Meet the U.S.S. Massachusetts: the Battleship Imperial Japan Feared

Robert Farley

Key Point: It was one of the earlier American ships commissioned during World War II.

The U.S. Navy began construction of its first fast battleships in 1937, with the two ships of the North Carolina class. The restrictions of the Washington and London Naval Treaties had imposed a battleship “holiday,” and mandated limits on the size of new warships. Treaty requirements limited displacement to thirty-five thousand tons, and (after Japan’s exit from the treaty triggered an escalator clause) gun size to sixteen inches. While intermediate plans had focused on relatively slow ships (around twenty-three knots), war-game experience and intelligence about the development of foreign ships made clear that this would prove far too slow, and designers eventually opted for a speed of twenty-seven knots. The U.S. Navy followed up the two in the North Carolina class with the four South Dakotas. Initial plans for the South Dakotas again called for a reduction in speed, which would allow them to operate with the older ships of the battle line.

The question of speed spurred bitter disagreements between designers, officers, and strategists; eventually, intelligence about the battleships of the Imperial Japanese Navy helped carry the day for advocates of high speed. The resulting South Dakotas (“SoDaks”) were more heavily armored than the North Carolinas on a slightly smaller hull, but at the expense of weaker underwater protection, reduced crew space and an extremely cramped engineering section. The design probably attempted too much on a limited displacement, and the ships were never regarded as fully satisfactory. Nevertheless, the South Dakotas were extremely effective ships, the only ships to fulfill the Washington Naval Treaty requirements while carrying sixteen-inch guns, having protection against sixteen-inch shells and enjoying a speed of twenty-seven-plus knots. They also had a large and effective antiaircraft armament. Although classic interim ships, the architects of the SoDaks achieved great things within the imposed limits. Visually, the SoDaks were distinguished from both the Iowas and the North Carolinas by having one funnel instead of two, a choice that resulted in a sleek, streamlined appearance.

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