The United States would lose only three battleships during World War II, all at Pearl Harbor: Arizona, Oklahoma, and the disarmed Utah. If Maine is categorized as a battleship, then the U. S. Navy lost only four battleships in its history. In any event, no U. S. battleship was ever sunk while under weigh.
Pennsylvania and the sister ship Arizona were both laid down in 1915 and mounted 12 14-inch main guns and reached 21 knots. Pennsylvania (the one battleship only lightly damaged at Pearl Harbor) was used for convoy and shore-fire support and fought at Surigao Straight. By the end of the war, it was worn out and served as a target at Bikini, like Nevada and New York, and had to be dispatched by aerial torpedoes in February 1948. Arizona was sunk at Pearl Harbor, the greatest single-ship loss in U. S. Naval history (1,117 killed). The wreck today is a shrine at Pearl Harbor, and Arizona is still carried on the official roll of U. S. Navy warships.
In an odd constellation of irony, the official program for the November 1941 Army-Navy football game featured on its cover the ill-fated battleship Arizona. The caption proclaimed (in a close regard for truth), “Despite the claims of air enthusiasts no battleship has yet been sunk by bombs.”15 Less than two weeks later, Arizona would go to the bottom of Pearl Harbor, along with most of its crew, victim of a Japanese bomb.
Japanese torpedo-bombers, level bombers, and fighters from an undetected six-carrier task force had sunk six U. S. battleships. Arizona, almost torn in half, was the greatest single loss of life ever on any U. S. warship (1,103 fatalities). And 415 were killed when Oklahoma capsized. West Virginia, Nevada, and Tennessee were also lost, although with lighter casualties. Only Pennsylvania, in dry dock, escaped significant damage, although 19 died even there. (For the Japanese aviators, a battleship was a battleship, and that included the disarmed target battleship Utah.)
Only the Russians at Tsushima had lost more battleships in a single action. Several cruisers and destroyers were also sunk or exploded. Almost 3,000 perished, mostly military personnel. Yet all of the battleships were sunk in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor, and all of those but Arizona were raised in an epic engineering feat of salvage, and all of those but Oklahoma were modernized and sent into action against the Japanese. Further, the oil-tank farms and the machine shops had been spared much damage. The sunken warships thus could be raised, given temporary repairs, refuel, and transit the Pacific to West Coast shipyards.
Yet incredibly, for a moment after Pearl Harbor, U. S. naval planners actually husbanded the surviving battleships for a projected advance across the Pacific against the Japanese, in accordance with Plan Orange, one of the prewar plans that outlined potential responses to conflict. Such a traditional operation, with the lumbering battleship as the backbone, would undoubtedly have met disaster. In all likelihood, most of the surviving U. S. battleships would have been sunk by the Japanese irretrievably in deep waters.
The Aleutian Islands campaign could be considered a sideshow; the U. S. determination to retake these territorial islands may have been more a matter of national honor than a strategic ploy. Still, no less than six elderly U. S. Navy battleships (New Mexico, Mississippi, Idaho, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and Tennessee-the latter three rehabilitated survivors of Pearl Harbor) were deployed to the frigid Bering Sea between May and August 1943 to blast the Japanese invaders. None received any damage in return.
World War II’s only battleship fleet action took place on the night of 25 October 1944 at Surigao Straight, near Leyte, the Philippines, matching vintage U. S. battleships California, Mississippi, Maryland, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania (all but Mississippi were Pearl Harbor survivors), one Australian and seven U. S. cruisers, and a destroyer flotilla against Japanese battleships Fuso and Yamashiro (sister ships of roughly the same era as that of the U. S. battleships opposing them). The U. S. commander, Admiral Jesse Oldendorf, had before him the tactical setup dreamed of by generations of incipient naval commanders: He was crossing the enemy’s T. Since the Age of Fighting Sail, this maneuver had been accomplished only four times, by Togo at Tsushima, by Jellicoe (twice) at Jutland, and by Gunther Lütjens, Bismarck’s commander. It must be some indication of the artificiality of the concept (studied almost to death) that only four commanders were ever able to do it.
Admiral Oldendorf certainly made the most of his historic opportunity. Fuso was quickly sunk by destroyer torpedoes before the U. S. big guns even opened fire, and Yamashiro, battered by heavy, accurate gunfire at 26,000 yards as well as destroyer torpedoes, sank in little more than 10 minutes, the last battleship to be sunk in battle against other battleships. Only one U. S. destroyer had been hit, and that mostly by its own side. The one-sided Battle of Surigao Strait is considered almost a footnote to the main action of the Battle of Leyte, the greatest naval clash in history. When the elderly battleship Mississippi shut down its guns at just after 4:08 A. M. on 25 October 1944, it had fired the last round in the last battleship-versus-battleship clash in history.