USS Washington (BB-56)
The USS Washington and her sister, the USS Carolina, were the first American battleships to be built after the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty.
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited:
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.
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.
With some of the British naval forces being committed near Madagascar in early 1942, USS Washington was allowed to serve with the British Home Fleet in the North Atlantic where she became the flagship vessel of Task Force 39. TF39 was charged with escorting supply convoys destined for Archangel and Murmansk in Russia as part of the Len-Lease Act the Allies arranged in assisting the Soviet Union in their fight against Nazism. Since the KMS Tirpitz - sister ship to the German battleship KMS Bismarck - was also a threat to the region, Washington served as a watchful pair of guns in support of the British Royal Navy. Washington served with TF39 for four months before returning stateside in July of 1942 for her first overhaul. Her next deployment was out to the Pacific Theater where she sailed in August - and would ultimately spend most of her time during the war. From Casco, Maine, Washington next headed towards Scapa Flow. Rear Admiral John Walter Wilcox was then lost overboard en route when heavy seas rattled the vessel. The vessel then fell under the command of Rear Admiral Willis Augustus Less. From August 23rd 1942 on, the USS Washington went on to serve in Pacific waters for a total of 34 months.
Arriving at Tonga in September of 1942, Washington was put to work just two months later. Her first major assignment was the interception of a Japanese Navy Task Force nearing Guadalcanal. She was paired with the USS South Dakota among other USN surface ships. During the ensuing night time action - this making up the Third Battle of Savo - USS Washington teamed with the South Dakota against the IJN battleship Kirishima. While South Dakota took heavy damage to her topside facings, the guns of the USS Washington kept the battle in check for the Americans, delivering heavy damage to the Kirishima in turn. IJN Kirishima was deemed beyond repair and scuttled by her crew and the last major Japanese naval offensive at Guadalcanal was repulsed - USS Washington's first battleship-to-battleship confrontation was a success. In fact, Washington became the only US Navy capital ship to best an enemy capital ship in the whole of the war. Washington's guns were also credited with sinking the IJN destroyer Ayanami in the same battle. Through most of 1943, the USS Washington served as an all-important defensive escort to American aircraft carriers in the Theater. Her anti-aircraft gun network was key to protecting the aircraft-laden carrier vessels.
For a time, USS Washington was the only USN battleship class warship in the Pacific. She undertook important patrols around enemy held waters for five straight weeks, often working on her own. For nearly 80 days, the Washington and her crew were on the run, resulting in the vessel setting a record of 31,494 miles steamed. During this period, she was refueled at sea some 16 times but also fueled passing Allied destroyers 59 times herself.
Washington next brought her guns to bear - along with five other USN battleships - in the bombardment of Japanese positions across Nauru in December of 1943. In the early hours of February 1944, the Washington accidentally rammed the USS Indiana as the latter cut in front of the Washington's bow to refuel awaiting destroyers. The collision resulted in non-combat deaths to some of her crew and some 60 feet of area across the Washington's bow was damaged to the point that she was sent back to Pearl Harbor to undergo repairs. However, damage was severe enough that engineers at Pearl gave the battleship a temporary bow so she could steam safely back to Puget Sound Navy Yard for thorough repairs. By the middle of 1944, the USS Washington was back in action with the American fleet in the Pacific.
The USS Washington was called up again to bombard enemy locations, this time at Saipan and Tinian. After these actions, she was part of the US naval presence during the Battle of the Philippine Sea - also known as the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot". In the ensuing action, the USN Fifth Fleet under Raymond A. Spruance tangled with an IJN combined fleet under Admirals Jisaburo Ozawa and Kakuji Kakuta. Seven USN fleet carriers, 8 light carriers, 7 battleships, 28 submarines and nearly 1,000 aircraft of the USN faced off against 5 fleet carriers, 4 light carriers, 5 battleships and 750 aircraft of the IJN. The battle took place between June 19th and 20th, 1944 in the Philippine Sea proper and resulted in a decisive American victory - netting 3 aircraft carriers and 2 oilers sunk with another 6 ships heavily damaged. More importantly, 600 enemy aircraft were destroyed in the fighting (hence the "turkey shoot" terminology). In contrast, the USN lost 123 aircraft but still managed to save 80 of these crew. The major difference in the battle became the USN carrier-based fighter aircraft as well as the net of anti-aircraft defense protecting the carrier groups.
After victory, Washington opened fire against Japanese locations at Iwo Jima (the battle lasting from February - March 1945) and Okinawa (from April to June 1945), supporting the inevitable American amphibious landings by US Marines and Army personnel. After much bloodshed by ground troops on both sides, the islands eventually fell to the advancing American ground forces. On July 1st, 1945, USS Washington was called back stateside for another overhaul. Her stay at Puget Sound Navy Yard was extended until October to which the war against Japan had already completed in August of 1945 and was finalized in total surrender on September 2nd on the decks of the fabled Iowa-class battleship, the USS Missouri.
By the end of World War 2, the USS Washington had amassed 289,609 miles during her sailing tenure. In all, she expelled 3,535 rounds from her 16-inch guns and 28,062 projectiles of 5-inch ammunition. Outdoing them both were her 20mm gun crews that tallied over 350,000 cannon rounds. She participated in the repulsion of some 53 incoming enemy air attacks as well and destroyed multiple enemy surface vessels - from battleships and destroyers to support ships and transports - no enemy vessel, it seemed, was safe from the USS Washington.
The USS Washington was one of those special US Navy ships that ultimately served through to the end of World War 2 and earned herself 13 Battle Stars in the process. With the Pacific War now behind her, Washington made her way back to the American east coast and took part in the scheduled "Navy Day" celebrations. Soon after, Washington participated in "Operation Magic Carpet" and returned American soldiers back home from their overseas deployments. The vessel was then officially decommissioned on June 27th, 1947 and formally struck from the Naval Register on June 1st, 1960 - exactly 20 years after her commissioning.
As with other fighting US Navy vessels after the war, the USS Washington was unceremoniously sold for scrapping on May 24th, 1961 - and unfitting end for yet another fine US Navy warship.