USS South Dakota was built by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation at the Camden, NJ dock works and launched on June 7, 1941 - the very site of the modern day museum dock for the battleship USS New Jersey. The designers of this warship class were instructed to produce battleships that would combine the firepower of the proceeding North Carolina-class with a defense to protection against a 16-inch (406mm) shell. These requirements would have to be constructed on a hull that did not exceed 35,000 tons based on the Washington Naval Treaty. The Washington Naval Treaty was an agreement from world powers to limit the size of warships to head-off a naval arms race and another world war. For centuries, a nations power was directly measured by its available naval power. This treaty included signings by the Empire of Japan and Germany, however, they would become the biggest violators of the pact by their building of heavier battleships such as Japan's 73,000-ton IJN Yamato and the German 50,900-ton KMS Bismarck.
The requirements forced a number of compromises to the design primarily making for a smaller class of ship equally cramped for crew and machinery compartments. Thicker side armor was added for greater protection and, to compensate for the weight gain, the citadel "castle" was reduced in size. The length of the BB-57 was reduced by 50ft (15m) as compared to the preceding 728.8 ft, 44,377 ton North Carolina-class. Her beam was the same as the North Carolina, making her less streamlined and reducing her sea-keeping. To sustain the required 27.8 kt speed (needed to escort the fast USN carriers of the day) the propulsion system needed to produce an additional 9,000 shaft horsepower. To assist in reaching the target speed the outermost pair of propeller shafts were placed further aft than the inner-most pair and eliminated propeller cavitations in the process. The belt armor around the hull of the ship was 12.2-inches (310mm). Bulkheads were allotted 11.0-inches (280mm) while the barbettes that covered the lower part of the 5-inch guns were given 11.3- to 17.3-inches (287 to 440mm) of armor. The main gun turrets were provided for with 18.0-inch (457mm) thick armor to protect the gun crews inside. Each conning tower was given 16.0-inches (406mm) around the communication and radar stations while the deck armor (to protect against air attack and ship "plunging fire") was 5.8- to 6.0-inches thick (147-152mm). The ships main armament (as completed in 1938) was her battery of 9 x 16-inch (406mm) /45 caliber Mark 6 guns. Each gun was 816-inches long and fired a projectile weighing 2,700lbs (1,225kg) at a maximum elevation of 45-degrees out to a distance of 38,720m (42,345 yards) with a rate-of-fire of 2 rounds-per-minute per each 16-inch rifle.
Assigned to the ship were three Curtiss SO3C "Seamew" floatplane scout aircraft. They were new assignments to the battleships and held an operational range of 1,150 miles (1851 km) with a service ceiling of 15,800 ft (4615 m). Their main mission was to scout "over-the-radar" range but also maintained their own offensive capabilities through use of machine guns, bombs and depth charges. She could make 172 mph (277km/h) with her single, front-mounted engine. She was fielded with a crew of a two made up by the pilot and a rear gunner. Her anti-ship armament was a pair of 100lb drop bombs or 325 lb depth charges. Her standard armament revolved around a fixed, forward-firing 0.30 caliber front- and a 0.50 caliber trainable rear-firing machine gun, giving her minimal anti-aircraft protection. Launched from one of the three onboard catapults, she could complete her sortie, return to the South Dakota and be picked up by one of the ship's two cranes, these located on the aft deck.
South Dakota was the first ship in her class of four and laid down in July of 1939. She was launched in June of 1941 and officially commissioned in March of the following year. She was fitted out at the Philadelphia yard, receiving some of her arms and stores in addition to the balance of her crew. South Dakota steamed out of Philadelphia on her shakedown cruise from early June to the end of July 1942. In August, she headed for the Panama Canal and after entered the Pacific with a course set for the Tonga Islands - finally arriving there in early September. In mid-September, while in Lahai Passage, she struck an uncharted coral reef that damaged her portside hull, requiring her to set sail for the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard for repairs - these themselves taking some 30 days to complete. South Dakota was ready for sea once again by mid-October of 1942 and was assigned to Task Force (TF)16. BB-57 was to escort the American carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6). The task force started from Pearl patrolling the waters around the Hawaiian chain in search for any Japanese task force. Soon, TF16 joined TF17 centered around the carrier USS Hornet just north of Espiritu Santo Island. Now the two groups were combined to form TF 61 under Admiral TC Kinkaid. Kinkaid received orders to move TF61 south towards Santa Cruz to find and stop any Japanese forces sent to threaten Guadalcanal.
USS South Dakota BB-57 was known as "Battleship "X" or "Old Nameless" by much of the American public during the war. The US Navy wanted to hide sensitive operational information from Japanese ears and eyes so the vessel would not be identified by her real name in American newspapers or on radio broadcasts.
The search widened when a patrol aircraft sighted a Japanese carrier force on October 25th, 1942. TF 61 steamed to intercept it and, the following morning, a Japanese search plane spotted the American force - beginning the "Battle of Santa Cruz". BB-57 and Enterprise, along with the task force, were operating 12 miles from the Hornet group when she was attacked by Japanese planes - their sights set on the Hornet herself. Within the hour, forty torpedo planes struck both the Enterprise and the Hornet. Battleship X escorting Enterprise and unleashed her 5-inch, 40mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns in defense - a total of 160 guns sending thousands of shells-a-minute into the air towards the attacking torpedo planes. Soon, dive bombers attacked and a 500-pound bomb hit South Dakota on top of her Number One turret (the front-most emplacement). The battle continued all day and the task force retired to New Caledonia during the night with South Dakota downing 26 Japanese planes all her own. Five days later, while avoiding a submarine contact, South Dakota and the destroyer USS Mahan (DD 364) collided resulting in damage to both ships. The destroyers bow was bent to the port side and pushed back towards the bow 5-inch gun. Both ships continued to Noumea, New Caledonia, where the repair ship USS Vestal (AR 4) was stationed and made repairs to BB-57.
The forces closed in on one another with moonlight providing good visibility. The South Dakota, at 18,100 yards, sighted three ships. The USS Washington also sighted and opened fire fired on the ship with the largest silhouette with the belief it being an enemy battleship. South Dakota's main battery opened on the ship closest to her position and both opening salvos found their targets, eventually starting onboard fires along both of the targeted Japanese ships. BB-57 shifted fire from Turret No. 3 onto another target and fired on it until it sank. However Turret No. 3 firing directly aft - over the three aircraft catapults - destroyed her own planes. South Dakota's secondary 5-inch batteries and her 40mm and 20mm guns were firing at eight Japanese destroyers that were operating off of Savo Island. After the destroyers left the radar screen without notice, a four-ship contact appeared on the radar screen some 5,800 yards away, this north of Savo island.
Japanese Navy personnel were good night-fighters and searchlights from an IJN ship illuminated South Dakota. She now became a main target for three of the ships, causing serious damage her foremast, fire control radar and radio communications. For the moment, BB-57 was blind and took a total of forty-two hits. USS Washington had concentrated her fire on the largest ship eventually putting it out of the fight. South Dakota's 5-inch batteries put out the Japanese searchlights and, after communication had been resumed, all gun batteries were made to bear on the third ship in the Japanese line of battle. After many subsequent hits on the vessel, large fires were visible. Having lost radar and contact with the USS Washington and her destroyer screen, South Dakota decided to retire to a prearranged location to rendezvous with Washington.
The battle was costly. USN destroyers DD Walke and DD Preston were sunk. DD Benham, having been hit by a Long Lance Japanese torpedo, was damaged and judge as not being "seaworthy", ultimately being targeted for destruction by her own escort DD Gwin. The Japanese lost battleship Kirishima, the heavy cruisers Takao and Atago and the destroyer Ayanami. South Dakota, due to the loss of her radar, received the most hits in the fracas while Washington came through the battle with little damage. The repair ship USS Prometheus (AR3) made repairs to BB-57 that allowed her to be labeled seaworthy to make her way back to New York for a complete overhaul before being battle ready once more. South Dakota was in repair dock for 40 days and left New York in late February 1943, assigned to operate with the carrier USS Ranger (CV-4) in the North Atlantic until mid-April. For the next four months she was assigned to cruise the North Atlantic, stationed at Scapa Flow in England working with the British Home Fleet.
In late August she was called home to join Battleship Division 8 & 9 assigned to Task Force 50.1 heading to the Canal to take part in the attack of the Marshall Islands. In December 1943, South Dakota and five other battleships were used as shore bombardment against the islands of Roi and Namur and supported landings on Kwajalein and Majuro. She returned to Majuro at the end of February until late March when she was assigned to support the fast carrier forces of the 5th Fleet. The carriers of the fleet provided air strikes against Palau, Yap, Woleai, and Ulithi in the Western Caroline Islands until April 1944. She continued to support carrier actions against Hollandia, New Guinea, and the islands of Aitape, Tanahmerah. From early May for a month she was dock side at Majuro for minor repairs and to refit. Assigned to TF58, she helped support marine landings on Saipan and Tinian and shelled the island. As part of TF58, she also shelled the northwest coast of Tanapag Harbor, Saipan, for over six hours with her gun batteries.
On May 15, 1944, operating with TF58, South Dakota fired on enemy planes that had managed to break through the combat air patrol (CAP) to attack the task group. BB-57 splashed one and the other 11 planes were shot down by other ships in the force. On the 19th of June, the battleship was again operating with the fast carriers. It was known that a major Japanese force was approaching from the west and the American capital ships were placed so that they could continue to support the ground forces on Saipan and, if necessary, could also intercept these enemy forces. The same day, a Japanese "Judy" bomber dropped a 500-pound bomb on South Dakota, blowing a hole in the main deck but doing little damage to the ship's ability to operate - still, the blast killed 24 sailors and injured another 27. BB-57 steamed with the fast carriers during the Battle of the Philippine Sea where the Japanese lost over 300 aircraft. After the battle was over, South Dakota sailed to Pearl Harbor and then to the West coast, arriving on July 10th, 1944.
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