How the U.S. Navy Sent 4 Battleships to Fight North Korea

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Crucial point: Washington was still used for battleships in the Korean War. In fact, despite air power, it would take several decades for battleships to be completely banished to museums.
In the final months of World War II, US Navy (USN) battleships spread across the Japanese archipelago, bombarding industrial, military, and logistical targets at their convenience. The Japanese military lacked enough ships, planes, and fuel to defend the nation, and the coastal areas were exposed to the steel giants. Although most of the credit (as it is) for the destruction of urban Japan belongs to the US Air Force bombers, the Navy battleships and cruisers have contributed their share.
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At the end of the war, most USN battleships were scrapped, sunk as targets, or placed in reserve. When the United States went back to war earlier than expected, three Iowa-class battleships returned to service and joined their sister USS Missouri off the Korean coast. For three years, these ships rained terror on the North Korean and Chinese armed forces.
Reaction and reactivation:
The ferocity and efficiency of the North Korean June 1950 offensive in South Korea surprised everyone, including the U.S. Navy. Nevertheless, local forces responded quickly, including the Oregon City-class heavy cruiser USS Rochester, which softened the beaches in Inchon and elsewhere with its 8-inch cannons. The USS Missouri, the only US battleship that had been operational since World War II, arrived in Korean waters on September 19, 1950. In a few weeks, it would carry out extensive coastal bombardments along the North Korean coast. Missouri continued to provide fire support after the turn of the war in November. In December, it carried out bombings to ensure the survival of US troops who withdrew from the People's Liberation Army's surprise offensive.
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In particular, the U.S. Navy decided not to transfer the three Des Moines-class heavy cruisers, most of which remained in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. These cruisers, carrying auto-loading 8-inch cannons, could devastate a coastal area almost as effectively as a battleship. However, they were considered too important for the mission to prevent the Soviet Union from risking a transfer to the Pacific.
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Instead, the U.S. government decided to reactivate the other three Iowa-class battleships. Iowa, New Jersey and Wisconsin had all joined the reserve fleet before the Korean War began. All three remained in excellent condition and had to be modified only minimally in order to be operational again. The most significant change was the replacement of World War II seaplanes by helicopters. The Navy returned to service in New Jersey in November 1950, Wisconsin in March 1951 and Iowa in August 1951. Several heavy cruisers also toured Korea, but the Navy refused to reactivate any of the reserve fleet's thirteen other battleships.
Each of the four battleships acted as a flagship at one time or another, contributing to the facilities needed to coordinate more extensive naval efforts. More specifically, the battleships used both their 16-inch main armament and their 5-inch secondary armament to destroy Chinese and North Korean positions along the coast. These positions included cave systems, hidden artillery and command posts. As at the end of World War II, the battleships also hit strategic and operational goals, including railroads, industrial parks, and transportation centers. These attacks, which could reach up to 30 kilometers inland, were regularly interrupted, but did not stop the communist efforts to restore their armies on the ground.
Extensive mining operations restricted the U.S. Navy’s freedom of action in that the battleships were rarely used against North Korean and Chinese positions along the Yellow Sea. Although communist planes launched attacks on large U.S. ships at the beginning of the war, the United Nations' air and naval superiority made such operations difficult during the war. Except for mines, the main threat to the battleships was in the coastal artillery that they regularly fought against. However, the effectiveness of the USN in bombing the entire peninsula showed how vulnerable both countries were to naval attacks.
After conversion from March 1951, the USS Missouri resumed its bombing and accompanying duties from October 1952 to March 1953. New Jersey carried out its first coastal bombing in May 1951 and remained in the region until November. She returned in April 1953 for a second tour and stayed for the duration of the conflict. The USS Wisconsin operated off Korea from November 1951 to April 1952, and the USS Iowa contributed to a brief bombardment between April and October 1952.
The Iowas certainly fired a lot of weapons at the Korean Peninsula during the war. However, the overall impact of their presence is difficult to assess. The communist forces quickly learned to move critical facilities and troop concentrations outside the range of the battleships' cannons, although it was difficult to move the transport network inland. Heavy U.S. bombing of targets across Korea contributed to the general destruction, making it difficult to figure out how important the battleships themselves were. The smaller, cheaper, heavy cruisers were often able to inflict similar degrees of destruction on enemy targets. Still, the presence of the battleships could have had some psychological impact on the communist and UN forces.
By 1958, all four Iowas had returned to the reserve fleet. They performed their role as land bombers effectively, but not really as effectively as the smaller, cheaper heavy cruisers. However, the requirements for the crew were considerable, which made the operation very expensive ships over long periods. The Navy would reactivate only one of the four (USS New Jersey) for the Vietnam War and only on part of the service. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United States disposed of the remaining thirteen battleships in their inventory.
The Iowas nevertheless survived and were eventually reactivated (and modernized) in the 1980s. The legacy of the Iowas' performance before Korea continued in the North Korean and Chinese naval doctrine and procurement. Both Pyongyang and Beijing became aware of their terrible vulnerability to sea attacks and developed coastal defense capabilities that were designed to prevent any enemy from approaching their waters. China's People's Liberation Army has grown beyond this stage, but the DPRK's navy continues to focus on coastal defensive operations.
The Iowas will of course not take part in future conflicts on the Korean peninsula. In the event of a conflict, however, USN surface ships will undoubtedly contribute significantly to the conflict through land attack cruise missiles. The Navy may also provide the USS Zumwalt and her sisters with the means to fire shots at land targets. In such a case, North Korean coastal facilities would actually be very vulnerable.
Robert Farley, who frequently contributes to National Interest, is the author of the Battleship Book. He is a lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky.
This first appeared in 2017.
Image: Reuters
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