The U.S. Navy had seventeen battleships in service when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Fifteen of them had been put into commission from 1912 to 1923; the other two — the North Carolina and the Washington — were more modern, having joined the fleet in early 1941.

When the Japanese attacked, nine of the older ships were in the Pacific Fleet. Eight were stationed at Pearl Harbor, and two of them (the Arizona and the Oklahoma) were destroyed in the attack. Five others were heavily damaged but were quickly repaired and put back into action. At the time of the Japanese attack, six of the older battleships and the two newest were in the Atlantic.

Over the course of the war, eight additional battleships were delivered to the fleet: four ships of the Iowa class and four of the South Dakota class. All of the modern battleships were equipped with nine 16-inch guns and a variety of smaller weapons. The four ships in the Iowa class were the largest and most heavily armed battleships on the seas with the exception of the Japanese Yamato and Musashi, both of which were eventually sunk by U.S. carrier aircraft. A larger class of battleship, to be known as the Montana class, was considered, but the program was canceled in 1943.

Figure 12-2 The crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Spencer watch charges explode while searching for German U-boats.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives (26-G-1517)

The primary role of U.S. battleships was to provide antiaircraft defense for carrier task forces and shore bombardment to reduce enemy resistance before amphibious landings. However, there were two major battleship-to-battleship fights off Guadalcanal in 1942. In one of them, the Washington sank a Japanese battle cruiser while suffering no damage itself, though another U.S. battleship was heavily damaged by Japanese cruisers and destroyers.

In addition, six U.S. battleships — four of them survivors of the Pearl Harbor attack — engaged Japanese ships in an impressive night battle during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. Two Japanese battleships were sunk during the fighting.

No U.S. battleships were sunk by enemy fire after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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