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Sunday Battleship Blogging: USS Wisconsin

[ 0 ] December 24, 2006 |

The North Carolina and South Dakota class battleships were designed with the limits of the Washington Naval Treaty in mind. Although much more could be accomplished in 1938 with 35000 tons than in 1921, sacrifices still had to be made. As had been practice in the first round of battleship construction, USN architects accepted a low speed in return for heavy armor and armament. Consequently, both the South Dakotas and the North Carolinas had speeds a knot or two slower than most foreign contemporaries. The Montanas, and the final battleship design authorized by the USN, would also have had a 28 knot maximum speed. In any case, Japan’s failure to ratify the 1936 London Naval Treaty bumped the maximum standard tonnage from 35000 to 45000, giving the designers some extra space to work with. The result was the Iowa class, the most powerful and best designed battleships ever built.

USS Wisconsin, last laid down but third completed of the Iowa class, displaces 45000 tons, can make (at least) 33 knots, and carries a main armament of 9 16″/50cal guns. The biggest two differences between Wisconsin and her predecessors were the powerplant and main armament. The Iowas were the first USN battleships to make speed a primary value, and the combination of a longer hull and more powerful engines gave them a five knot advantage over the South Dakotas. Indeed, the Iowas are the fastest battleships ever built, outpacing even the Italian Littorios by a knot or two. Indeed, the actual maximum speed of the Iowa class has never been determined. As Tony DiGiulian indicates, the maximum accepted speed for a light load Iowa is in excess of 35 knots, and even higher speeds (possibly 37 knots!) might be possible by risking some engine damage. In any case, part of the rationale for building the Iowas was to have ships capable of chasing down and destroying the Japanese Kongo class battlecruisers, themselves built in 1913. Wisconsin’s guns are also a step up from previous classes. The 16″/50cal is the finest gun ever mounted on a battleship. While the 18.1″ guns on Yamato launched a heavier shell, the 16″/50s have more penetrating power and can be fired at a slightly faster rate. On the downside, Wisconsin’s great length and narrow beam (necessary for transit through the Panama Canal) make her a mediocre seaboat in heavy oceans.

USS Wisconsin entered service in April 1944 and joined Bull Halsey’s Third Fleet in December. Wisconsin’s primary mission was aircraft carrier escort, although she participated in the bombardment of Okinawa in 1945. After the destruction of what was left of the IJN and the Japanese Air Force, Wisconsin bombarded Japan directly. After participating in Operation Magic Carpet and some occupation related activities, Wisconsin retired the United States and was employed as a training ship. In 1948 she was mothballed, only to be brought back to service two years later for the Korean conflict. For two years Wisconsin carried out a number of shore bombardment missions along the Korean peninsula. After the war, Wisconsin again served as a training ship. In 1956 she collided with the destroyer Eaton, necessitating bow-replacement surgery that transplanted the bow of the incomplete battleship Kentucky to Wisconsin. In 1958 she went back into reserve.

Various proposals were floated for reactivating the Iowas over the next twenty-five years. New Jersey returned to service in 1968 to bombard North Vietnam, but was soon sent back to mothballs. Some proposals in the late 1970s envisioned the replacement of the aft turret with a flight deck capable of operating helicopters and VSTOL aircraft, but these were rejected because of high cost. At the beginning of the Reagan administration, however, funds began to flow more freely, and plans were hatched to reactivate the four remaining battleships. Wisconsin returned to service in October 1988 less four fewer 5″/38cal guns, but with mounts for Harpoon and Tomahawk missiles, as well as Phalanx point-defense guns. Wisconsin’s aircraft were replaced with a helipad, and she was given the capability to launch and recover unmanned drones. In 1990 Wisconsin deployed as part of Operation Desert Shield, and in January contributed to the air offensive against Iraq with several salvos of Tomahawk missiles. When the ground invasion began, Wisconsin and her sister Missouri began bombarding Iraqi positions with 16″ and 5″ guns. Missouri narrowly avoided an Iraqi anti-ship missile when HMS Gloucester shot the missile down. The last bombardment of the war was made by USS Wisconsin, shortly prior to the cessation of hostilities. Wisconsin was decommissioned in September of 1991.

Wisconsin and her sister Iowa remained on the Naval List until early 2006. The viability of returning the ships to service has been much debated. The Marine Corps has argued that the battleships are necessary for the provision of amphibious gunfire support, and is skeptical that the AGS (Advanced Gun System) will be able to perform the role adequately. Wisconsin remains a formidable platform. As naval architecture since the end of World War II has turned decisively away from the armored ship and the concept of survivability, a good case can be made the Wisconsin and her sisters would be extremely resistant to modern anti-ship missiles. The torpedo remains a threat, however, and the narrow beam of the Iowa class has always lent credence to concerns about underwater attack. The costs of restoring Wisconsin to service and maintaining her would be high, however. Her Tomahawk launchers are obsolete and would need to be replaced, her anti-aircraft defense would need to be updated, and a host of other equipment would need to be brought up to contemporary standards. The Navy hates the idea of returning the battleships to service because of the high cost and immense crew requirements. Since 1996 Wisconsin has sat in Norfolk in a nether world, her upper parts open to visitors while her interior was closed in anticipation of reactivation. Stricken from the list in March 2006, Wisconsin currently awaits donation as a museum ship. It’s likely, however, that even after conversion to a museum efforts will be made to keep her re-activation capable for at least awhile.

Battleships, in the end, are simply a delivery system for ordnance.
When other platforms became capable of delivering ordnance more efficiently, the battleship began to disappear. Today, only Wisconsin and her sister Iowa have any chance of seeing action again, and even that probability is very slight.

As many of you have guessed, this is the end of regular Sunday Battleship Blogging. I wouldn’t rule out an occasional, circumstance-demanding post in the future; if, for example, a film features a battleship, or if I visit one of the museum ships, I’ll be sure to contribute something. But there’s a limit to the number of interesting battleships, even if I haven’t yet run up against it, and there’s steadily less new to say about each successive ship. I’d blog about aircraft carriers, but there are fewer interesting aircraft carriers than battleships, and they don’t hold my aesthetic interest nearly as well. Nevertheless, I’ve quite enjoyed writing this series; my favorite posts are HMS Barham, RN Giulio Cesare, HIJMS Nagato, NAeL Sao Paulo, Sevastopol, and Volya. My favorite battleships, rather a different question, include Nagato, HMS Iron Duke, USS California, Strasbourg, Almirante Latorre, HIJMS Kongo, HMS Tiger, SMS Viribus Unitis and SMS Seydlitz.

I do appreciate all of the support for battleship blogging; it’s a tribute to the internet that people with obscure interests can gather in remote corners to discuss their arcane enthusiams. I appreciate the comments, the corrections, the trivia answers, and the general discussion; thank you very much. In a couple of weeks I’ll be moving on to another topic near and dear to 19th century antiquarians: Deposed monarchs. In service of this project, I present you with the first trivia question.

Trivia: The heir to which European throne shot a guy while yachting in 1978?

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