twin turrets
Sixteen 1.1in guns in four quad mountings
Twelve 0.5in guns
Three aircraft

Crew complement

1880

Laid Down

14 June 1938

Launched

1 June 1940

Commissioned

15 May 1941

Sold

1961

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (15 June 2012), USS Washington BB56 , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_USS_Washington_BB_56.html

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