USS Maryland represented the zenith of “standard type” US battleship development. The “standard type” ships had compatible speeds, turning circles, and armaments, allowing them to form a squadron that could operate as a cohesive unit. The last five of the twelve ships built to the standard type were referred to as the Big Five. Starting with Maryland’s half-sisters Tennessee and California, the Big Five adopted a new underwater protection system, a more modern secondary armament, a more extensive superstructure, and reinforced cage masts capable of supporting heavier conning towers. Maryland differed from the first two ships in that she carried 8 16″ guns in four twin turrets rather than 12 14″ in triple turrets. The Big Five were slightly larger than the New Mexico class, displacing about 33000 tons standard, and could make 21 knots.
Maryland’s interwar service was uneventful. The Washington Naval Treaty resulted in the destruction by gunfire of her last sister, USS Washington, leaving Maryland and her four sisters the most modern ships in the fleet. Nevertheless, 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. A moderate refit improved Maryland’s anti-aircraft protection. Maryland entered the Second World War on December 7, 1941 with her original profile intact, cage masts included.
On December 7, Maryland was moored inboard of USS Oklahoma, protecting 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.
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 US 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 underwent 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 planes, 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. Yamato fell victim to US carrier aircraft, but it’s worth thinking about what an engagment with the old battleship might have looked like. Yamato had considerable advantages in size, speed, and range over any of the American ships. The engagement would have been fought in darkness, which earlier in the war had worked to the Japanese advantage. In this case, I suspect that improvements in US radar and the long range of the battle would have worked in US favor, and that USS West Virginia, a ship with 16″ guns and an advanced array, would have been the first ship to draw blood. Using her relatively high speed, Yamato could have tried to fight the battle at long range to her advantage, but I think that her suicide mission would have led to more aggressive tactics, and that she would have engaged with the US battleline. The US ships would no doubt have suffered severely from Yamato’s 18″ guns, but hit anything with enough 14″ shells and it will sink. The US advantage in destroyers would also have had an effect, as Yamato had virtually no defense against surface torped attack. However, as Yamato might easily have sunk one or more US battleships, with thousands of resultant dead, the Americans made the right decision by destroying her from the air.
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).
Trivia: What was the only dreadnought battleship built on the US West Coast?