WWII: The USS Maryland's Only Mission Was to Kill Other Battleships
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By Robert Farley, The National Interest
Not every battleship attacked at Pearl Harbor was badly damaged.
USS Maryland escaped virtually unscathed and served with the Pacific Fleet as the tide of war turned against the Japanese. Built to destroy enemy battleships, Maryland supported U.S. Navy operations with escort missions and shore bombardment through the end of the war, eventually finding the opportunity to engage Japanese warships in surface combat.
Laid down in 1916, USS Maryland represented the zenith of “standard type” U.S. battleship development. These ships had compatible speeds, turning circles, and armaments, allowing them to form a squadron that could operate as a cohesive unit. Maryland was one of the “Big Five” of the last five standard type battleships completed by the United States. These ships displaced some 33,000 tons and could make twenty-one knots. Maryland and her two sisters (USS Colorado and USS West Virginia) differed from the first two ships (USS Tennessee and USS California) in that they carried eight 16” guns in four twin turrets rather than twelve 14” in triple turrets.
Maryland entered service in 1920, shortly before the Washington Naval Treaty sharply limited battleship construction. One of her incomplete sisters, USS Washington, was sunk as a target under the provisions of the Treaty. Consequently, the Treaty left Maryland and her remaining sisters as the most modern units in the fleet. In part because of this, Maryland was one of the last ships tapped for modernization in the interwar period, and, in fact, never received a reconstruction. Instead, the Navy decided not to modernize the Big Five after determining that they would be unable to keep up with the new battleships under construction. Although a moderate refit improved Maryland’s anti-aircraft protection, Maryland entered the Second World War on December 7, 1941, with her original profile intact, massive cage masts included.
On December 7, Maryland was moored inboard of USS Oklahoma, insulating her from torpedo attack. She suffered two bomb hits but received only superficial damage. Once freed from Battleship Row, Maryland proceeded with Tennessee and Pennsylvania, both of which had suffered similarly minor damage, to Puget Sound Naval Yard for repair and refit. Much work was done in a short period of time to modernize Maryland for the Pacific War. She lost her aft cagemast, and her foremast was reduced in height and complemented by a larger superstructure. Her beam was slightly increased to improve torpedo protection, and she received additional AA mounts. For the next year and a half, she and a squadron of older battleships operated as convoy escorts and a “fleet in being” in the Pacific, without ever engaging the enemy. In late 1943, Maryland undertook her first shore bombardment mission, a role which would occupy her for most of the rest of the war. Maryland’s eight 16” guns could hurl a broadside of 17000 up to 35000 yards, and although naval bombardment lacked precision, it tended to terrify defenders. At the Battle of Saipan, she took a torpedo hit from a Japanese “Betty” bomber but survived without serious damage.
In October 1944, Maryland and five other battleships (West Virginia, California, Tennessee, Mississippi, and Pennsylvania) were tasked with shore bombardment and escort of Leyte island in the Philippines. Warned by recon aircraft that a Japanese force was approaching, the American battleship took up a position in the Surigao Strait, crossing the “T” of the oncoming Japanese fleet. Led by the battleship Yamashiro, the Japanese ships sailed right into the American trap and came under withering fire from the American ships. Three of the U.S. battleships possessed modern radar arrays, and quickly found the range to Yamashiro. Maryland had an older array but nonetheless managed to straddle Yamashiro with several salvos. Yamashiro suffered badly from the brutal shelling and sank following a torpedo attack.
Maryland continued with her shore bombardment duties for the rest of the war. She was hit by three kamikazes, the first and third causing serious damage. In early April 1945, Maryland was assigned to shore bombardment off Okinawa when word came that a Japanese task force, led by the battleship Yamato, had left port. Maryland, along with Colorado, West Virginia, Tennessee, Idaho, and New Mexico was detailed to destroy Yamato if she survived air attacks along the way. Fortunately, the air attacks succeeded. Although the U.S. squadron would likely have destroyed Yamato with concentrated fire, the newer, larger, and faster Japanese battleship would have exacted an awfully destructive toll on the U.S. battleline.
After the war, Maryland and her four sisters were placed in reserve, and not finally disposed of until 1959. It is unfortunate that a more serious effort was not made for her preservation since she was the only survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack to remain in substantially original condition (California, Tennessee, and West Virginia were transformed by wartime reconstruction). Surely the state of Maryland (a state with deep, longstanding naval traditions) could have made a more aggressive effort to preserve this artifact of the superdreadnought era.
Could America have done more with the Pearl Harbor survivors in the first year of the war? Perhaps, but forcing an engagement was a struggle for slow battleships. Later in the war, as Japan became more desperate, Maryland could perform the role she was built to play. But like many of the other battleships of the period, she was most valuable as a mobile artillery piece, helping the U.S. advance across the Pacific and roll back the Japanese Empire.
Dr. Robert Farley teaches at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of the Battleship Book, and can be found at @drfarls.