The South Dakota-class battleships were a group of four battleships built by the United States Navy in the 1930s.

These ships were designed to be the most advanced and powerful battleships in the world at the time of their completion, incorporating the latest in naval architecture, armor, and armament.

The class included the USS South Dakota, USS Indiana, USS Massachusetts, and USS Alabama.


Design of the South Dakota-class

The development and design of the South Dakota-class battleships were a direct response to the evolving naval strategies, international treaties, and technological advancements of the 1930s. The objective was to create a class of battleships that would be superior in firepower, protection, and speed, adhering to the restrictions imposed by the Washington Naval Treaty and the London Naval Treaty.

These treaties were aimed at preventing an arms race by limiting the size and armament of battleships among the major naval powers.

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The Washington and London Naval Treaties imposed strict limitations on the displacement and armament of battleships. This posed a significant challenge for naval architects and engineers, as they had to design a ship that was both powerful and within the treaty limits.

The South Dakota class was allowed a maximum displacement of 35,000 long tons and a main armament of 16-inch guns.

An aerial view of USS Alabama, 1942.

These restrictions led to several design compromises and innovations. The designers opted for a more compact hull, improved machinery, and a superior armor layout to maximize the ship’s effectiveness within the given constraints.

The primary armament of the South Dakota class consisted of nine 16-inch guns arranged in three triple turrets. These guns were capable of firing shells weighing up to 2,700 pounds to a range of over 20 miles, making them formidable weapons against any adversary. The design also included a secondary armament of twenty 5-inch guns to protect against surface and aerial threats, alongside smaller anti-aircraft guns that were continuously updated throughout their service life.

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One of the most significant aspects of the South Dakota class’s design was its armor protection. The class featured an innovative armor scheme designed to withstand direct hits from enemy shells and torpedoes. The main belt armor was inclined to increase its effective thickness, a technique that improved the battleships’ survivability against incoming fire.

The armor extended well below the waterline to protect against under-water explosions and torpedoes. Additionally, the vital areas of the ship, like ammunition magazines and engine rooms, were protected by thick armor and intricate compartmentalization to contain and limit damage.

Despite their heavy armor and armament, the South Dakota-class battleships were designed to be fast and maneuverable. They could reach speeds of up to 27 knots, making them capable of keeping pace with the faster carrier task forces of the time. This speed was made possible by powerful steam turbines and a compact hull design, which also contributed to improved handling and maneuverability.

USS Washington manoeuvring off Hawaii in 1943.

The design and construction of the South Dakota class incorporated several technological innovations. Radar, which was a relatively new technology at the time, was installed to improve gunnery and navigation. The battleships also featured advanced fire-control systems to accurately direct their powerful guns during combat. The machinery was tightly packed and highly efficient, allowing for a smaller and more protected engine room layout.

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The construction of the South Dakota-class battleships began in the late 1930s, a period of rearmament and military preparation for the United States. The urgency of the international situation, marked by the rising tensions leading to World War II, necessitated a rapid and efficient building process.

Each ship was constructed at different shipyards across the United States: USS South Dakota at New York Shipbuilding Corporation, USS Indiana at Newport News Shipbuilding, USS Massachusetts at Bethlehem Steel Corporation’s Fore River Shipyard, and USS Alabama at the Norfolk Navy Yard.

Operational History of the South Dakota-class

USS South Dakota (BB-57) was commissioned in March 1942 and quickly became a formidable asset in the Pacific Theater. During the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands in October 1942, South Dakota provided anti-aircraft defense for USS Enterprise but suffered considerable damage from enemy action and electrical failures.

The ship also played a pivotal role during the naval battles off Guadalcanal in November 1942, where it engaged the Japanese battleship Kirishima. Throughout the war, South Dakota participated in key operations, including the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign, the Marianas, and the assault on the Japanese mainland. She was decommissioned in January 1947 and ultimately scrapped in 1962, with memorials and parts of the ship displayed in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.

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USS Indiana (BB-58), commissioned in April 1942, saw extensive action in the Pacific, contributing to the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign and providing crucial support in the Battle of the Philippine Sea in June 1944. As part of the fast carrier task forces, Indiana played a vital role in the Battle of Leyte Gulf and supported the liberation of the Philippines, showcasing the strategic mobility and firepower of the U.S. Navy’s battleships.

She was decommissioned in September 1947 and, like her sisters, served post-war as a training ship before being scrapped. However, her legacy lives on in various artifacts and a memorial in Indiana.

South Dakta’s forward turrets at Scapa Flow, 1943.

USS Massachusetts (BB-59) was commissioned in May 1942 and quickly distinguished herself by engaging the French battleship Jean Bart during Operation Torch, the Allied invasion of North Africa, in November 1942. This action marked her as a formidable force. Transitioning to the Pacific, Massachusetts supported the Solomon Islands campaign and participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, among other operations.

Her powerful guns provided critical support for amphibious landings across the Pacific. Decommissioned in March 1947, Massachusetts now serves as a museum ship at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts, where she is a prominent memorial and educational resource.

USS Alabama (BB-60), commissioned in August 1942, spent her war years mainly in the Pacific, joining in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign, the Mariana and Palau Islands campaign, and the liberation of the Philippines.

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A key member of Task Force 58, Alabama supported major carrier strikes against Japanese positions and participated in the final operations against the Japanese mainland in 1945. Decommissioned in January 1947, she now rests as a museum ship in Mobile, Alabama, offering visitors a glimpse into the life aboard a World War II battleship.

Notable Engagements

One of the most critical engagements for the South Dakota-class was the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942. During this battle, USS South Dakota and USS Washington played pivotal roles. The battle was part of a larger campaign to secure the island of Guadalcanal, which was strategically significant due to its potential use as a base for threatening supply routes between the United States and Australia.

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During a nighttime engagement, USS South Dakota encountered mechanical and electrical issues, which made her a target for Japanese battleships and cruisers. However, USS Washington, alongside South Dakota, engaged the Japanese battleship Kirishima and other enemy vessels.

USS South Dakota firing her anti-aircraft guns during the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands.

Washington’s accurate and devastating gunfire eventually led to the sinking of Kirishima. This engagement was a crucial victory for the Allies, as it significantly weakened Japanese naval power and contributed to the eventual success of the Guadalcanal campaign.

Operation Torch was the Allied invasion of North Africa in November 1942, aimed at removing the Axis powers from the region and opening a new front against them. USS Massachusetts was involved in this operation, providing naval gunfire support against French coastal defenses and the incomplete French battleship Jean Bart at Casablanca. Her powerful 16-inch guns helped neutralize enemy resistance and allowed for the successful landing of Allied troops. The operation marked an important strategic victory, leading to the eventual defeat of Axis forces in North Africa.

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The South Dakota-class battleships were also involved in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, a major naval battle that was part of the larger Marianas campaign. This battle was one of the greatest carrier battles of the war and is sometimes referred to as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot” due to the lopsided losses inflicted on the Japanese air forces.

USS Indiana fires a salvo on Japanese positions, 14 July 1945.

The battleships served primarily in screening roles, protecting the vital aircraft carriers of the U.S. fleet from potential surface and air attacks. Their anti-aircraft capabilities were crucial in defending against Japanese aircraft, while their presence added to the overall firepower and protection of the fleet.

Throughout the war, all four South Dakota-class battleships were repeatedly called upon to provide shore bombardment in support of amphibious assaults and land operations. They bombarded Japanese-held islands, destroying enemy fortifications, artillery positions, and troop concentrations. Their powerful guns were instrumental in softening enemy defenses ahead of landings, and their presence offshore provided a significant morale boost to the invading troops.

Fate of the South Dakota-class Vessels

As World War II concluded, the strategic value of battleships like those of the South Dakota class was increasingly questioned. The advent of air power, particularly carrier-based aviation, and later the development of guided missiles, shifted naval doctrine away from the battleship as the centerpiece of a naval fleet. Despite this, the South Dakota-class battleships were not immediately retired. Instead, they saw a period of transition.

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They were placed into the United States Navy’s reserve fleets, also known as the “Mothball Fleet.” Here, they remained for several years, maintained in a condition that would allow them to be reactivated if necessary, although such a need never arose.

Two of the South Dakota-class battleships, the USS Alabama (BB-60) and USS Massachusetts (BB-59), have been preserved as museum ships. These floating museums serve as a tangible connection to the past, allowing visitors to explore the ships and learn about their history and the people who served on them.

USS South Dakota and USS Indiana, however, would meet a different fate, both being scrapped in 1962 and 1963 respectively.