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By Robert Farley, The National Interest
The London Naval Treaty of 1936 was intended to preserve the battleship size limitation at thirty-five thousand tons and to restrict the size of battleship guns to fourteen inches. With memory of the Anglo-German and the Anglo-American-Japanese naval races fresh in their minds, the architects of the treaty wanted to limit the most obvious source of escalation. The United States designed its first generation of London Treaty battleships to carry twelve fourteen-inch guns in three quadruple turrets, a formidable armament equal to that of the “Big Five,” the last five American battleships built before the treaty.
However, the London Naval Treaty had an escape clause. If any one of the original three signatories failed to ratify, the gun limitation rose to sixteen inches. Japan did not sign the treaty (its representatives would have been assassinated if it had), so the fourteen-inch limitation did not apply. The Royal Navy, in a fit of irrational exuberance, had already begun construction of the fourteen-inch weapons for its King George V class, and could not alter their structure. The design of North Carolina and Washington, however, allowed for the substitution of triple sixteen-inch turrets for the quadruple fourteen-inch mounts. Accordingly, the Americans quickly adapted to the heavier guns.
USS Washington and its sister, North Carolina, were the first American battleships built since 1921. They displaced thirty-five thousand tons, could make twenty-seven knots, and carried a powerful dual-purpose secondary armament of twenty five-inch guns. The first plans for the North Carolina class envisioned their speed at twenty-three knots. This was in keeping with the pre-treaty battleships, which the U.S. Navy expected North Carolina and Washington to operate with. However, an investigation of foreign battleship designs, as well as exercises that demonstrated the need for battleships to operate with aircraft carriers, pushed designers to a much higher speed. The North Carolinas sacrificed some armor protection, but their antiaircraft armaments were very strong, making them extremely effective as aircraft-carrier escorts.
Laid down in 1937, USS Washington entered service in May 1941, the ninth ship to bear that name. The first six took their name directly from the nation’s first president. The latter three took their name from the state named for George Washington. Since the founding of the state, two additional ships (a ballistic missile submarine and an aircraft carrier), have taken the name George Washington, while a Virginia-class attack submarine has taken the name Washington, so as to eliminate any confusion.
As the first of a new generation of ships, Washington suffered from considerable teething troubles, and required an extensive period of trials and training. This kept Washington in the Atlantic, where it was, incidentally, closer to the war in Europe. It is fortunate that Washington and North Carolina were not deployed with the Pacific Fleet. Although they would have had a better chance at surviving than the older battleships at Pearl Harbor, had they been lost or even severely damaged, it would have been a serious setback for the U.S. Navy.
USS Washington deployed to the United Kingdom for service with the Home Fleet in March 1942. It helped guard convoys to Murmansk, hedging against a sortie from Tirpitz or Scharnhorst. A confrontation would have favored Washington, as its armament and armor were superior to that of Tirpitz, and it had much better fire control. In September, after a refit, it entered the Pacific, where it would remain for most of the war.
In late September, Washington was deployed to the Solomon Islands. The Solomons’ battles centered around the control of Henderson Airfield. Japanese forces had been pushed back on the island of Guadalcanal, but still held large parts of the island. Japanese naval units resupplied the Army forces at night, and heavy Japanese units bombarded Henderson Field on a regular basis. The U.S. Navy’s job was to prevent this from happening.
On November 13, 1942, Washington was deployed, along with the battleship South Dakota and four destroyers, to intercept a Japanese task force steaming toward Henderson Field. The Japanese fleet included Kirishima, one of four Kongo-class battlecruisers. The U.S. Navy force was superior on paper, but the Japanese had considerable skill at night fighting and had better torpedoes. In a confused night action, all four U.S. destroyers were crippled or sunk, and South Dakota managed to wander into the searchlights of the Japanese heavy ships. The Japanese poured fire into South Dakota, leading to severe damage and electrical failures. The Japanese lacked radar, however, and didn’t notice the approach of Washington. Washingtonsubjected Kirishima to a withering, point blank barrage of sixteen- and five-inch shells, reducing it to sinking condition in about ten minutes. The rest of the Japanese force retired shortly afterward. Washingtonsuffered no damage.
Washington spent most of the rest of the war in convoy escort. Its closest brush with disaster came in February 1944, when it rammed the battleship Indiana. Indiana received the brunt of the damage, but Washington was still forced to retire to Puget Sound Naval Yard for a refit. Later, Washington served as an escort at the Battle of the Philippine Sea and the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Washington also delivered shore bombardment at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Washington was taken out of commission in June 1947. The U.S. Navy went through three major cycles of battleship disposal in the twentieth century. The first came in 1922–23, when most of the pre-dreadnoughts and older dreadnoughts were scrapped in accordance with the Washington Naval Treaty. Between 1946 and 1948, all of the prewar battleships, with the exception of the Big Five and Mississippi, were either scrapped or sunk as targets. The last cycle came in the late 1950s, when the Big Five (Colorado, Maryland, West Virginia, California and Tennessee) and six of the ten fast battleships were disposed of, either through scrapping or through donation. Alabama, Massachusetts and North Carolina were all adopted by their respective states. Washington was not; the existence of the large reserve fleet in the Puget Sound probably sealed Washington’s fate. What was the point of keeping Washington around when several other battleships remained in reserve? There’s little question, however, that USS Washington would now make a splendid memorial along the waterfront in Tacoma or Seattle.
Washington’s wartime service was exemplary. Had the U.S. Navy pursued its original plan of keeping the ships at twenty-three knots, they would have had little influence over the Pacific War. Their relatively light armor notwithstanding, Washington and its sister were excellent ships, comparing favorably with those foreign contemporaries that remained restricted by the naval treaty system.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a Senior Lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. His work includes military doctrine, national security, and maritime affairs. He blogs at Lawyers, Guns and Money and Information Dissemination and The Diplomat.
Image: USS Washington off the Puget Sound Navy Yard, April 1944. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy