World War II: USS Massachusetts (BB-59)

USS Massachusetts (BB-59), 1944
Photograph Courtesy of the US Navy

In 1936, as the design of the North Carolina-class was being finalized, the US Navy's General Board met to converse regarding the two battleships that were to be funded in Fiscal Year 1938. Though the Board preferred building two additional North Carolinas, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William H. Standley opted to pursue a new design. As a result, the construction of these battleships was delayed to FY1939 as naval architects commenced work in March 1937. While the first two ships were officially ordered on April 4, 1938, the second pair of vessels was added two months later under the Deficiency Authorization which passed due to rising international tensions. Though the escalator clause of the Second London Naval Treaty had been invoked allowing the new design to mount 16" guns, Congress required that the battleships stay within the 35,000-ton limit set by the earlier Washington Naval Treaty.

In designing the new South Dakota-class, naval architects created a wide array of plans for consideration. A principal challenge proved to be finding ways to improve upon the North Carolina-class while staying within the tonnage limit. The answer was the design of a shorter, by approximately 50 feet, battleship that incorporated an inclined armor system. This offered better underwater protection than earlier vessels. As naval leaders called for vessels capable of 27 knots, designers sought a way to obtain this despite the reduced hull length. This was achieved through the creative layout of machinery, boilers, and turbines. For armament, the South Dakotas equaled the North Carolinas in mounting nine Mark 6 16" guns in three triple turrets with a secondary battery of twenty dual-purpose 5" guns. These weapons were supplemented by an extensive and constantly changing complement of anti-aircraft guns. 

Assigned to Bethlehem Steel's Fore River Shipyard, the third ship of the class, USS Massachusetts (BB-59), was laid down on July 20, 1939. Construction on the battleship advanced and it entered the water on September 23, 1941, with Frances Adams, wife of former Secretary of the Navy Charles Francis Adams III, serving as sponsor. As work moved towards completion, the US entered World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Commissioned on May 12, 1942, Massachusetts joined the fleet with Captain Francis E.M. Whiting in command. 

Atlantic Operations

Conducting shakedown operations and training during the summer of 1942, Massachusetts departed American waters that fall to join Rear Admiral Henry K. Hewitt's forces which were gathering for the Operation Torch landings in North Africa. Arriving off the Moroccan coast, the battleship, heavy cruisers USS Tuscaloosa and USS Wichita, and four destroyers took part in the Naval Battle of Casablanca on November 8. In the course of the fighting, Massachusetts engaged Vichy French shore batteries as well as the incomplete battleship Jean Bart. Pounding targets with its 16" guns, the battleship disabled its French counterpart as well as struck enemy destroyers and a light cruiser. In return, it sustained two hits from shore fire but received only minor damage. Four days after the battle, Massachusetts departed for the US to prepare for redeployment to the Pacific.

To the Pacific

Transiting the Panama Canal, Massachusetts arrived at Nouméa, New Caledonia on March 4, 1943. Operating in the Solomon Islands through the summer, the battleship supported Allied operations ashore and protected convoy lanes from Japanese forces. In November, Massachusetts screened American carriers as they mounted raids in the Gilbert Islands in support of the landings on Tarawa and Makin. After attacking Nauru on December 8, it aided in the assault on Kwajalein the following month. After supporting the landings on February 1, Massachusetts joined what would become Rear Admiral Marc A. Mitscher's Fast Carrier Task Force for raids against the Japanese base at Truk. On February 21-22, the battleship helped defend the carriers from Japanese aircraft as the carriers attacked targets in the Marianas.

Shifting south in April, Massachusetts covered the Allied landings at Hollandia, New Guinea before screening another strike against Truk. After shelling Ponape on May 1, the battleship departed the South Pacific for an overhaul at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. This work was completed later that summer and Massachusetts rejoined the fleet in August. Departing the Marshall Islands in early October, it screened American carriers during raids against Okinawa and Formosa before moving to cover General Douglas MacArthur's landings on Leyte in the Philippines. Continuing to protect Mitscher's carriers during the resulting Battle of Leyte Gulf, Massachusetts also served in Task Force 34 which was detached at one point to aid American forces off Samar.

Final Campaigns

Following a brief respite at Ulithi, Massachusetts and the carriers returned to action on December 14 when raids were mounted against Manila. Four days later, the battleship and its consorts were forced to weather Typhoon Cobra. The storm saw Massachusetts lose two of its floatplanes as well as one sailor injured. Beginning on December 30, attacks were made on Formosa before the carriers shifted their attention to supporting Allied landings in Lingayen Gulf on Luzon. As January progressed, Massachusetts protected the carriers as they struck French Indochina, Hong Kong, Formosa, and Okinawa. Beginning on February 10, it shifted north to cover raids against mainland Japan and in support of the invasion of Iwo Jima.     

In late March, Massachusetts arrived off Okinawa and commenced bombarding targets in preparation for landings on April 1. Remaining in the area through April, it covered the carriers while fighting off intense Japanese air attacks. After a short period away, ​Massachusetts returned to Okinawa in June and survived a second typhoon. Raiding north with the carriers a month later, the battleship conducted several shore bombardments of the Japanese mainland beginning on July 14 with attacks against Kamaishi. Continuing these operations, Massachusetts was in Japanese waters when hostilities ended on August 15. Ordered to Puget Sound for an overhaul, the battleship departed on September 1.

Later Career 

Leaving the yard on January 28, 1946, Massachusetts briefly operated along the West Coast until receiving orders for Hampton Roads. Passing through the Panama Canal, the battleship arrived in the Chesapeake Bay on April 22. Decommissioned on March 27, 1947, Massachusetts moved into the Atlantic Reserve Fleet. It remained in this status until June 8, 1965, when it was transferred to the Massachusetts Memorial Committee for use as a museum ship. Taken to Fall River, MA, Massachusetts continues to be operated as a museum and memorial to the state's World War II veterans.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: USS Massachusetts (BB-59)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). World War II: USS Massachusetts (BB-59). Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: USS Massachusetts (BB-59)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 7, 2023).