The USS Wisconsin (BB-64), one of the last and largest battleships built by the United States, stands as a remarkable testimony to the historical development and innovation of naval warfare in the 20th century.

This Iowa-class battleship, sometimes referred to as “Wisky,” is emblematic of American maritime power, technological prowess, and the nation’s resolve during the most intense periods of global conflict.

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The Construction and Design of the USS Wisconsin

The construction and design of the USS Wisconsin embody the zenith of American shipbuilding prowess during World War II.

It was laid down at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on January 25, 1941, marking the beginning of a massive and highly technical construction project that would ultimately yield one of the most formidable vessels of the 20th century.

The USS Wisconsin, the last of the Iowa-class battleships, was constructed as part of a massive naval expansion program.

This effort was spurred by the escalating global conflict and the United States’ strategic need for a strong maritime presence. Being the second ship of the United States Navy to be named after the U.S. state of Wisconsin, it was designed to serve as a high-speed escort for the fast new aircraft carriers that were then entering service.

USS Wisconsin during sea trials in 1944.

One of the distinguishing features of the USS Wisconsin, and indeed all Iowa-class battleships, was the attention to both firepower and speed in their design.

The battleship was 887 feet long and 108 feet wide, making it one of the largest battleships ever built. Yet, despite its size and weight, the Wisconsin could reach impressive speeds.

Its power came from four propeller shafts, each powered by a steam turbine, enabling the vessel to exceed 33 knots. This speed was a significant asset, making the battleship a highly mobile and maneuverable force on the seas.

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The USS Wisconsin was heavily armed to maximize its combat effectiveness. Its main battery consisted of nine 16-inch guns housed in three turrets. These guns could fire 2,700-pound shells over 20 miles, a range that allowed the Wisconsin to strike at enemy ships or land targets before they could respond.

This impressive firepower was complemented by a secondary battery of 20 5-inch guns and numerous anti-aircraft guns that could fend off enemy aircraft.

Furthermore, the design of the Wisconsin included substantial armor protection. The sides of the ship were protected by a belt of armor that was over 12 inches thick, and the main gun turrets were protected by up to 17 inches of armor. The armored deck was up to 6 inches thick, providing protection from bombs and plunging shellfire. Despite the weight of this armor, the ship maintained excellent stability and buoyancy.

The design and construction of the USS Wisconsin were marvels of engineering and logistical coordination, resulting in a battleship that was fast, heavily armed, and well-protected.

USS Wisconsin In The Second World War

Commissioned on April 16, 1944, the Wisconsin’s first captain was Earl E. Stone. Its maiden voyage would lead it into the heart of the Pacific theater, the principal site of conflict between the Allies and the Japanese Empire.

In its initial assignment, the Wisconsin was tasked to protect the aircraft carriers of the 3rd Fleet during the invasion of the Philippines. This operation, known as the Battle of Leyte Gulf from October 23-26, 1944, was one of the largest naval battles in history.

Tasked with a protective role, the Wisconsin demonstrated its formidable anti-aircraft capabilities, safeguarding the fleet’s crucial carriers from potential air attacks. Its role was critical in ensuring that U.S. aircraft could launch and recover safely, maintaining air superiority and assisting ground forces.

USS Wisconsin tied up alongside USS Oklahoma at Pearl Harbor, November 1944.

Following the Philippines campaign, the Wisconsin’s massive 16-inch guns were used in bombardment roles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, two significant battles marking the U.S. advance towards mainland Japan.

At Iwo Jima in February 1945, Wisconsin’s main guns pounded Japanese defensive positions, softening them up ahead of the Marines’ landing. The ship performed a similar role during the Battle of Okinawa from April to June 1945.

The Wisconsin also provided critical defense against kamikaze attacks during the Battle of Okinawa.

The Wisconsin’s service in World War II marked its initiation into naval warfare. Through various operational assignments and under the most grueling of circumstances, the vessel demonstrated its military capability, versatility, and resilience, all of which cemented its reputation as one of the most formidable battleships in naval history.

Post World War II and the Korean War

The period following World War II saw the USS Wisconsin experiencing a brief hiatus from active service, only to be recommissioned in light of new geopolitical conflicts.

As the world tried to recover from the devastation of World War II, the dynamics of global power shifted, leading to new confrontations.

With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950, the battleship was recommissioned and joined the US Navy’s 7th Fleet in the Pacific.

The Korean War marked the first major armed conflict of the Cold War. In this new theatre of war, the USS Wisconsin played a significant role in supporting United Nations forces.

Firing a massive three-gun salvo in Korea.

Its 16-inch guns were instrumental in bombarding North Korean positions along the eastern coast, providing vital support to the ground troops. Its massive firepower greatly aided UN forces in repelling North Korean advancements and disrupting their supply lines.

In addition to these bombardment missions, the USS Wisconsin provided cover for aircraft carriers, much like it did during World War II, safeguarding these essential vessels from potential attacks.

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After the Korean War, the USS Wisconsin continued to serve in various capacities, participating in training exercises and showing the flag missions.

However, with advancements in missile technology and the increasing prominence of aircraft carriers, battleships like the Wisconsin became less vital in the context of naval warfare. Consequently, the ship was decommissioned again in 1958 and remained out of service for three decades.

Modernization and the Gulf War

The USS Wisconsin’s recommissioning in 1988 was accompanied by an extensive modernization program that significantly enhanced its capabilities, making it a formidable weapon system during the late 20th century.

The modernization of the Wisconsin was comprehensive, touching on multiple facets of the ship. Its radar and electronic warfare systems were upgraded to meet the demands of modern warfare, improving its detection and tracking capabilities, as well as its defensive countermeasures against enemy radar and missile systems.

Perhaps the most significant upgrades were in its weaponry.

The ship received new missile systems that drastically improved its long-range strike capabilities. This included the installation of the Tomahawk cruise missile system, which allowed the Wisconsin to launch precision strikes against land targets hundreds of miles away.

Additionally, the Wisconsin was equipped with the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS). The Phalanx CIWS is an advanced radar-controlled gun system designed to provide short-range defense against anti-ship missiles. It essentially functioned as the ship’s last line of defense against incoming threats, adding an additional layer of protection to its already substantial armor.

Wisconsin launching a Tomahawk during Operation Desert Storm.

In 1991, the USS Wisconsin was deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Desert Storm, the war to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi occupation. The battleship provided crucial fire support for Coalition ground forces and launched Tomahawk missiles at targets in Iraq.

This marked the first time the Wisconsin used its newly installed missile systems in combat. The Gulf War was also the last conflict in which the USS Wisconsin participated before its final decommissioning in September 1991.

The Wisconsin’s service during the Gulf War represented its adaptability to the changing nature of naval warfare. Despite its World War II-era design, the battleship’s extensive modernization allowed it to remain a relevant and effective tool of American military power. This period in the ship’s history reflects not only the progression of naval technology but also the enduring value of adaptable and versatile platforms like the USS Wisconsin.

Legacy and Preservation

Since its final decommissioning in 1991, the battleship has been preserved as a museum ship, ensuring its continued relevance to both the public and the naval community.

The USS Wisconsin was moved to the Nauticus maritime museum in Norfolk, Virginia in 2000. This move marked the beginning of its life as a museum ship, opening its decks to the public and allowing visitors to step into a piece of naval history.

From its gigantic 16-inch gun turrets to the myriad of control rooms, chambers, and compartments within its hull, the USS Wisconsin offers a tangible link to the past.

In this role, the Wisconsin serves not only as a historical exhibit but also as a learning resource. Visitors can explore the ship’s vast decks and interior spaces, gaining insight into life aboard a naval battleship.

Interactive exhibits and guided tours offer educational experiences, teaching about the various battles the Wisconsin fought in, as well as broader topics like naval technology, maritime strategy, and the socio-political context of the wars in which the ship participated.

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Moreover, the Wisconsin’s preservation reflects a broader societal effort to remember and honor those who served in the U.S. Navy during some of the most challenging conflicts of the 20th century. Veterans and their families often visit the ship, reliving memories and sharing personal stories tied to the vessel.

The ship’s role in community events also cements its legacy. The Wisconsin regularly serves as a backdrop for military ceremonies, public events, and commemorative occasions, further integrating it into the fabric of American cultural heritage.

USS Wisconsin in the 80s.

Finally, the preservation of the USS Wisconsin is an ongoing testament to American naval innovation and might. It stands as a symbol of the United States’ commitment to defense and its technological prowess. Even as a static museum, the Wisconsin continues to inspire awe and respect, much as it did when it first slid into the waters of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1943.

The legacy of the USS Wisconsin is multifaceted. It’s not only an important historical artifact but also an enduring symbol of the courage, dedication, and innovation of the U.S. Navy. Through preservation, the Wisconsin continues to educate, inspire, and remind us of our shared history.

The USS Wisconsin symbolizes the culmination of 20th-century naval design and strategy. It stands testament to a transformative period in world history and the critical role the United States played in shaping the world order.

Today, it provides invaluable insights intothe naval warfare of the era, with its imposing architecture and vast array of artillery. Its role in the various theaters of conflict and its participation in the most prominent wars of the 20th century reveal its versatility and adaptability, embodying the ethos of the American Navy.