The London Naval Treaty of 1936 was intended to preserve the battleship size limitation at 35000 tons and to restrict the size of battleship gun size to 14″. In retrospect, it’s hard to see how the latter mattered; as long as the 35000 ton frame was observed, there was only so much advantage to be had by installing larger guns. The United States designed its first post treaty battleships, the North Carolina class, to carry 12 14″ guns in three quadruple turrets. However, the London Naval Treaty had an escape clause. If any one of the original three signatories failed to ratify, then the gun calibre limitation was raised to 16″. Japan did not sign the treaty (her representatives would have been assassinated if she had), so the 14″ limitation did not apply. The Royal Navy, in a fit of wild hope, had already begun construction of the 14″ weapons for its King George V class, and could not alter their design. The design of North Carolina and Washington, however, allowed the use of either 14″ or 16″ weapons. Accordingly, the Americans quickly substituted the heavier guns.
USS Washington and her sister, North Carolina, were the first American battleships built since 1921. They carried 9 16″ guns in three triple turrets, displaced 35000 tons standard (45000 full load), and could make 28 knots. Their armour was somewhat less extensive than that of foreign contemporaries, but their anti-aircraft armaments were very strong, making them extremely effective as aircraft carrier escorts.
Washington was commissioned in May 1941. Being 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 she 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, their loss or even damage would have been a severe handicap for the US Navy. Washington deployed to the United Kingdom for service with the Home Fleet in March 1942. Washington helped guard convoys to Murmansk, and it is conceivable that she could have met Tirpitz or Scharnhorst in action. Such a battle would almost certainly have favored Washington; her armament and armor were superior to that of Tirpitz, and she had much better fire control. In September, after a refit, she entered the Pacific, where she would remain for most of the war.
In late September Washington was deployed to the Solomon Islands. The battle of Guadalcanal centered around the control and operation of Henderson Airfield. Japanese forces had been pushed back on the island of Guadalcanal, but still held
considerable ground. Japanese naval units resupplied the Army forces at night, and heavy Japanese units bombarded Henderson Field on a regular basis. The US Navy’s job was to prevent this from happening. On November 13, 1942 Washington was positioned, along with the battleship South Dakota and four destroyers, to intercept a Japanese task force steaming toward Henderson Field. The Japanese fleet included the Kirishima, one of four Kongo class battlecruisers. On paper, the US force was quite superior, but the Japanese had considerable skill a night-fighting and had better torpedos. In a confused night action, all four US destroyers were crippled or sunk, and South Dakota managed to wander into the searchlights of most of the Japanese force. The Japanese lacked radar, however, and didn’t notice the approach of Washington. Washington did exactly what a modern battleship should have done to a thirty year old battlecruiser, and reduced Kirishima to sinking condition in about ten minutes. The rest of the Japanese force retired shortly afterward. Washington suffered no damage.
The rest of the war was spent largely in carrier escort by Washington. Her closest brush with disaster came in February 1944, when she 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 would serve as an escort at the Battle of Philippine Sea and the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Washington would also deliver shore bombardment at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Washington was taken out of commission in June 1947. The US 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 dreadnougts were scrapped in accordance with the Washington Naval Treaty. Between 1946 and 1948, all of the pre-war 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, probably because, given the existence of a major naval reserve yard in the Puget Sound, it didn’t seem to make sense to keep another old battleship around.
Trivia Question: What do the battlecruiser Hood and Rear Admiral Horace Hood have in common, other than the name?