by Brad Reynolds
Prior to American entrance into World War II, the USS Washington battleship’s initial assignment was escorting supply ships between England and Russia in support of the Lend Lease Act. One of two North Carolina-class battleships, she would gain her fame in battle after being transferred to the South Pacific in 1942. The Washington is responsible for turning the tide of naval warfare in the Pacific Theater while miraculously incurring no casualties or damage from enemy fire through the entire war. She holds the record for enemy tonnage sunk and remains, to this day, the only battleship to sink an enemy battleship in a one to one surface engagement, marking her one of America’s most famous navy ships of all time.
The Washington would play her first critical role in the Pacific Theater during the naval struggle surrounding the Battle of Guadalcanal. In the summer of 1942, U.S. Marines holding Henderson Field continually repelled Japanese forces, but the Imperial Japanese Navy would soon reinforce Guadalcanal with the 38th Infantry Division. The battleship Kirishima, four cruisers, and nine destroyers were called upon to support the Japanese transport ships and open a landing window for the 38th. United States Navy (USN) Task Force 64 comprised of the Washington, battleship South Dakota, and four destroyers was sent to intercept the Japanese fleet.
The Third Battle of Savo Island
Engaging the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) at what would become known as the Third Battle of Savo Island, the Washington was prepared to assert dominance in her new theater of operations. During the battle, the South Dakota and USN destroyers took the brunt of the damage, while the Washington maneuvered around the IJN formation, unloading on the Kirishima and landing forty-nine hits. The Kirishima was set ablaze, which also disabled her steering capability; she was scuttled the following day. The South Dakota would sail back to the states for repair while the Washington received no damage during the battle. Incidentally, the Third Battle of Savo Island would mark the last major Japanese naval offensive at Guadalcanal. The Washington’sinking of IJN battleship Kirishima provided a much-needed respite from bombardments for both the USN and Marines on Guadalcanal. With the USS Enterprise being the only carrier in the Pacific at the time, this victory also provided time for the USN to supply additional carriers to the region, which would prove essential for regaining naval superiority against the Japanese fleet.
After Savo Island
The Washington would go on to an escort career, transporting troops for the remainder of the war while also supporting American beach landings at the Battle of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The most damage Washington incurred during the war was from a collision with battleship Indiana, due to mis-managed maneuvers. Four crewmembers of the Indiana died, and the Washington was sent state-side to repair sixty feet of damage to her bow. Aside from this mishap, the only combat damage incurred during the war was the severance of her radio antenna by an errant Japanese 5-inch shell. Her final mission as a commissioned U.S. Naval Vessel was participation in Operation Magic Carpet, transporting troops home after the completion of their combat operations. She was placed out of commission in June 1947 and would be sold and scrapped in 1961, ending her short, but illustrious career. (Read more about the ships that set the course of the war in the Pacific inside WWII History magazine.)