Megaprojects with Simon Whistler.
The story of the last battleship to see combat, ill-tempered USS Wisconsin
It was one of the largest warships ever built by the United States Navy- with enough firepower to level a city, a hand in three armed conflicts and over six decades of service life.
Despite being part of a dying breed, the USS Wisconsin (known as “Wisky”), was a legend that stood out from many battleships, particularly when it came to dealing with incoming fire.
Named after the state of Wisconsin, Wisky was initially planned before the war, but would not be ready to go until Dec. 7, 1943, the second anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
A floating tub of armor bristling with cannons, the Wisconsin was equipped with nine 16-inch (406 mm)/50 cal Mark 7 guns, which could fire 2,700 lb (1,200 kg) armor-piercing shells hurtling some 20 miles across the land or sea, often with stunning accuracy. In addition to the Mark 7s, the ship also sported 20 5-inch (127 mm)/38 cal guns in ten twin turrets, which could fire at targets up to 10 miles away.
Coming into a world where air power was quickly becoming the dominant factor in sea combat, the Wisconsin had a defensive array of 20 and 40mm guns to ward off enemy planes. Later on in her life, she would be outfitted with Phalanx CIWS mounts for protection against enemy missiles and aircraft, as well as Armored Box Launchers and Quad Cell Launchers designed to fire Tomahawk missiles and Harpoon missiles at various surface targets.
Setting sail in September of 1944, the Wisconsin set sail from the East to West Coasts via the Panama Canal, eventually catching up with Admiral William F. Halsey’s 3rd Fleet on December 9.
On December 18, the Wisconsin the rest of Task Force 38 were caught by Typhoon Cobra, which swept over seven fleet carriers, six light carriers, eight battleships, 15 cruisers, and about 50 destroyers, all while they were attempting to refuel at sea. After a particularly harrowing battle against Mother Nature.
The storm was so vicious that three US Destroyers -the USS Hull, USS Monaghan, and USS Spence- capsized beneath the pounding waves, killing almost everyone aboard. Planes were swept off carrier decks, fires broke out on ships, and 10 vessels were seriously damaged.
By the time Cobra passed, 790 men were lost and 80 were injured. Despite having two sailors injured, the Wisconsin managed to power through the typhoon unscathed.
As the rest of TF38 recovered, the Wisconsin hungered for combat but was often stuck protecting carriers. However, there was good reason for this.
No small vessel, the Wisconsin measured 887 feet and 3 inches in length and 108 feet, 3 inches at the beam. It had a displacement of 45,000 tons and could reach relatively quick speeds in excess of 33 knots. Faster than any battleship the Japanese had, the Wisconsin was smaller than ships of similar class in the Japanese Imperial Navy, but could easily outrun them.
Already two battle stars in by the time the Battle for Iwo Jima took place, the Wisconsin’s guns finally got to sing with a frequency she desired, and would sing even more when the assault for Okinawa began. By the end of World War II, she would earn five battle stars, travel 105,831 miles, shoot down three enemy planes, assist in four shoot-downs, refuel 150 destroyers and take part in every single Pacific naval operation from December of 1944 onwards.
From the end of World War II until its first decommission in 1948, the Wisconsin would be used to train Naval Reservists. Once mothballed, it seemed Wisky was doomed to retire in peace and quiet.
Then, of course, the Korean War took place- and it would be in Korea that the world would learn just how tough the Wisconsin was.
Reactivated and deployed to Korea in October of 1951, the Wisconsin would provide seemingly constant bombardment until 1952.
It was in March of that year that the Wisconsin would sustain its one and only direct hit, a 155-millimeter shell that would strike the shield of a starboard-side 40mm gun mount.
In response, Wisky avenged her three injured crewmen with a salvo from her main guns, obliterating the artillery piece and all around it.
Amused by the lopsided exchange, the USS Duncan is reported to have signaled a message to the Wisconsin: “Temper, Temper.”
Duking it out for a while longer, the Wisconsin was eventually withdrawn from Korea, earning a sixth battle star. In 1956, she would collide with the destroyer USS Eaton, resulting in major bow damage to both vessels.
A resourceful Lieutenant aboard the Eaton saved her by securing bow to stern with anchor chain, all while closing the watertight door beside his room.
The Wisconsin’s bow was heavily damaged and a necessary “graft” from the bow of the incomplete USS Kentucky was required, and took sixteen days to complete.
Going back into “mothball” status in 1958, the Wisconsin would sleep peacefully until the 1980s, when an electrical fire would ravage her and leave her in dire condition.
Despite the damage caused by the fire, the Wisconsin would recover and eventually be reactivated in 1986, as part President Ronald Reagan’s effort to create a “600-ship Navy.”
Modernized for a new age of combat, Wisky would participate during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, firing missiles and her big guns with such precision and fury that Iraqi troops surrendered to a drone launched by the ship, a first in the history of warfare.The battleship USS WISCONSIN (BB-64) fires a round from one of the Mark 7 16-inch/50-caliber guns in turret No. 2 during Operation Desert Storm. The ship is firing at Iraqi targets in Kuwait .
Just prior to a cease-fire, Wisky fired the last naval gunfire support mission of the Gulf War, making her the last battleship in world history to see combat.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, the Wisconsin was retired for good and converted into a museum.
Despite being relegated to the role of living history, Wisky remains in a sort of silent readiness in Norfolk, VA, ready to go should the Navy ever need her guns to sing once more.
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