World War II: USS South Dakota (BB-57)

USS South Dakota (BB-57), August 1943. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

In 1936, as the design of the North Carolina-class moved towards finalization, the US Navy's General Board met to discuss the two battleships that were to be funded in Fiscal Year 1938.  Though the group favored construction of two addition North Carolinas, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral William H. Standley insisted on a new design.  As a result, construction of these vessels was pushed to FY1939 as naval architects commenced work in March 1937.  While the first two ships were formally ordered on April 4, 1938, an additional pair of vessels was added two months later under the Deficiency Authorization which passed due to increasing international tensions.  Though the escalator clause of the Second London Naval Treaty had been invoked allowing the new design to mount 16" guns, Congress specified that the vessels stay within the 35,000-ton limit set by the earlier Washington Naval Treaty.

In conceiving the new South Dakota-class, naval architects developed a wide variety of designs for consideration.  A key challenge proved to be finding ways to improve upon the North Carolina-class but remain within the tonnage limit.  The result was the design of a shorter, by approximately 50 feet, battleship that employed an inclined armor system.  This allowed for better underwater protection than its predecessors.  As fleet commanders desired vessels capable of 27 knots, designers worked to find a way to accomplish this despite the shorter hull length.  This was found through the creative arrangement of machinery, boilers, and turbines.  For armament, the South Dakotas mirrored 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 evolving array of anti-aircraft guns. 

Assigned to New York Shipbuilding in Camden, NJ, USS South Dakota (BB-57) was laid down on July 5, 1939.  The lead ship's design varied slightly from the rest of the class as it was intended to fulfill the role of a fleet flagship.  This saw an extra deck added to the conning tower to provide additional command space.  To accommodate this, two of the ship's twin 5" gun mounts were removed.  Work on the battleship continued and it slid down the ways on June 7, 1941, with Vera Bushfield, wife of South Dakota Governor Harlan Bushfield serving as sponsor.  As construction moved toward completion, the US entered World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  Commissioned on March 20, 1942, South Dakota entered service with Captain Thomas L. Gatch in command. 

To the Pacific

Conducting shakedown operations in June and July, South Dakota received orders to sail for Tonga.  Passing through the Panama Canal, the battleship arrived on September 4.  Two days later, it struck coral in the Lahai Passage causing damage to the hull.  Steaming north to Pearl Harbor, South Dakota underwent the necessary repairs.  Sailing in October, the battleship joined Task Force 16 which included the carrier USS Enterprise (CV-6).  Rendezvousing with USS Hornet (CV-8) and Task Force 17, this combined force, led by Rear Admiral Thomas Kinkaid, engaged the Japanese at the Battle of Santa Cruz on October 25-27.  Attacked by enemy aircraft, the battleship screened the carriers and sustained a bomb hit on one of its forward turrets.  Returning to Nouméa after the battle, South Dakota collided with the destroyer USS Mahan while attempting to avoid a submarine contact.  Reaching port, it received repairs for the damage caused in the fighting and from the collision. 

Sortieing with TF16 on November 11, South Dakota detached two days later and joined USS Washington (BB-56) and four destroyers.  This force, led by Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee, was ordered north on November 14 after American forces suffered heavy losses in the opening phases of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.  Engaging Japanese forces that night, Washington and South Dakota sank the Japanese battleship Kirishima.  In the course of the battle, South Dakota suffered a brief power outage and sustained forty-two hits from enemy guns.  Withdrawing to Nouméa, the battleship made temporary repairs before departing for New York to receive an overhaul.  As the US Navy wished to limit the operational information provided to the public, many of South Dakota's early actions were reported as those of "Battleship X."


Arriving at New York on December 18, South Dakota entered the yard for approximately two months of work and repairs.  Rejoining active operations in February, it sailed in the North Atlantic in consort with USS Ranger (CV-4) until mid-April.  The following month, South Dakota joined Royal Navy forces at Scapa Flow where it served in a task force under Rear Admiral Olaf M. Hustvedt.  Sailing in conjunction with its sister, USS Alabama (BB-60), it acted as a deterrent against raids by the German battleship Tirpitz.  In August, both battleships received orders to transfer to the Pacific.  Touching at Norfolk, South Dakota reached Efate on September 14.  Two months later, it sailed with the carriers of Task Group 50.1 to provide cover and support for the landings on Tarawa and Makin.    

Island Hopping

On December 8, South Dakota, in company with four other battleships, bombarded Nauru before returning to Efate to replenish.  The following month, it sailed to support the invasion of Kwajalein.  After striking targets ashore, South Dakota withdrew to provide cover for the carriers.  It remained with Rear Admiral Marc Mitscher's carriers as they mounted a devastating raid against Truk on February 17-18.  The following weeks, saw South Dakota continue to screen the carriers as they attacked the Marianas, Palau, Yap, Woleai, and Ulithi.  Briefly pausing at Majuro in early April, this force returned to sea to assist Allied landings in New Guinea before mounting additional raids against Truk.  After spending much of May at Majuro engaged in repairs and upkeep, South Dakota steamed north in June to support the invasion of Saipan and Tinian.  

On June 13, South Dakota shelled the two islands and two days later aided in defeating a Japanese air attack.  Steaming with the carriers on June 19, the battleship took part in the Battle of the Philippine Sea.  Though a resounding victory for the Allies, South Dakota sustained bomb hit that killed 24 and wounded 27.  In the wake of this, the battleship received orders to make for Puget Sound Navy Yard for repairs and an overhaul.  This work occurred between July 10 and August 26.  Rejoining the Fast Carrier Task Force, South Dakota screened attacks on Okinawa an Formosa that October.  Later in the month, it provided cover as the carriers moved to aid General Douglas MacArthur's landings on Leyte in the Philippines.  In this role, it participated in the Battle of Leyte Gulf and served in Task Force 34 which was detached at one point to aid American forces off Samar.

Between Leyte Gulf and February 1945, South Dakota sailed with the carriers as they covered the landings on Mindoro and launched raids against Formosa, Luzon, French Indochina, Hong Kong, Hainan, and Okinawa.  Moving north, the carriers attacked Tokyo on February 17 before shifting to assist the invasion of Iwo Jima two days later.  After additional raids against Japan, South Dakota arrived off Okinawa where it supported the Allied landings on April 1.  Providing naval gunfire support for troops ashore, the battleship suffered an accident on May 6 when a tank of powder for the 16" guns exploded.  The incident killed 11 and injured 24.  Withdrawn to Guam and then Leyte, the battleship spent much of May and June away from the front.

Final Actions

Sailing on July 1, South Dakota covered American carriers as they struck Tokyo ten days later.  On July 14, it took part in the bombardment of the Kamaishi Steel Works which marked the first attack by surface ships on the Japanese mainland.  South Dakota remained off Japan for the remainder of the month and into August alternately protecting the carriers and conducting bombardment missions.  It was in Japanese waters when hostilities ceased on August 15.  Proceeding to Sagami Wan on August 27, it entered Tokyo Bay two days later.  After being present for the formal Japanese surrender aboard USS Missouri (BB-63) on September 2, South Dakota departed for the West Coast on the 20th.  

Arriving at San Francisco, South Dakota moved down the coast to San Pedro before receiving orders to steam to Philadelphia on January 3, 1946.  Reaching that port, it underwent an overhaul before being shifted to the Atlantic Reserve Fleet that June.  On January 31, 1947, South Dakota was formally decommissioned.  It remained in reserve until June 1, 1962, when it was removed from the Naval Vessel Registry prior to being sold for scrap that October.  For its service in World War II, South Dakota earned thirteen battle stars.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: USS South Dakota (BB-57)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Hickman, Kennedy. (2023, April 5). World War II: USS South Dakota (BB-57). Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: USS South Dakota (BB-57)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 8, 2023).