Fast aircraft carriers dominated the opening battles of the Pacific War, from the attack on Pearl Harbor to the Battle of Midway. In part because of the demonstrated lethality of these ships, and in part because of the devastation of much of the U.S. fleet in the opening days of the war, battleships on either side played little role in the conflict. Not until the night battles of Guadalcanal would battleships have a decisive impact.
But what if the Imperial Japanese Navy and the U.S. Pacific Fleet had fought in the way that many had expected, with contending battle lines? Planners during much of the interwar period expected such an engagement, although the details of where, when, and how it would be fought varied over time. If the Pacific War had turned out differently, what might such an engagement have looked like in 1942?
At the beginning of the war, the United States Navy had eight “standard type” battleships at Pearl Harbor, another (USS Colorado) refitting at Puget Sound, and three more (the New Mexico class) in the Atlantic. In addition, North Carolina and Washington had just entered service as the fleet’s first fast battleships. The U.S. Navy also had three older battleships (New York, Texas, and Arkansas) although these were not generally regarded as fit for line of battle service.
Five of these battleships (the “Big Five” Colorado and Tennessee class ships) had not been substantially modernized during the interwar period, but had been constructed after the Battle of Jutland and had incorporated improvements into their design. The rest of the ships had received substantial reconstructions, although the extent varied across classes. The three New Mexico ships may have been the most modern of all (apart from the fast battleships), having received new superstructures, new machinery, and an extensive armor upgrade. In terms of weaponry, the American battleships were generally well-armed. The North Carolinas’ each carried nine 16” guns in three triple turrets, and the Colorados’ eight 16” guns in four twin turrets. Most of the rest of the fleet carried twelve 14” guns in four triple turrets, although the oldest ships only carried ten guns.