The End of the Battleship Era Comes with a Naval Oops Moment!

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A Brief History

On April 19, 1989, one of those naval oops moments we keep writing about occurred, and this particular one had catastrophic consequences for the history of the battleship.  The Iowa class battleships (Iowa, Missouri, Wisconsin and New Jersey) produced by the US during World War II were the epitome of the type, combining the most effective combination of firepower, armor protection, speed and endurance of any of the ships of their kind.

Digging Deeper

The Iowa, lead ship of the greatest class of battleship ever produced, suffered an enormous explosion in the Number 2 turret when the gunpowder for the massive 16 inch guns blew up, killing 47 men.  Bad enough to have a disaster on a ship used as the face of the US Navy and getting those sailors killed, but it was made worse by the attempt of the Navy to blame the accident on a dead sailor by claiming he was a homosexual and intentionally set the blast.  The sailor was not a homosexual and did not set the explosion off.  The blast happened because of decades old powder bags that were deteriorating and leaking ether gas, creating an atmosphere ripe for disaster.  Only the quick action of a sailor who flooded a magazine kept the ship from blowing up and sinking.  This naval “oops moment” was not only tragic for the lives lost, but also in that it spurred the decision to put the mighty Iowa class ships back into mothballs.

Capable of 33 knots fully loaded, with a light load the Iowa class ships could squeeze out a couple extra knots.  Boasting a main armament of 9 X 16 inch 50 caliber main guns arrayed in 3 triple turrets (2 forward and 1 aft), the Iowa’s did not have the largest caliber battleship guns ever (the Japanese Musashi and Yamato had 18 inch main guns), but with the technology of the guns, aiming systems, and projectiles those 16 inch shells were probably even more effective than their Japanese counterparts.  With 4 screws (propellers), the Iowa class was maneuverable, an important trait when attacked by torpedo bombers, and had an unmatched range of nearly 15,000 miles un-refueled.  Protected from aerial attack by the best array of anti-aircraft weapons of any battleships ever, the Iowa class bristled with 20 rapid firing 5 inch guns firing proximity fused shells as the main secondary battery, augmented by an impressive array of 80 X 40mm anti-aircraft guns and 49 of the smaller 20mm guns for the closest work.

The rise of the aircraft carrier during World War II made it clear that the era of the battleship as the “capital ship” of each fleet was over.  No longer would the giant, heavily armed and heavily armored ships be built and not for long would they remain in service.  The Iowa class ships were retired in 1958, but the USS New Jersey was brought back into action in 1968 and 1969 for duty in the Vietnam war, providing impressive fire support for ground forces.

When Ronald Reagan became President in 1981, he was clearly in love with the idea of a large and mighty US Navy to pick up on the legacy of the Great White Fleet of Teddy Roosevelt’s day, making our Navy a highly visible symbol of American military might.  Thus, the Iowa class battleships were given a serious modern updating, removing 4 of the twin 5 inch turrets from each ship and replacing them with cruise missile launchers and state of the art anti-aircraft Gatling type guns and surface to air missiles.  The engines were converted from using black oil to using diesel fuel, and modern electronics were installed.  Placed into service in 1982, the evolution of modern anti-ship missiles and torpedoes meant the Iowa class ships were nearly invulnerable to any attack short of a nuclear attack.  No other battleships existed to rival these metal giants.

The political fallout of the Iowa disaster made the ships a political liability as citizens questioned the real usefulness of the big ships versus the enormous cost in running and manning such dinosaur like vessels.  The writing was on the wall, and the Iowa was once again put into mothballs in 1990, the last of the class following by 1992.  Never again would battleships sail the 7 seas and strike fear into all that beheld them.  Each of these historic ships is now pulling its final duty as a museum ship.

We strongly encourage all our readers with the ability to do so to visit at least one of the Iowa class museum ships, and behold the impressive splendor of an era forever in the past, incredible symbols of American naval might and the absolute pinnacle of the battleship genre of fighting ships.  We salute all the brave men and women that have served on American battleships!

Question for students (and subscribers): What ship class do you consider to be the “greatest?” Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Abbey, Lester. Iowa Class Battleships. Seaforth Publishing, 2012.

Doyle, David. Iowa Class Battleships On Deck. Squadron Signal, 2017.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by LT. Thomas Jarrell of Iowas Number Two turret being cooled with sea water shortly after exploding, is a work of a sailor or employee of the U.S. Navy, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, it is in the public domain in the United States.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.