World War II: USS Washington (BB-56)

USS Washington (BB-56) at New York City in August 1942. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History Command

USS Washington (BB-56) - Overview:

  • Nation: United States
  • Type: Battleship
  • Shipyard: Philadelphia Naval Shipyard
  • Laid Down: June 14, 1938
  • Launched: June 1, 1940
  • Commissioned: May 15, 1941
  • Fate: Sold for scrap, 1961

USS Washington (BB-56) - Specifications:

  • Displacement: 34,000 tons
  • Length: 729 ft.
  • Beam: 108 ft.
  • Draft: 38 ft.
  • Propulsion: 121,000 hp, 4 x General Electric steam turbines, 4 x propellers
  • Speed: 26 knots
  • Range: 20,080 miles at 15 knots
  • Complement: 1,880 men



  • 9 × 16 in. Mark 6 guns (3 x triple turrets)
  • 20 × 5 in dual-purpose guns


  • 3 x aircraft

USS Washington (BB-56) - Design & Construction:

Following the ratification of the Washington Naval Treaty (1922) and London Navy Treaty (1930), the US Navy did not construct any new battleships for the most the 1920s and 1930s. In 1935, the General Board of the US Navy began planning for the design of a new class of modern battleships. Working within the constraints imposed by the Second London Naval Treaty (1936), which restricted total displacement to 35,000 tons and the caliber of guns to 14", designers progressed through a multitude of designs to create a new class that blended an effective mix of firepower, speed, and armor. After lengthy debates, the General Board recommended design XVI-C which called for a battleship capable of 30 knots and carrying nine 14" guns.

This determination was overruled by Secretary of the Navy Claude A. Swanson who favored the XVI design which mounted twelve 14" guns but had a top speed of 27 knots.

The final design of what became the North Carolina-class emerged in 1937 after Japan's unwillingness to agree to the 14" restriction imposed the treaty.

This permitted the other signatories to activate the treaty's "escalator clause" which allowed an increase to 16" guns and a maximum displacement of 45,000 tons. As a result, USS North Carolina (BB-55) and its sister, USS Washington (BB-56), were redesigned with a main battery of nine 16" guns. Supporting this battery were twenty 5" dual purpose guns as well as an initial installation of sixteen 1.1" anti-aircraft guns. In addition, the ships carried the new RCA CXAM-1 radar. Assigned to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, construction of Washington began on June 14, 1938. Work moved forward on the hull and the battleship slid down the ways on June 1, 1940, with Virginia Marshall, a descendant of Chief Justice John Marshall, serving as sponsor.  Due to concerns about safety and preventing intelligence being gathered about the new battleship, the Delaware River was closed for two miles during the launch.  Completed, Washington entered commission on May 15, 1941, with Captain Howard H.J. Benson in command.

USS Washington (BB-56) - Early Career:

Though commissioned, Washington's engines had not been fully tested.  When run up to full power, it was found that the propeller shafts caused acute longitudinal vibrations.

 These proved severe and experiments proceeded with varying types of propellers.  Finally settling on two four-bladed propellers on the outboard shafts and two five-bladed propellers inboard, the battleship conducted trials and tests for the remainder of 1941.  During this time it became flagship for Rear Admiral John Wilcox, Jr. who oversaw the Atlantic Fleet's battleships.  After the US entry into World War II following the attack on Pearl HarborWashington joined Task Force 39 in March 1942.  Ordered to reinforce the British Home Fleet, this unit departed that month.  While en route to Scapa Flow, Wilcox died when he fell overboard on March 27.  

Operating in European waters, Washington served as a deterrent against the German battleship Tirpitz and aided the British in protecting convoys on the Iceland-Murmansk run.

 Remaining on this duty into June, the battleship underwent inspection by King George VI before returning to the United States the following month.  Arriving at New York, Washington commenced an overhaul in preparation for transfer to the Pacific.  Departing August 23, the battleship transited the Panama Canal and made for Tonga where it became flagship for Rear Admiral Willis A. Lee and was attached to Task Force 17 which was centered on the carrier USS Hornet (CV-8).  

USS Washington (BB-56) - Fighting in the Pacific:

Operating from Nouméa and Espiritu Santo, Washington provided protection for convoys supporting Allied forces engaged in the Battle of Guadalcanal.  Following the loss of Hornet at the Battle of Santa Cruz in October, the battleship continued to maneuver in the area in company with USS South Dakota (BB-57).  Ordered north on November 14 after American forces suffered significant losses in the opening phases of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, Washington and South Dakota intercepted enemy forces that night and sunk the Japanese battleship Kirishima.  In the months following the battle, Washington sailed as cover for carrier task forces centered on USS Saratoga (CV-3) and USS Enterprise (CV-6).  Departing on April 30, the battleship steamed to Pearl Harbor for an overhaul.

Following training in Hawaiian waters, Washington returned to the South Pacific in late July and resumed operating with carrier groups in the area.  These activities continued until November when Lee's battleships joined with USS Yorktown (CV-10) for raids on the Marshall and Gilbert Islands.

  Transferring to Rear Admiral Frederick Sherman's Task Group 50.4, Washington provided cover for USS Bunker Hill (CV-17) and USS Monterey (CVL-26) as they supported Allied forces following the invasion of Makin Island.  On December 8, Washington, now part of Task Group 50.8 took part in a combined air and surface bombardment of enemy positions on Nauru before returning to base at Efate.  

USS Washington (BB-56) - Covering the Carriers:

Joining what would become Vice Admiral Marc Mitscher's Fast Carrier Task Force in January 1944, Washington protected the carriers as they raided into the Marshall Islands before taking part in a bombardment of Kwajalein the day before the Allied invasion.  While American troops were fighting ashore, Washington collided with USS Indiana (BB-58) on the night of February 1 when the latter cut across the former's path in the darkness.  The accident killed six of Washington's crew and destroyed around sixty feet of the battleship's bow.  Retiring to Majuro, the battleship then made for Pearl Harbor where it received temporary repairs.  This done, Washington proceeded to Puget Sound Navy Yard where a new bow was constructed.

Returning to the war zone in late May, Washington re-embarked Lee, now a vice admiral, at Majuro and rejoined Mitscher's carriers.  Covering this force as it mounted raids against the Marianas, Lee's battleships were then detached and conducted a bombardment of Saipan and Tinian on June 13.  Returning to the carriers, Washington and its consorts provided cover as the carriers struck targets in the Volcano and Bonin Islands.

  On June 19-20, Lee's battleships mounted a stiff anti-aircraft defense during the Battle of the Philippine Sea.  In the wake of the engagement, Washington remained with Mitscher's carriers as they continued strikes in the Marianas and then in the Palau Islands the following month.  On August 6, Lee detached from Mitscher and took a force of four battleships, including Washington, to replenish before aiding in the invasion of Peleliu in September. 

USS Washington (BB-56) - Final Campaigns:

In the fall of 1944, Washington rejoined the Fast Carrier Task Force and provided cover as the carriers moved to support General Douglas MacArthur's landings on Leyte in the Philippines.  In this role it took part 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 November 1944 and February 1945, Washington operated with the carriers as they mounted attacks against Okinawa, Formosa, Luzon, French Indochina, Hainan, and Japan.  Arriving off Iwo Jima, the battleship shelled the island on February 19 in support of the landings.  It remained offshore providing naval gunfire until March 16 except for a brief run north to cover a carrier raid against Tokyo on February 25.  Departing, Washington screened American carriers as they conducted a series of raids against the Japanese home islands.  Reaching Okinawa on March 24, it began striking targets in advance of the American invasion on April 1.  

After supporting efforts ashore on Okinawa, Washington arrived at Leyte on June 1.  Receiving orders for an overhaul at Puget Sound, it departed the Philippines five days later.  Entering the yard on June 28, Washington was still there when hostilities ended in August.  Rejoining the fleet, it conducted training off San Pedro, CA before transiting the Panama Canal and making for Philadelphia.  Arriving on October 17, it took part in Navy Day festivities ten days later.  Ordered to take part in Operation Magic Carpet in November, it commenced voyages to Europe to return American servicemen home.  Decommissioned on June 27, 1947, Washington shifted into reserve status.  It remained in the Atlantic Reserve Fleet until being struck from the Naval Vessel Registry on June 1, 1960.  The following year, on May 24, 1961, Washington was sold for scrap.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: USS Washington (BB-56)." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2016, Hickman, Kennedy. (2016, August 29). World War II: USS Washington (BB-56). Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: USS Washington (BB-56)." ThoughtCo. (accessed December 13, 2017).