Tuesday, February 12, 2008

USS Alaska (CB-1)

Figure 1: USS Alaska (CB-1) photographed from USS Missouri (BB-63) off the U.S. east coast during their shakedown cruise together in August 1944. Note her Measure 32 camouflage. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: USS Alaska photographed in the summer or fall of 1944, probably in the Hampton Roads area, Virginia. Copied from an original print included in the Fifth Naval District's "War Diary of Open Intelligence Branch of District Intelligence Office". U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: USS Alaska photographed from the air on 13 November 1944. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: Norfolk Naval Base, Virginia. Warships at the Base piers, circa August 1944. Among them are: USS Missouri (BB-63), the largest ship; USS Alaska (CB-1), on the other side of the pier; USS Croatan (CVE-25), and destroyers of the Fletcher and "Four-Pipe, Flush-Deck" classes at the next pier. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

The USS Alaska (CB-1) was the first of the 27,500-ton Alaska-class “large cruisers” and was built by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation at Camden, New Jersey. The ship was launched in August 1943 and was commissioned on 17 June 1944. The Alaska was approximately 808 feet long and 91 feet wide, and had an excellent top speed of 31.4 knots and a crew of 2,251 officers and men. She was armed with nine 12-inch guns and twelve 5-inch guns, plus numerous smaller-caliber guns.

The Alaska-class warships (of which six were ordered in September 1940) were a new class of warship, originally designed to fulfill duties that were unsuitable for either a battleship or a heavy cruiser. They would have two primary missions normally carried out by heavy cruisers: protecting carrier groups against enemy cruisers and aircraft and operating independently against enemy surface forces. Their large size and guns were ideal for both of these missions and they were designed to stand up to the larger Japanese cruisers that were being developed during the early part of the war. However, once the Alaska was built, it resembled a large cruiser rather than a battleship or a battlecruiser. It didn’t have the multiple layers of compartments and special armor along the sides and below the waterline that protected battleships against torpedoes and underwater gunfire hits. But the Alaska, like other cruisers, did have aircraft hangers and a single large rudder. Although the single rudder made her difficult to maneuver, the side armor the Alaska did have covered more of the hull than was standard in other US cruisers.

After an extensive shakedown cruise in the Chesapeake Bay area and the Caribbean, the Alaska was sent to the Pacific and joined the US Pacific Fleet in January 1945. From February to July 1945, the Alaska provided anti-aircraft protection for the fast carrier battle groups as they attacked the Japanese home islands. The Alaska also took part in the assaults on Iwo Jima and Okinawa, providing anti-aircraft protection and bombarding shore targets with her 12-inch guns. In July and August 1945 the Alaska, along with her sister ship the USS Guam (CB-2) and four light cruisers, conducted anti-shipping raids in the East China Sea.

After the Japanese surrendered, the Alaska remained in the Pacific to support the occupation of Japan, China and Korea. She returned to the United States in December 1945 and on 17 February 1947 was placed out of commission and in reserve at Bayonne, New Jersey. Not needed in the post-war American fleet, the Alaska was never re-commissioned and was finally sold for scrapping in June 1960.

Only two of the proposed six Alaska-class large cruisers were completed (the Alaska and the Guam). The USS Hawaii (CB-3) was partially built but never completed and was eventually scrapped. The three other ships in the class were canceled, primarily to free up steel and other resources for more urgently needed escorts and landing craft. Although the Alaska did an excellent job in carrying out its primary missions of carrier protection and surface strike, she never did come into contact with any enemy warships. It’s a pity that the Alaska wasn’t built in time to take part in the deadly naval surface battles that took place off the coast of Guadalcanal. A ship with her heavy armor and large guns could have made a considerable contribution in that conflict.