The USS South Dakota (BB-57), a renowned battleship of the United States Navy, stood as a titan of World War II naval warfare, embodying the pinnacle of American battleship design and firepower.

Commissioned in 1942, this formidable vessel played a pivotal role in several major Pacific Theater engagements, showcasing exceptional resilience and combat prowess.

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Design Of USS South Dakota

The design and construction of the USS South Dakota (BB-57) reflect a significant era in naval engineering, where innovation was driven by both necessity and the constraints of international treaties. The battleship’s design was a direct result of the limitations imposed by the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 and the London Naval Treaty of 1930. These treaties aimed to prevent a naval arms race by limiting the displacement and armament of new battleships.

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The South Dakota class was conceptualized under these treaty restrictions. The challenge for naval architects was to create a battleship that was powerful, yet adhered to the treaty limitations on displacement and armament. The result was a class of ships that were more compact but heavily armed and armored. This design philosophy marked a significant evolution from earlier battleship classes, focusing on maximizing firepower and protection while staying within the size and weight constraints.

USS South Dakota under construction, 1942. Image by Harley Flowers CC BY-SA 2.0

The USS South Dakota measured 680 feet in length and had a beam (width) of 108 feet. This size made it slightly smaller than the preceding North Carolina class. Despite its somewhat reduced size, it had a standard displacement of about 35,000 tons, which was close to the treaty limits. This displacement increased to over 44,000 tons when fully loaded, demonstrating how closely the design pushed against the treaty restrictions.

The ship’s armor was a critical aspect of its design. The USS South Dakota featured extensive armor plating, with belt armor reaching up to 12.2 inches in thickness and turret armor up to 18 inches. The armor was strategically placed to protect vital areas such as the ammunition magazines and the machinery spaces. This focus on armor was intended to ensure the ship’s survivability in battle.

The propulsion system of the USS South Dakota was state-of-the-art for its time. It was powered by eight Babcock & Wilcox boilers and General Electric geared steam turbines, which drove four propeller shafts. This setup enabled the battleship to reach a top speed of approximately 27 knots, a remarkable feat for a ship of its size and armor.

Armament And Technology

Central to the USS South Dakota’s offensive capability was its main battery of nine 16-inch (406 mm) guns. These guns, among the most powerful naval artillery pieces of the time, were mounted in three triple turrets. Capable of firing shells weighing up to 2,700 pounds (1,225 kg) over a range of 20 to 23 miles (32 to 37 km), they provided the ship with a long-range striking capability. This firepower was particularly effective against enemy surface ships, including battleships and cruisers.

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The secondary battery consisted of twenty 5-inch (127 mm) guns, housed in ten twin turrets. These dual-purpose guns were effective against both surface targets and aircraft, providing a crucial medium-range defensive and offensive capability. The flexibility of these guns made the USS South Dakota a more versatile combatant, capable of engaging a wide range of enemy targets.

In response to the growing threat of air attacks, the USS South Dakota was equipped with an array of anti-aircraft guns. Initially, these included 1.1-inch (28 mm) guns and .50 caliber machine guns. However, these were soon upgraded to more effective 40 mm Bofors and 20 mm Oerlikon cannons. These upgrades significantly enhanced the ship’s air defense, enabling it to better protect itself and other vessels in its group from enemy aircraft.

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

The USS South Dakota’s technological prowess was further demonstrated by its sophisticated radar and fire control systems. These systems were crucial for the efficient use of its armament. The ship was equipped with the latest radar technology of the time, which allowed for early detection of enemy ships and aircraft, even under poor visibility conditions. The fire control system, which included advanced analog computers, enabled precise targeting and effective use of the main and secondary guns, dramatically increasing the ship’s combat effectiveness.

The ship’s design also included advanced damage control systems, which were vital for its resilience in battle. The USS South Dakota had a heavily compartmentalized hull, designed to limit flooding in case of damage. Additionally, the ship was equipped with systems for fire suppression and damage management, ensuring that it could sustain and recover from hits that might cripple lesser vessels.

Throughout World War II, the USS South Dakota received continuous upgrades to its armament and technological systems. These upgrades were in response to the evolving nature of naval warfare and the lessons learned from early engagements. Enhancements in radar technology, anti-aircraft armament, and fire control systems ensured that the ship remained a formidable force throughout the conflict.

South Dakota In WWII

The USS South Dakota’s first significant engagement was in the Pacific Theater at the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands in October 1942. This battle was part of the Guadalcanal campaign, a critical series of battles in the Solomon Islands. During the Battle of Santa Cruz, the South Dakota operated as part of a task force aimed at stopping Japanese advancements in the region.

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The battleship provided anti-aircraft defense for the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and engaged Japanese ships with its main battery. Despite suffering damage from enemy fire, the South Dakota’s participation helped prevent a major Japanese victory and demonstrated the ship’s capabilities in combat.

Perhaps the most notable chapter in the USS South Dakota’s service was its role in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942. This battle was a critical confrontation aimed at securing Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. The South Dakota, along with other U.S. warships, engaged a formidable Japanese task force.

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

During the intense night battle, the South Dakota found itself in a fierce firefight with the Japanese battleship Kirishima and several cruisers and destroyers. Despite suffering significant damage, including power failures and shell hits, the USS South Dakota played a crucial role in what became a strategic American victory, severely damaging the Kirishima and contributing to its eventual sinking.

Following repairs, the USS South Dakota returned to active service in 1943. It participated in several key operations, including the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign, which involved amphibious assaults and intense naval gunfire to support ground troops. The ship’s powerful guns were instrumental in bombarding enemy positions, providing crucial support to advancing U.S. forces.

In 1944, the South Dakota took part in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, a major carrier battle that decimated Japanese air power in the region. The battleship provided anti-aircraft cover for the carriers and engaged enemy ships, contributing to the overwhelming U.S. victory known as the “Great Marianas Turkey Shoot.”

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As the war progressed, the USS South Dakota continued to play a vital role in the Pacific. It participated in the invasion of the Philippines, providing naval gunfire support and engaging enemy shore batteries. In 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa, the South Dakota bombarded Okinawan defenses, aiding U.S. ground forces in one of the war’s bloodiest campaigns.

The USS South Dakota was active in the final operations of World War II, continuing to provide gunfire support and anti-aircraft defense. After Japan’s surrender, the ship was part of the naval force that occupied Japan. The South Dakota earned 13 battle stars for its service in World War II.

The Fate Of The Ship

After the end of World War II, the USS South Dakota, like many other battleships of its era, faced a new reality. The advent of air power and nuclear weapons was rapidly changing naval warfare, and battleships were becoming less central to naval strategy. In recognition of these changes, the South Dakota was briefly placed in the reserve fleet.

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The ship was decommissioned in January 1947, a relatively short service life given its late entry into World War II. It never saw active service again, as the focus of naval power shifted towards aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines. During its time in the reserve fleet, the USS South Dakota remained a potent symbol of American naval power, but the advances in technology and changes in strategic priorities meant that it was no longer at the forefront of naval capabilities.

The USS South Dakota was eventually struck from the Naval Vessel Register in the 1960s, marking the end of its official status in the U.S. Navy. In 1962, the decision was made to scrap the ship. This decision reflected the broader trend of decommissioning and dismantling many battleships from the World War II era, as they were considered obsolete in the face of modern naval warfare technology.

The legacy of the USS South Dakota is preserved through various memorials and exhibits. The most notable is the USS South Dakota Battleship Memorial in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. This memorial features a large-scale outline of the ship, parts of its armor, and a museum that houses artifacts, photos, and information about the ship and its crew. It serves as a tribute to the ship and those who served on it, ensuring that its history remains part of the public consciousness.