Key Point: The world’s first guided-missile battleship could trace its origins, oddly enough, to a failed Congressional attempt to limit the size and cost of battleships.
In 1904, the United States laid down USS Mississippi (BB-23), second of her name and the first of a class of two pre-dreadnoughts intended to stem the growth in naval construction costs. Congress, embittered by the cost of the six Connecticut-class battleships, limited the Mississippi’s to 13,000 tons, three thousand tons smaller than their predecessors. This resulted in a lighter secondary armament, lower speed, and shorter range, characteristics which only enhanced their obsolescence when HMS Dreadnought entered service before they could be completed. The USN sought to discard these unusable ships as quickly as possible (they could not even operate with the pre-dreadnought squadrons that then constituted the Atlantic Fleet), and in 1914 succeeded in selling both to Greece. German dive bombers would sink both ships in the spring of 1941.
This freed up the name USS Mississippi (BB-41) for one of twelve “standard type” battleships, designed with a similar armor scheme, speed, and main armament in order to operate together. The new Mississippi displaced 32,000 tons, could make 21 knots, and carried twelve 14” guns in four triple turrets. She differed from her immediate predecessors, the Pennsylvania class, by having a clipper bow and a better arranged secondary armament. Because of the fortuitous sale of the preceding USS Mississippi, the United States government could afford to buy three ships of the class, rather than the standard two.
Commissioned in late 1917, Mississippi was not deployed to the United Kingdom because of oil shortages created by the German U-boat campaign. In any case, the Grand Fleet then held presumptive dominance over the High Seas Fleet, and the battleships remaining on the western side of the Atlantic made up a capable reserve. She spent most of the war training in the Caribbean. Mississippi and her sisters survived the Washington Naval Treaty, although in 1924 she suffered a dreadful gun mishap that killed forty-eight men, at the time the worst peacetime naval disaster in U.S. history.
Like most U.S. battleships, Mississippi was heavily modernized during the interwar period. Unlike the preceding classes, Mississippi and her sisters were rebuilt with a citadel superstructure somewhat similar to that of HMS Rodney. This arrangement was more useful (and aesthetically pleasing) than the tripod mast reconstructions adopted in earlier ships. War tensions in Europe prompted the USN to transfer Mississippi and her two sisters to the Atlantic in early 1941, and she was on convoy escort duty in Iceland during the Pearl Harbor attack. After the attack, Mississippi rejoined the Pacific Fleet, undergoing an overhaul that increased her anti-aircraft armament.
Mississippi’s war record was similar to that of other battleships of her vintage. She escorted convoys and helped constitute an active reserve for most of 1942. In 1943, as the U.S. island-hopping campaign ramped up, she began conducting shore bombardment of Japanese-held islands in the Aleutians, the Gilberts, and the Marshalls. In November, she suffered another gun explosion, this time losing forty-three men.
The most exciting part of her service came on the morning of October 24, 1944, when she, along with five other battleships, participated in the destruction of the Japanese battleship HIJMS Yamashiro. The battleship squadron had been assigned to fire support duty for the invasion of Leyte. A Japanese battle squadron attempted to run the Surigao Strait and reach the U.S. invasion fleet, but Admiral Jesse Oldendorf’s battleships stood in the way. Only Yamashiro survived the waves of attacks along the way, only to find the American squadron at the end of the strait. Mississippi, lacking the most modern radar, fired only one salvo at Yamashiro, less than a minute before Admiral Oldendorf issued a cease-fire order. Yamashiro quickly sank from torpedo and gun damage.
Hit by a kamikaze in January 1945, Mississippi participated in most of the actions at the close of the Pacific War. After the war she was converted into a gunnery training ship and given a new designation, AG-128. Mississippi was more fortunate than her sisters and half-sisters, who found themselves either at the bottom of Bikini Atoll, at the scrap yard, or in reserve. In late 1952, she was equipped with Terrier surface-to-air missiles for testing purposes.
The initial Terriers were not tremendously useful, with a range of only ten nautical miles, but they offered a good start on the revolution of USN anti-air defense. The USN worries that its existing air defense weapons were insufficient to combat jet aircraft, and that future attacks might involve Soviet bombers carrying long-range cruise missiles. Initially guided by radar beams, the Terrier would develop (long after Mississippi found her way to the scrapyard) into an effective long-range anti-aircraft missile. Mississippi also served as a target ship for the Petrel airborne torpedo, eventually suffering mild damage when one of the torpedoes struck a screw.
Mississippi conducted missile tests for four years before decommissioning in 1956. She was sold for scrap that November. The USN floated a variety of schemes in the postwar era to convert battleships into missile ships. Apart from Mississippi and the four Iowa ships (which eventually sported Tomahawk and Harpoon missiles), the plans came to naught. Several heavy cruisers underwent conversion to SAM missiles ships, intended to protect carrier battle groups from Soviet attack. The last of these ships left service in 1980.
Dr. Robert Farley, a frequent contributor to TNI, teaches at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. He is the author of the Battleship Book and can be found at @drfarls. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.
This article first appeared in August. It is being republished due to reader interest.
Image: U.S. Navy via Wikimedia Commons.