U.S. Navy Battleships - USS Washington (BB 56)
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Displacement: 35,000 tons
Speed: 27 knots
Armament: Nine 16" guns; twenty 5" guns; sixteen 1.1" machine guns
Class: North Carolina
Text from The Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships published by the Naval Historical Center
The eighth Washington (BB-56) was laid down on 14 June 1938 at
the Philadelphia Navy Yard; launched on 1 June 1940; sponsored
by Miss Virginia Marshall, of Spokane, Wash., a direct
descendant of former Chief Justice Marshall; and commissioned at
the Philadelphia Navy Yard on 15 May 1941, Capt. Howard H. J.
Benson in command.
Her shakedown and underway training ranged along the eastern
seaboard and into the Gulf of Mexico and lasted through the U.S.
entry into World War II in December 1941. Sometimes operating in
company with her sister ship USS North Carolina (BB-55) and the new
aircraft carrier USS Hornet (CV-8), Washington became the flagship
for Rear Admiral John W. Wilcox, Commander, Battleship Division
(ComBatDiv) 6, and Commander, Battleships, Atlantic Fleet.
Assigned duty as flagship for Task Force (TF) 39 on 26 March
1942 at Portland, Maine, Washington again flew Admiral Wilcox'
flag as she sailed for the British Isles that day. Slated to
reinforce the British Home Fleet, the battleship, together with
the carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) and the heavy cruisers USS Wichita (CA-45)
and USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37), headed for Scapa Flow, the major British
fleet base in the Orkney Islands.
While steaming through moderately heavy seas the following day,
27 March, the "man overboard" alarm sounded on board Washington,
and a quick muster revealed that Admiral Wilcox was missing.
Tuscaloosa, 1,000 yards astern, maneuvered and dropped life
buoys while two destroyers headed for Washington's wake to
search for the missing flag officer. Planes from Wasp, despite
the foul weather, also took off to aid in the search.
Lookouts in the destroyer USS Wilson (DD-408) spotted
Wilcox' body in the water, face down, some distance away, but
could not pick it up. The circumstances surrounding Wilcox being
washed overboard from his flagship have never been fully
explained to this day; one school of thought has it that he had
suffered a heart attack.
At 1228 on the 27th, the search for Wilcox ended, and command of
the task force fell to the next senior officer Rear Admiral
Robert C. Giffen, whose flag flew in the cruiser Wichita. On 4
April 1942, the task force reached Scapa Flow, joining the British
Home Fleet under the overall command of Sir John Tovey, whose
flag flew in the battleship HMS King George V.
Washington engaged in maneuvers and battle practice with units
of the Home Fleet, out of Scapa Flow, into late April, when TF
39 was redesignated as TF 99 with Washington as flagship. On the
28th, the force got underway to engage in reconnaissance for the
protection of the vital convoys running lend-lease supplies to
Murmansk in the Soviet Union.
During those operations, tragedy befell the group. On 1 May
1942, HMS King George V collided with a Tribal-class
destroyer. HMS Punjabi, cut in two, sank quickly directly in the
path of the oncoming Washington. Compelled to pass between the
halves of the sinking destroyer, the battleship proceeded ahead,
Punjabi's depth charges exploding beneath her hull as she
Fortunately for Washington, she suffered no major hull damage
nor developed any hull leaks from the concussion of the
exploding depth charges. She did, however, sustain damage to
some of her delicate fire control systems and radars; and a
diesel oil tank suffered a small leak.
Two destroyers, meanwhile, picked up Punjabi's captain, four
other officers and 182 men; HMS King George V then proceeded
back to Scapa Flow for repairs. Washington and her escorts
remained at sea until 5 May, when TF 99 put into the Icelandic
port of Hvalfjordur to provision from the supply ship USS Mizar (AF-
12). While at Hvalfjordur, the American and Danish ministers to
Iceland called upon Admiral Giffen and inspected his flagship on
Task Force 99 subsequently sortied on the 15th to rendezvous
with units of the Home Fleet and returned to Scapa Flow on 3
June. The next day, Admiral Harold R. Stark, Commander, Naval
Forces, Europe, came on board and broke his flag in Washington,
establishing a temporary administrative headquarters on board.
The battleship played host to His Majesty, King George VI, at
Scapa Flow on the 7th, when the King came on board to inspect
Soon after Admiral Stark left Washington, the battleship resumed
her operations with the Home Fleet, patrolling part of the
Allied shipping lanes leading to Russian ports. On 14 July 1942,
Admiral Giffen hauled down his flag in the battleship at
Hvalfjordur and shifted to Wichita. That same day, Washington,
with a screen of four destroyers, upped-anchor and put to sea,
leaving Icelandic waters in her wake. She reached Gravesend Bay,
N.Y., on 21 July; two days later, she shifted to the New York
Navy Yard, Brooklyn, N.Y., for a thorough overhaul.
Upon completion of her refit, Washington sailed for the Pacific
on 23 August 1942, escorted by three destroyers. Five days
later, she transited the Panama Canal and, on 14 September,
reached Nukualofa Anchorage, Tongatabu, Tonga Island. On that
day, Rear Admiral Willis A. "Ching" Lee, Jr., broke his flag in
Washington as Commander, Battleship Division (BatDiv) 6, and
Commander, Task Group 12.2.
The next day, 15 September, Washington put to sea bound for a
rendezvous with TF 17, the force formed around the aircraft
carrier Hornet. Washington then proceeded to Noumea, New
Caledonia, and supported the ongoing Solomons campaign,
providing escort services for various reinforcement convoys
proceeding to and from Guadalcanal. During those weeks, the
battleship's principal bases of operation were Noumea and
Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides.
By mid-November 1942, the situation in the Solomons was far from good
for the Allies, who were now down to one aircraft carrier —
USS Enterprise (CV-6) — after the loss of USS Wasp (CV 7) in September and
USS Hornet (CV 8) in October, and Japanese surface units were subjecting
Henderson Field on Guadalcanal to heavy bombardments with
disturbing regularity. Significantly, however, the Japanese only
made their moves at night, since Allied planes controlled the
skies during the day. That meant that the Allies had to move
their replenishment and reinforcement convoys into Guadalcanal
during the daylight hours.
Washington performed those vital duties into mid-November of
1942. On 13 November, she learned that three groups of Japanese
ships, one consisting of about 24 transports, with escort, were
steaming toward Guadalcanal. One enemy force sighted that
morning was reported as consisting of two battleships, a light
cruiser, and 11 destroyers.
At sunset on the 13th, Rear Admiral Lee took Washington, USS South
Dakota (BB-57), and four destroyers and headed for Savo Island,
the scene of the disastrous night action of 8 and 9 August, to
be in position to intercept the Japanese convoy and its covering
force. Lee's ships, designated as TF 64, reached a point about
50 miles south-by-west from Guadalcanal late in the forenoon on
14 November 1942 and spent much of the remainder of the day
trying, unsuccessfully, to avoid being spotted by Japanese
Approaching on a northerly course, nine miles west of
Guadalcanal, TF 64, reported by the Japanese reconnaissance
planes as consisting of a battleship, a cruiser, and four
destroyers, steamed in column formation. USS Walke (DD-416) led,
followed by USS Benham (DD-397), USS Preston (DD-377), USS Gwin (DD-433),
and the two battleships, Washington and South Dakota.
As the ships steamed through the flat calm sea beneath the
scattered cirrus cumulus clouds in the night sky, Washington's
radar picked up a contact, bearing to the east of Savo Island,
at 0001 on 15 November. Fifteen minutes later, at 0016,
Washington opened fire with her 16-inch main battery. The fourth
Battle of Savo Island was underway.
The Japanese force proved to be the battleship Kirishima, the
heavy cruisers Atago and Takao, the light cruisers Sendai and
Nagara, and a screen of nine destroyers escorting four
transports. Planning to conduct a bombardment of American
positions on Guadalcanal to cover the landing of troops, the
Japanese force ran head-on into Lee's TF 64.
For the next three minutes, Washington's 16-inchers hurled out
42 rounds, opening at 18,500 yards range, her fire aimed at the
light cruiser Sendai. Simultaneously, the battleship's 5-inch
battery was engaging another ship also being engaged by South
As gunflashes split the night and the rumble of gunfire
reverberated like thunder off the islands nearby, Washington
continued to engage the Japanese force. Between 0025 and 0034,
the ship engaged targets at 10,000 yards range with her 5-inch
Most significantly, however, Washington soon engaged Kirishima,
in the first head-to-head confrontation of battleships in the
Pacific war. In seven minutes, tracking by radar, Washington
sent 75 rounds of 16-inch and 107 rounds of 5-inch at ranges
from 8,400 to 12,650 yards, scoring at least nine hits with her
main battery and about 40 with her 5-inchers, silencing the
enemy battleship in short order. Subsequently, Washington's 5-
inch batteries went to work on other targets spotted by her
The battle, however, was not all one-sided. Japanese gunfire
proved devastating to the four destroyers of TF 64, as did the
dreaded and effective "long lance" torpedoes. Walke and Preston
both took numerous hits of all calibers and sank; Benham
sustained heavy damage to her bow, and Gwin sustained shell hits
South Dakota had maneuvered to avoid the burning Walke and
Preston, but soon found herself the target of the entire
Japanese bombardment group. Skewered by searchlight beams, South
Dakota boomed out salvoes at the pugnacious enemy, as did
Washington which was proceeding, at that point, to deal out
severe punishment upon Kirishima — one of South Dakota's
South Dakota, the recipient of numerous hits, retired as
Washington steamed north to draw fire away from her crippled
sister battleship and the two crippled destroyers, Benham and
Gwin. Initially, the remaining ships of the Japanese bombardment
group gave chase to Washington but broke off action when
discouraged by the battleship's heavy guns. Accordingly, they
withdrew under cover of a smokescreen.
After Washington skillfully evaded torpedoes fired by the
retiring Japanese destroyers in the van of the enemy force, she
joined South Dakota later in the morning, shaping course for
Noumea. In the battleship action, Washington had done well and
had emerged undamaged. South Dakota had not emerged unscathed,
however, sustaining heavy damage to her superstructure; 38 men
had died; 60 lay wounded. The Japanese had lost the battleship
Kirishima. Left burning and exploding, she later had to be
abandoned and scuttled. The other enemy casualty was the
destroyer Ayanami, scuttled the next morning.
Washington remained in the South Pacific theater, basing on New
Caledonia and continuing as flagship for Rear Admiral "Ching"
Lee. The battleship protected carrier groups and task forces
engaged in the ongoing Solomons campaign until late in April of
1943, operating principally with TF 11, which included the
repaired USS Saratoga (CV-3), and with TF 16, built around
USS Enterprise (CV 6).
Washington departed Noumea on 30 April 1943, bound for the
Hawaiian Islands. While en route, TF 16 joined up; and,
together, the ships reached Pearl Harbor on 8 May. Washington,
as a unit of, and as flagship for, TF 60, carried out battle
practice in Hawaiian waters until 28 May 1943, after which time
she put into the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard for overhaul.
Washington resumed battle practice in the Hawaiian operating
area upon conclusion of those repairs and alterations and joined
a convoy on 27 July to form Task Group (TG) 56.14, bound for the
South Pacific. Detached on 5 August 1943, Washington reached
Havannah Harbor, at Efate in the New Hebrides, on the 7th. She
then operated out of Efate until late in October, principally
engaged in battle practice and tactics with fast carrier task
Departing Havannah Harbor on the last day of October 1943, Washington
sailed as a unit of TG 53.2 — four battleships and six
destroyers. The next day the carriers USS Enterprise (CV 6), USS Essex (CV-9),
and USS Independence (CVL-22), as well as the other screening units
of TG 53.3, joined TG 53.2 and came under Rear Admiral Lee. The
ships held combined maneuvers until 5 November, when the
carriers departed the formation. Washington, with her escorts,
steamed to Viti Levu, in the Fiji Islands, arriving on the 7th.
Four days later, however, the battleship was again underway,
with Rear Admiral Lee, by that point Commander, Battleships,
Pacific, embarked, in company with other units of BatDivs 8 and
9. On the 15th, the battlewagons and their screens joined Rear
Admiral C. A. "Baldy" Pownall's TG 50.1, Rear Admiral Pownall
flying his two-starred flag in USS Yorktown (CV-lO), the namesake of
the carrier lost at Midway. The combined force then proceeded
toward the Gilbert Islands to join in the daily bombings of
Japanese positions in the Gilberts and Marshalls, softening them
up for impending assault.
On the 19th, the planes from TG 50.1 attacked Mili and Jaluit in
the Marshalls, continuing those strikes through 20 November
1943, the day upon which Navy, Marine, and Army forces landed on
Tarawa and Makin in the Gilberts. On the 22d, the task group
sent its planes against Mili in successive waves; subsequently,
the group steamed to operate north of Makin.
Washington rendezvoused with other carrier groups that composed
TF 50 on 25 November and, during the reorganization that
followed, was assigned to TG 50.4, the last carrier task group
under the command of Rear Admiral Frederick C. "Ted" Sherman.
The carriers comprising the core of the group were USS Bunker Hill
(CV-17) and USS Monterey (CVL-26); the battleships screening them
were USS Alabama (BB-60) and USS South Dakota (BB-57). Eight destroyers
rounded out the screen.
The group operated north of Makin, providing air, surface, and
antisubmarine protection for the unfolding unloading operations
at Makin, effective on 26 November. Enemy planes attacked the
group on the 27th and 28th but were driven off without
inflicting any damage on the fast carrier task forces.
As the Gilbert Islands campaign drew to a close, TG 50.8 was
formed on 6 December 1943, under Rear Admiral Lee, in
Washington. Other ships of that group included sister ship USS North
Carolina (BB-55), USS Massachusetts (BB-59), USS Indiana (BB-58), USS South
Dakota (BB-57), and USS Alabama (BB-60) and the Fleet carriers
USS Bunker Hill and USS Monterey. Eleven destroyers screened the heavy ships.
The group first steamed south and west of Ocean Island to take
position for the scheduled air and surface bombardment of the
island of Nauru. Before dawn on 8 December 1943, the carriers
launched their strike groups while the bombardment force formed
in column; 135 rounds of 16-inch fire from the six battleships
fell on the enemy installations on Nauru; and, upon completion
of the shelling, the battleships' secondary batteries took their
turn; two planes from each battleship spotted the fall of shot.
After a further period of air strikes had been flown off against
Nauru, the task group sailed for Efate, where they arrived on 12
December. On that day, due to a change in the highest command
echelons, TF 57 became TF 37.
Washington tarried at Efate for less than two weeks. Underway on
Christmas Day, flying Rear Admiral Lee's flag, the battleship
sailed in company with her sister ship North Carolina and a
screen of four destroyers to conduct gunnery practice, returning
to the New Hebrides on 7 January 1944.
Eleven days later, the battleship departed Efate for the Ellice
Islands. Joining TG 37.2, carriers Monterey and Bunker Hill and
four destroyers, en route, Washington reached Funafuti, Ellice
Islands, on 20 January. Three days later, the battleship, along
with the rest of the task group, put to sea to make rendezvous
with elements of TF 58, the fast carrier task force under the
overall command of Vice Admiral Marc A. "Pete" Mitscher.
Becoming part of TG 58.1, Washington screened the fast carriers
in her group as they launched air strikes on Taroa and Kwajalein
in the waning days of January 1944. Washington, together with
Massachusetts and Indiana, left the formation with four
destroyers as screen and shelled Kwajalein Atoll on the 30th.
Further air strikes followed the next day.
On 1 February, however, misfortune reared her head; Washington,
while maneuvering in the inky darkness, rammed Indiana as she
cut across Washington's bow while dropping out of formation to
fuel escorting destroyers. Both battleships retired for repairs;
Washington having sustained 60 feet of crumpled bow plating.
Both ships put into the lagoon at Majuro the next morning.
Subsequently, after reinforcing the damaged bow, Washington
departed Majuro on 11 February, bound for the Hawaiian Islands.
With a temporary bow fitted at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard,
Washington continued on for the west coast of the United States.
Reaching the Puget Sound Navy Yard, Bremerton, Wash., the
battleship received a new bow over the weeks that followed her
arrival. Joining BatDiv 4 at Port Townsend, Wash., Washington
embarked 500 men as passengers and sailed for Pearl Harbor,
reaching her destination on 13 June and disembarking her
Arriving back at Majuro on 30 May 1944, Washington again flew
Admiral Lee's flag as he shifted on board the battleship soon
after her arrival. Lee, now a vice admiral, rode in the
battleship as she headed out to sea again, departing Majuro on 7
June and joining Mitscher's fast carrier TF 58.
Washington supported the air strikes pummeling enemy defenses in
the Marianas on the islands of Saipan, Tinian, Guam, Rota, and
Pagan. Task Force 58's fliers also attacked twice and damaged a
Japanese convoy in the vicinity on 12 June. The following day,
Vice Admiral Lee's battleship-destroyer task group was detached
from the main body of the force and conducted shore bombardment
against enemy installations on Saipan and Tinian. Relieved on
the 14th by two task groups under Rear Admirals J. B. Oldendorf
and W. L. Ainsworth, Vice Admiral Lee's group retired
On 15 June 1944, Admiral Mitscher's TF 58 planes bombed
Japanese installations on Iwo Jima in the Volcano Islands and
Chichi Jima and Haha Jima in the Bonins. Meanwhile, Marines
landed on Saipan under cover of intensive naval gunfire and
carrier-based planes. That same day, Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa,
commanding the main body of the Japanese Fleet, was ordered to
attack and destroy the invasion force in the Marianas. The
departure of his carrier group, however, came under the scrutiny
of the submarine USS Redfin (SS-272), as it left Tawi Tawi, the
westernmost island in the Sulu Archipelago.
USS Flying Fish (SS-229) also sighted Ozawa's force as it entered
the Philippine Sea. USS Cavalla (SS-244) radioed a contact report on
an enemy refueling group on 16 June and continued tracking it as
it headed for the Marianas. She again sighted Japanese Combined
Fleet units on 18 June 1944.
Admiral Raymond A. Spruance, commanding the 5th Fleet, had
meanwhile learned of the Japanese movement and accordingly
issued his battle plan. Vice Admiral Lee's force formed a
protective screen around the vital fleet carriers. Washington,
six other battleships, four heavy cruisers, and 14 destroyers
deployed to cover the flattops; on 19 June 1944, the ships came
under attack from Japanese carrier-based and land-based planes
as the Battle of the Philippine Sea commenced.
The tremendous firepower of the screen, however, together with
the aggressive combat air patrols flown from the American
carriers, proved too much for even the aggressive Japanese. The
heavy loss of Japanese aircraft, sometimes referred to as the
"Marianas Turkey Shoot," caused serious losses in the Japanese
naval air arm. During four massive raids, the enemy launched 373
planes; only 130 returned.
In addition, 50 land-based bombers from Guam fell in flames.
Over 300 American carrier planes were involved in the aerial
action; their losses amounted to comparatively few: 23 shot down
and six lost operationally without the loss of a single ship in
Mitscher's task force.
Only a few of the enemy planes managed to get through the
barrage of flak and fighters, one scoring a direct hit on South
Dakota, killing 27 and wounding 23. A bomb burst over the flight
deck of the carrier USS Wasp (CV-18), killing one man, wounding 12,
and covering her flight deck with bits of phosphorus. Two planes
dove on USS Bunker Hill (CV 17), one scoring a near miss and the other a hit
that holed an elevator, knocking out the hanger deck gasoline
system temporarily; killing three and wounding 73. Several fires
started were promptly quenched. In addition, USS Minneapolis (CA-36)
and Indiana also received slight damage.
Not only did the Japanese lose heavily in planes; two of their
carriers were soon on their way to the bottom — Taiho,
torpedoed and sunk by USS Albacore (SS-218); and Shokaku, sunk by
USS Cavalla. Admiral Ozawa, his flagship, Taiho, sunk out from under
him, transferred his flag to Zuikaku.
As the Battle of the Philippine Sea proceeded to a close, the
Japanese Mobile Fleet steamed back to its bases, defeated.
Admiral Mitscher's task force meanwhile retired to cover the
invasion operations proceeding in the Marianas. Washington
fueled east of that chain of islands and then continued her
screening duties with TG 58.4 to the south and west of Saipan,
supporting the continuing air strikes on islands in the
Marianas, the strikes concentrated on Guam by that point.
On 25 July 1944, aircraft of TG 58.4 conducted air strikes on
the Palaus and on enemy shipping in the vicinity, continuing
their schedule of strikes through 6 August. On that day,
Washington, with USS Iowa (BB-61), USS Indiana, Alabama, the light
cruiser USS Birmingham (CL-62), and a destroyer screen, was detached
from the screen of TG 58.4, forming TG 58.7, under Vice Admiral
That group arrived at Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshalls to refuel
and replenish on 11 August and remained there for almost the
balance of the month. On 30 August, that group departed, headed
for, first, the Admiralty Islands, and ultimately, the Palaus.
Washington's heavy guns supported the taking of Peleliu and
Angaur in the Palaus and supported the carrier strikes on
Okinawa on 10 October, on northern Luzon and Formosa from 11 to
14 October, as well as the Visayan air strikes on 21 October.
From 5 November 1944 to 17 February 1945, Washington, as a vital
unit of the fast carrier striking forces, supported raids on
Okinawa, in the Ryukyus; Formosa; Luzon; Camranh Bay, French
Indochina; Saigon, French Indochina; Hong Kong; Canton; Hainan
Island; Nansei Shoto; and the heart of the enemy homeland —
From 19 to 22 February 1945, Washington's heavy rifles hurled
16-inch shells shoreward in support of the landings on Iwo Jima.
In preparation for the assault, Washington's main and secondary
batteries destroyed gun positions, troop concentrations, and
other ground installations. From 23 February to 16 March, the
fast battleship supported the unfolding invasion of Iwo Jima,
including a carrier raid upon Tokyo on 25 February. On 18, 19,
and 29 March 1945, Washington screened the Fleet's carriers as
they launched air strikes against Japanese airfields and other
installations on the island of Kyushu. On 24 March, and again on
19 April, Washington lent her support to the shelling of
Japanese positions on the island of Okinawa.
Anchoring at San Pedro Bay, Leyte, on 1 June 1945 after an
almost ceaseless slate of operations, Washington sailed for the
west coast of the United States on 6 June, making stops at Guam
and Pearl Harbor before reaching the Puget Sound Navy Yard on 23
As it turned out, Washington would not participate in active
combat in the Pacific theater again. Her final wartime refit
carried on through V-J Day in mid-August of 1945 and the formal
Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay on 2 September. She completed
her post-repair trials and conducted underway training out of
San Pedro, Calif., before she headed for the Panama Canal,
returning to the Atlantic Ocean. Joining TG 11.6 on 6 October,
with Vice Admiral Frederick C. Sherman in overall command, she
soon transited the Panama Canal and headed for Philadelphia, the
place where she had been "born." Arriving at the Philadelphia
Naval Shipyard on 17 October, she participated in Navy Day
ceremonies there on the 27th.
Assigned to troop transport duty on 2 November 1945, as part of
the "Magic Carpet" operations, Washington went into dockyard
hands on that day, emerging on the 15th with additional bunking
facilities below and a crew that now consisted of only 84
officers and 835 men. Sailing on 15 November for the British
Isles, Washington reached Southampton, England, on 22 November.
After embarking 185 army officers and 1,479 enlisted men,
Washington sailed for New York. She completed that voyage and,
after that brief stint as a transport, was placed out of
commission, in reserve, on 27 June 1947.
Assigned to the New York group of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet,
Washington remained inactive through the late 1950s, ultimately
being struck from the Navy list on 1 June 1960. The old warrior
was sold on 24 May 1961 to the Lipsett Division, Luria Bros., of
New York City, and was scrapped soon thereafter.
Washington (BB-56) earned 13 battle stars during World War II in
operations that had carried her from the Arctic Circle to the
Updated: 30 July 2009