That Time the Navy Sent 4 of Its Most Destructive Battleships to Crush North Korea
After a refit beginning in March 1951, USS Missouri resumed bombardment and escort duties from October 1952 until March 1953. New Jersey carried out her first shore bombardment in May 1951, and remained in the area until November. She returned for a second tour in April 1953, and remained through the duration of the conflict. USS Wisconsin operated off Korea from November 1951 until April 1952, and USS Iowa contributed short bombardment between April and October 1952.
The Iowas certainly delivered a great deal of ordnance to target on the Korean Peninsula over the course of the war. However, the overall impact of their presence is difficult to assess. Communist forces quickly learned to move critical facilities and troop concentration outside of the range of the battleships’ guns, although the transport network was hard to shift inland. Heavy U.S. bombing of target across Korea contributed to the general destruction, making it hard to parse out how much the battleships themselves mattered. The smaller, cheaper heavy cruisers could often deliver similar levels of destruction to enemy targets. Still, the very presence of the battleships may have had some degree of psychological effect on Communist and UN forces alike.
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.
The Iowas nevertheless survived, and were finally reactivated (and modernized) in the 1980s. The legacy of the Iowas’ performance off Korea lived on in North Korean and Chinese naval doctrine and procurement. Both Pyongyang and Beijing became aware of their dreadful vulnerability to naval attack, and developed coastal defense capabilities intended to dissuade any foe from approaching their waters. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy has grown past that stage, but the navy of the DPRK continues to concentrate on defensive operations in the littoral.
The Iowas will not, of course, participate in any future conflict on the Korean Peninsula. However, in the event of conflict USN surface ships will undoubtedly contribute significantly to the conflict by means of land attack cruise missiles. Moreover, the navy may yet provide USS Zumwalt and her sisters with the means to provide gunfire support against land targets. In such a case, North Korean coastal installations would become very vulnerable, indeed.
Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to the National Interest, is author of The Battleship Book. He serves as a senior lecturer at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky.
This first appeared in August.