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USS Washington (BB-56) Battleship (1941)

Authored By Dan Alex | Last Updated: 5/9/2013

The USS Washington and her sister, the USS Carolina, were the first American battleships to be built after the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty.

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The USS Washington (BB-56) was part of the United States Navy's two-strong North Carolina-class of battleships commissioned in the late 1930s. The vessel took part in early actions spanning the North Atlantic (serving with the British Home Fleet for a time) but made her true legacy in the Pacific Theater against the forces of the Empire of Japan. The USS Washington was credited with sinking more enemy tonnage than any other United States Navy battleship during World War 2. Amazingly, through all of her combat actions, the USS Washington never lost one of her sailors to enemy action nor did she ever suffer a direct hit from enemy surface guns.

USS Washington Origins

By 1937, the restrictions on battleship construction set forth by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 had become essentially moot. The treaty had been put in place to control the production of warships by the five world powers of the time - Britain, the United States, Italy, the Empire of Japan and France - limiting maximum surface displacement and main gun calibers for all capital-class vessels. The treaty was in response to the naval arms race blamed for beginning World War 1. In 1930, the treaty was modified to regulate submarine warfare and further shipbuilding. In 1936, another revision - this becoming the Second London Naval Treaty - was presented. However, Japan and Italy would not abide by the treaty and Germany remained relatively unmoved by the restrictions for it had already been tied down by the limitations inherent in the Treaty of Versailles set up after World War 1. The German nation was given most of the blame for the war and punished accordingly. However, despite the treaty, Germany set about in secretly building her war machine nonetheless.

Japan refused to ratify the Second London Naval Treaty and dismissed its limitations, opting to build warships that would suit its upcoming Pacific endeavors. After World War 1, the British maintained the world's largest power at sea and they were followed by the burgeoning numbers of the United States Navy while the Empire of Japan maintained the third most considerable force on water. It was during the period that the naval treaties were still in effect that the United States Navy made a move to procure a pair of modern battleships within the 35,000 displacement limit that could exhibit a 28-knot top speed and main gun armament consisting of 14-inch main guns in quadruple mountings (in true HMS King George V battleship fashion).

However, with Japan refusing to ratify the 1936 London Naval Treaty, the United States similarly moved on its twin battleship endeavor with renewed fervor and opted to fit them with 16-inch guns instead. As the selected gun caliber was larger than the intended 14-inch, each turret would only sport three such guns instead of the intended four. Main armament would be centered along three independently operating turret emplacements fitted to a conventional hull and field an applicable superstructure amidships with close-in defense via cannons and machine guns. Armor protection, being designed to sustain direct hits from 14-inch strikes, was not addressed further to deal with potential damage from enemy 16-inch guns. The new class of battleship was christened "North Carolina" in honor of the American state and the two vessels were ordered built - the lead ship to become the USS North Carolina (BB-55) followed by her sister - the USS Washington (BB-56). Washington was ordered on August 1st, 1937 and laid down on June 14th, 1938 by the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. On June 1st, 1940, USS Washington was launched on June 1st, 1940 and underwent the typical shakedown cruise before being officially commissioned on May 15th, 1941 with Captain Howard H. J. Benson at the helm.

USS Washington Walk-Around

The USS Washington sported a conventional battleship design for the time. The profile was dominated by the large superstructure held at amidships. The bow was tapered to a fine point for cutting through and over the water, bulging out at amidships and tapering once more at the stern. A control tower fitted with various communications and sensor equipment stood high atop the design followed by two smoke funnels just aft of the tower. Turret One (the foremost turret emplacement) sat low on the forecastle and was followed in line by Turret Two, this emplacement slightly raised so as to be able to fire over Turret One. Turret Three was located aft of the superstructure so only a full broadside could bring to bear the firepower of all three turrets. As such, full-speed head-on attacks could only be conducted using Turret One and Turret Two. At the stern there lay a rail catapult launching system for use by the onboard spotting aircraft (either Curtiss SOC Seagulls or Vought Kingfisher floatplanes) still being utilized on US Navy warships to reconnoiter enemy locations and actions. A crane was fitted aft of these launch rails to retrieve the floatplane aircraft upon their return. The vessel weighed in at 36,900 Standard Tons and up to 44,800 tons on a full load. She measured a length of 729 feet with a beam of 108 feet and a draught of 38 feet. A full complement consisted of 1,880 officers (108) and sailors (1,772). Power was supplied by a collection of four geared steam turbines delivering a combined 120,000 shaft horsepower. This arrangement provided for a top sea-going speed of 27 knots in ideal conditions.

Armament

The main armament consisted of 9 x 16-inch guns. These were fitted in sets of three across the three armored turrets. Turrets were protected by 7- to 16-inches of armor. Like other American battleship designs of the time, the massive turrets were simply "dropped" into their turret rings with their own massive weight holding them in place, making the Washington quite the stable gunnery platform even when delivering a full broadside. This approach allowed the turrets to fall from their rings in the event that the ship ever capsized, ensuring that the sheer weight of the gun emplacements did not drag the entire ship down into the blue along with her crew. A collection of 20 x 5-inch Dual Purpose guns added more offensive (and defensive) punch to the battleship and were positioned about the superstructure port and starboard sides. These weapon systems were further backed by no fewer than 16 x 28mm cannons. Some 12 x 0.50 caliber heavy machine guns rounded out the Washington's last line of defense from incoming enemy aircraft. CXAM-1 radar - the first US Navy production radar - was utilized on the USS Washington. Her armor at the belt was between 6.5- to 12-inches thick while her decks provided between 1.5- and 5.5-inches of protection at various parts.


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Specifications for the
USS Washington (BB-56)
Battleship


Country of Origin: United States
Initial Year of Service: 1941
Operators: United States


Crew: 1,880


Length: 728ft (221.89m)
Beam: 108.2ft (32.98m)
Draught: 35.5ft (10.82m)
Displacement: 36,900tons


Machinery: 4 x shaft geared steam turbines delivering 121,000 shaft horsepower to 4 x propellers.

Surface Speed: 27kts (31mph)
Range: 0miles (0km)


Armament:
9 x 16-inch /45 caliber (406mm) main guns in three triple-mount turrets, two ahead and one aft of the superstructure.
20 x 5-inch /38 caliber (127mm) Dual-Purpose guns
16 x 1.1-inch /75 caliber (28mm) anti-aircraft cannons.
12 x 0.50 caliber (12.7mm) anti-aircraft heavy machine guns.


Air Arm: 3 x Curtiss SOC Seagull / Vought Kingfisher floatplane recoverable reconnaissance aircraft.


Ship Class: North Carolina-class
Number-in-Class: 2
Ships-in-Class: USS North Carolina (BB-55); USS Washington (BB-56)