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The Navy Sent 4 of Its Most Lethal Battleships To Strike North Korea

By 1958, all four Iowas had returned to the reserve fleet. Although they performed their shore bombardment role effectively, but not really any more effectively than the smaller, cheaper heavy cruisers. The manning requirements were significant, however, making them very expensive ships to operate for extended periods of time. The navy would only reactivate one of the four (USS New Jersey) for the Vietnam War, and only in partial service. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the United States disposed of the remaining thirteen battleships in its inventory.

In the final months of the Second World War, the battleships of the U.S. Navy (USN) ranged across the archipelago of Japan, bombarding industrial, military and logistical targets at will. The Japanese military lacked enough ships, planes and fuel to defend the nation, leaving coastal areas at the mercy of the steel behemoths. Although most of the credit (such that it is) for the destruction of urban Japan belongs to the bombers of the U.S. Army Air Force, the battleships and cruisers of the navy contributed their share.

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At the end of the war, most of the USN’s battleships were scrapped, sunk as targets or placed into reserve. When the United States went to war again, earlier than anyone had expected, three battleships of the Iowa class returned to service, joining their sister USS Missouri off the coast of Korea. For three years, these ships would rain terror down upon North Korean and Chinese forces.

Response and Reactivation: 

The ferocity and efficiency of the North Korean offensive of June 1950 into South Korea took everyone, including the U.S. Navy, by surprise. Nevertheless, local forces quickly responded, including the Oregon City-class heavy cruiser USS Rochester, which used its eight-inch guns to soften beaches at Inchon and elsewhere. USS Missouri, the only U.S. battleship to have remained operational since World War II, arrived in Korean waters on September 19, 1950. In a few weeks she would conduct extensive shore bombardments along the coast of North Korea. Missouri continued to provide fire support after the tide of war turned in November; in December, she conducted bombardments to ensure the survival of U.S. troops retreating from the People’s Liberation Army’s surprise offensive.

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Notably, the U.S. Navy decided not to transfer the three heavy cruisers of the Des Moines class, which mostly remained in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. These cruisers, carrying auto-loading eight-inch guns, could lay waste to a coastal area nearly as effectively as a battleship. However, they were regarded as too important to the mission of deterring the Soviet Union to risk transfer to the Pacific.

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Instead, the U.S. government decided to reactivate the three other Iowa class battleships. IowaNew Jersey and Wisconsin had all entered the reserve fleet before the beginning of the Korean War. All three remained in excellent condition, and required minimal modification in order to return to service. The most significant change came with the replacement of World War II-era floatplanes by helicopters. The navy recommissioned New Jersey in November 1950, Wisconsin in March 1951 and Iowa in August 1951. Several heavy cruisers also conducted tours off of Korea, but the navy declined to reactivate any of the thirteen other battleships in the reserve fleet.


Each of the four battleships acted as a flagship at one time or another, contributing facilities necessary to the coordination of broader naval warfare efforts. More to the point, however, the battleships used both their sixteen-inch main armament and their five-inch secondary armament to pound Chinese and North Korean positions along the coast. These positions included cave systems, concealed artillery and command posts. As with the end of the Second World War, the battleships also hit strategic and operational targets, including railways, industrial parks and transport centers. These attacks, which could range up to twenty miles inland, periodically disrupted but did not stop Communist efforts to resupply their armies in the field.

Extensive mining reduced the freedom-of-action of U.S. naval forces, to the extent that the battleships only rarely operated against North Korean and Chinese positions along the Yellow Sea. Although Communist aircraft did conduct attacks against major U.S. ships early in the war, UN air and naval superiority made such sorties difficult as the war proceeded. Other than mines, the main danger to the battleships came through coastal artillery, which they regularly sparred against. However, the effectiveness of the USN in bombarding all along the peninsula showed both countries how vulnerable they were to naval attack.