USS Washington (BB 56) was a North Carolina class battleship, and the first of the new 'fast battleships' designed in advance of World War II. The ship was designed to meet the requirements of the 1922 Washington Treaty which limited ship sizes, main armament and numbers. For this reason Washington and her sister ship North Carolina (BB 55) were designed to meet treaty provisions. Her original displacement was limited to 35,000 tons empty, and her original armament was for 12 14"/50 caliber guns in three quadruple turrets. The quadruple turret was a risky design, but the older Colorado class battleships had already filled the US national limit for ships armed with the sixteen inch gun. With war clouds gathering in Europe and Japanese militarism rising it was realized that the treaty was in jeopardy, so an alternate design was prepared changing the ships armament to nine 16inch/45 caliber guns mounted in three triple turrets. Japan's decision not to sign the London Naval Treaty of 1936 was considered the death knell for the Washington treaty, so the sixteen inch gun was chosen for Washington, North Carolina and all future US Battleships.
Still, the treaty did affect Washington's design. Despite new production and weight saving methods, Treaty limitations strongly limited how much armor the North Carolina class could carry. Her main armor belt was only 12 inches thick, at a slope of 15 degrees. All subsequent US battleships were better armored, particularly the outstanding Iowa class designs. Fortunately the Mark 8 16"/45 gun proved an outstanding success. It was simpler and lighter than a similar gun used in the Colorado class, and turret equipment was designed to handle the improved Mk 8 armor piercing shell, which weighed 2,700 lbs. The new guns gave Washington the ability to compete favorably with the modern battleship designs that were coming out of Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.
With the war heating up in Europe and China, Washington's construction was particularly rapid. Her keel was laid down at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on June 14, 1938. She was launched on June 1, 1940 and commissioned on May 15, 1941 a rapid time for such a large and complex ship. The site http://www.usswashington.com has a photo album online documenting her construction The album of eighty photographs was given by the Philadelphia Yard to its Commander at the time, Rear Admiral A.E. Watson, and covers even the more bureaucratic moments of building a battleship. In an era where computers were mechanical, everything on the ship had to be designed by hand. Acres of draftsmen were required to build and detail such a complex ship, and the work force was over a thousand men.
When Pearl Harbor came Washington was still on her shakedown and initial training cruises. Fortunately, she did not suffer from the shaft vibration problems that plagued her sister, the North Carolina. In early 1942 she was assigned along with the carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) and North Carolina to Admiral John Wilcox who commanded battleship division six, slated to reinforce the Royal Navy in the North Atlantic. Washington served as Wilcox's flagship. Unfortunately the Admiral went overboard on March 27, 1942. The body was spotted but never recovered, and the circumstances surrounding the Admiral's death were never explained.
In Europe she was assigned to the command of Sir John Tovey and she did work ups with HMS King George V, with whom she would serve for a time escorting lend-lease convoys on the Murmansk run. Unfortunately King George V struck and cut the destroyer Punjabi in half. Washington was forced to sail between the destroyer's still floating halves, and suffered minor damage from Punjabi's exploding depth charges. On July 14, 1942 Washington was detached from European service and sent to the New York Navy Yard, for a refit in preparation for her move to the Pacific Theater. Refit completed she sailed in late August for the Pacific. On September 23, Rear Admiral Willis Lee would make the ship his flagship. Lee would command the US fast battleship force in the Pacific for the remainder of the war, and Washington would spend the war in the Pacific.
She was promptly sent to Guadalcanal where the situation was very difficult, after losses of the Hornet and the Wasp to Japanese submarines left the USS Enterprise the only carrier afloat in the Pacific. Although US land based air power had limited the Japanese to night operations at that point, excellent Japanese night binoculars, tactical skill and the dreaded 'long lance' torpedoes had inflicted grave losses on the US and Australian cruiser forces defending the landings. The Japanese had committed battleships to these battles, in which the hoped to disrupt the Allied supply line, and to re-establish their own to aid their forces defending Guadalcanal. US cruisers had succeeded in sinking the converted battlecruiser Hiei, those smaller ships were significantly outgunned against even the oldest battleship.
The fourth battle of Savo Island came when a large Japanese forces, including a battleship, were seen by coast watchers approaching Guadalcanal. Their course would bring them by Savo Island, a place where Allied forces had been beaten badly more than once. The new battleship South Dakota (BB 57) had recently arrived, though she was still having teething troubles. Lee scraped together a force consisting of Washington, South Dakota and four destroyers, Walke, Benham, Preston and Gwin. Opposing that force would be the battleship Kirishima, two heavy and two light cruisers, plus nine destroyers. The battle that came would prove the high moment for US battleships at war.
Japanese long lances and gunfire scored. All four US destroyers were eventually sunk. South Dakota fired only one salvo befoe suffering an electrical failure, shutting down her radar and fire control systems. In addition, maneuvering to avoid the burning Walke and Preston had led to her being spotted by Japanese searchlights. South Dakota took the brunt of the Japanese fire, until she was forced to retire. But Washington, with the new SG surface radar, took care of business. She hit the Japanese battleship Kirishima at least nine times with 16 inch shells. Her twenty 5"/45 caliber guns reached out for smaller targets. Kirishima was left burning and was scuttled, as was the destroyer Ayanami. Numerous other targets were also damaged, all by Washington.
Washington remained based at Caledonia until the Solomons campaign was completed . On May 28, 1 943 she headed for Pearl Harbor and another refit, rejoining the fleet for the Gilbert and Marshall Island campaigns, including the battle for Tarawa and Makin Islands. The natural harbor at Kwajalien atoll was a significant target. By this time the US Battle Line has been reinforced withthe newer battleships North Carolina, Massachusetts, Indiana, South Dakota and Alabama. Unfortunately on February 1, 1944 Indiana cut across Washington's bow as she changed course to refuel her escorting destroyers. Washington rammed Indiana, and sixty feet of her bow was crumpled. Both ships required heavy repair, and a new temporary bow was fitted the ship at Pearl Harbor. She returned to service and Lee's flag in May, just in time for the Marianas Turkey Shoot, the battle that really decimated Japanese Naval air power in the Pacific. Commanding Admiral Raymond Spruance used Lee's battleship division to screen the carriers, and their heavy anti aircraft fire proved important.
After the battle of the Philippine Sea Lee's battleship division was based in Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshall Islands before heading to the Paulus Islands where the ship provided gunfire support for the landings there. From there she supported carrier based air attacks and in February lent her big guns to supporting the Marine invasion of Iwo Jima. From there she lent her big guns to struggle for Okinawa before returning to Pearl Harbor for a refit, where Washington would spend the rest of the war.
After the war there was less demand for battleships, and Washington was one of the oldest of the fast battleships. She was decommissioned placed on reserve on June 27, 1947 where she remained until she was sold in May 1961 and scrapped.
During the Second World War she earned thirteen battle stars, shot down fifteen aircraft and sank more tonnage than any U.S. Battleship in the war. She set a record for steaming 79 consecutive days without rest, and for a time was the only US battleship in the Pacific theater.
Washington fought well and served well during the war. Though she is gone, her sister ship North Carolina remains on display in Wilmington, North Carolina as a memorial.
Length Overall: 728 feet 11 5/8 inches
Length at Waterline
: 713' 8"
Beam: 108' 3 7/8"
Draft Maximum: 34' 9"
Average: 31' 7 1/3"
Displacement, Light ship: 34,645 tons
Full Load: 46,710 tons
Boilers: Eight Babcock & Wilcox 3 drum boilers with two furnaces operating @ 575 PSI and 850 degrees. The steam turned four sets of GE geared turbines with 121,000 shaft horsepower
Maximum speed 28knots @ 199 RPM
17,450 NM @ 15 knots
Maximum armor thickness: 16" on turret face, barbettes and conning tower 3.6"on the second deck, 12" main belt