Alabama at Sea
By William Sariego
May 2017

Nostalgia can be a powerful thing, sometimes taking on a life of its own and building a legacy in your memory greater than the reality you are remembering. An early memory for me, with a lasting and undeniable affect, is of Battleship Parkway, straddling Mobile Bay between Baldwin and Mobile counties, where I spent the majority of the first 15 years of my life. Visiting the U.S.S. Alabama was something I often and enthusiastically did as both a young boy and a young man. My interest never waned, though certain aspects of my visits, such as the pinup of Betty Grable in one of the crews’ quarters, became more fascinating after a time.

Second World War at Sea: Arctic Convoy, which features that wonderful relic of my youth, is a perfect excuse to practice my historical writing.

The Forerunners

BB60 is actually the fifth ship in our nation’s history to bear the name of my native state. The first Alabama was a small, sidewheel steamer (displacing 127 tons) and was built for riverine service for the War Department at Brownsville, Pennsylvania. Launched in March of 1849, her service career was short, only seven months, before she was discovered to be unfit for service. She was sold to a private citizen in New Orleans in October of that same year.

The second Alabama.

The second Alabama was a larger sidewheel streamer (1,261 tons) that was built as a merchant ship at New York in 1851. She was purchased by the United States Navy in 1861 and refitted with eight 32-pounders and attached to the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron for the first two years of the War Between the States, and did yeoman’s service capturing four blockade runners. After the crew was stricken with Yellow Fever off the coast of Florida in the summer of ’63 she was temporarily pulled out of service. She spent the last year of the war in the Atlantic Blockading Squadron and participated in the bombardment of Fort Fisher — the largest amphibious operation in U.S. history until WWII. She would be decommissioned in July 1865.

During the same conflict, the Confederate States of America had her own Alabama, commanded by Raphael Semmes (whose statue overlooking Mobile harbor was another minor Mecca for me as a kid). Built in England, she displaced 1,050 tons and carried six 32-pounders, one 68-pounder, and a 110-pound gun. The CSS Alabama’s 21-month career would see the commerce raider take 60 prizes worth over $6,000,000 and defeat the U.S.S. Hatteras in combat. Her career came to an end off Cherbourg, France on June 19th 1864, being sunk in a memorable duel with the more powerful U.S.S. Kearsarge.

The next U.S.S. Alabama was a genuine battleship, BB8 to be exact. Built in Philadelphia and launched in May 1898, she had the following dimensions: 374 feet overall with a beam of 72 feet and a displacement of 11,565 tons. Manpower was 40 officers and 496 men. Her armament consisted of four 13-inch guns, fourteen 6-inch guns, sixteen 6-pounders, six 1-pounders, four .30 machine guns and four 18-inch torpedo tubes. Her armor plate had a maximum thickness of 16.5 inches, which actually compared well with her later counterparts (though of course not made to the same metallurgical standards), and she could make 16 knots.

The old battleship Alabama.

Initially, she operated off the Eastern seaboard and in the Caribbean. In 1904 she went on overseas duty to Europe, and was visited by the King and Queen of Greece. In 1907 she would join the “Great White Fleet” in its world tour. BB8 was placed in reserve in 1908. She would be in and out of service over the next decade for purposes of training and would serve as a gunnery training ship during WWI while stationed at Norfolk.

BB8 was finally decommissioned for good in 1920, and would be sunk for target practice off Tangier Island in experimental bombing practice on September 27th, 1921.

Our Hero

The Congressional Act of 17 May 1938 would authorize the building of what would become known as the South Dakota class (South Dakota, Indiana, Massachusetts, Alabama). Built at Norfolk, BB60’s keel was laid on 1 February 1940. She would be launched on 16 February 1942 and commissioned on 16 August 1942. When authorized, the United States was still bound by the Washington Naval Treaty and the class had an authorized displacement of 35,000 tons.

Her main armament was nine 16-inch guns and 20 five-inch guns. Her anti-aircraft armament would be continually strengthened during the war, beginning with 24 40mm quad mounts and 12 single 20mm guns; before being increased to 48 and 56 respectively, in February 1945. Belt armor was 12.2 inches but tapered and inclined, was the equivalent of 17 inches of vertical plating. The faces of her main turrets were 18 inches thick, and the conning tower was 16 inches thick, to mention two other key areas. She could reach 27.8 knots and displaced 44,500 tons fully loaded in 1942. er compliment of men was 127 officers and 2,205 enlisted personnel. Six hundred eighty feet overall with a beam of 108 feet, she dwarfed her stout little predecessor.

Launching Alabama.

Her operational history would begin in the Atlantic. After being commissioned and undergoing a shakedown cruise, BB60 would spend the next year, until August of 1943, in the ETO. She was initially assigned to Task Force 22, which was built around the aircraft carrier Ranger. After only a few months, however, she joined her sister ship, South Dakota, and five destroyers and headed to Scapa Flow. There the American ships would serve the under Admiral Sir Bruce Frazier and the British Home Fleet. Her main duty in European waters was part of the famous “Murmansk Run,” in which lend lease supplies were sent to the Soviet Union to aid in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Alabama would be sent to the Pacific, arriving in the New Hebrides on September 14th, 1943. She would go on to win nine Battle Stars for Pacific campaigns, the Navy Occupation Medal (Asia) from her own government, and the Philippine Republic’s Presidential Unit Citation Badge. The nine Battle Stars were for the following campaigns.

The Gilbert Island Operation, called Operation Galvanic, saw BB60 form part of the protection screen for Yorktown. In this manner she took part in the bombardment of Tarawa. The Marshal Islands Operation saw the occupation of Kwajalein and Majuro Atolls in Operation Flintlock.

Then came the Asiatic-Pacific Raids which covered a great deal of territory (including Operational Scenario One), with Alabama again performing duty as carrier protection, due to her fast speed. She would claim four definite kills of Japanese planes, and be the temporary flagship of Admiral Marc Mitscher in March. During the time frame of the Battle Star earned for the raids, BB60 would be a vital part of Task Force 58, centered around the carrier Enterprise during the Hollandia Operation, covered by Operational Scenario Two.

Gunnery practice.

The Marianas Operation, involving over 500 ships, would be greatly remembered by the crew of BB60, as she again escorted Enterprise in this key operation. While bombarding the west coast of Saipan, the air reconnaissance revealed many Japanese ships coming from the Philippines. Many ships were redeployed to meet the threat, including BB60. On June 19th the first phase of the massive air battle would begin.

Alabama was one of few ships in the entire American fleet that had been equipped with the new SK radar. Alabama picked up the first wave of Japanese aircraft at the amazing range of 190 miles! Captain Kirtland doubted the radar officer until at 150 miles he was convinced and reported the contact. The admiral was also dubious, until contact was confirmed by Iowa at 130 miles. Before the day was done the Task Force commander would radio for the entire fleet to hear; “To Iowa, well done; to Alabama, very well done!” The Imperial Japanese Navy would lose 400 planes and three carriers over 19th-20th June. After the “Turkey Shoot,” Admiral Hanson, commander of Battleship Division Nine, would make BB60 his flagship for the invasion of Guam, where Army and Marine troops hit the beach on July 21st.

The came the Western Carolines Operation, with Alabama playing handmaiden to the carrier Essex in what was known as Operation Stalemate II. This included raids on the Volcano-Bonin and Yap Islands and the occupation of the Palau Islands. Operational Scenario Five covers this successful action.

Her star for the Leyte Operation would include being a part of the largest naval battle in history, and the centerpiece of the new monster game of the same name. From Okinawa to Formosa, Alabama screened carriers across the western Pacific in preliminary operations (see Operational Scenario Seven) before being pulled back to assist at Luzon. Alabama’s anti-aircraft gunners would score three confirmed kills (some accounts have four) on October 18th. Troops began to go ashore on the 20th and then the IJN would send the vast majority of her remaining surface fleet in a desperate attempt to halt the American tide.

In the opening stages of the battle Alabama operated alongside carrier Enterprise, an old friend, near Surigao Strait, as the carrier’s aircraft helped deal with the IJN’s southern force. The she sailed northward to engage the IJN central force off Cape Engano. Operational Scenario Eight covers the action. If the Marianas Turkey Shoot destroyed Japan’s naval aviation, Leyte Gulf effectively destroyed her surface fleet.

After Leyte the Alabama would base out of Ulithi and participate in minor operations around Luzon. During the time frame of the Mindoro Operation (scenario eleven) she received storm damage from winds approaching 83 knots, losing both her Kingfisher Scout planes. She would then be withdrawn from the war zone for over four months, undergoing refit at Puget Sound Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington.

Anti-aircraft guns and directors.

Her eighth Battle Star would come for the Okinawa-Gunto Operation. Operation Iceberg, the invasion of Okinawa, would begin on April 1st and Alabama would not enter the theater until over a month later escorting Enterprise, hence her absence from scenario 16. For the purist, add the two ships to the Turn 361 reinforcements. This operation would see the height of the kamikaze attacks, with Alabama’s AA fire accounting for three planes. Again, she escaped serious damage, excepting from the typhoon of that hit over the course of June 4th and 5th.

Her ninth battle star would come for operations against Japan. Under Halsey’s 3rd Fleet, Alabama at first performed her familiar duty of fast carrier escort. She then was detached in the face of minimal Japanese resistance, to bombard the home islands with her massive 16-inch guns. She would perform the bombardment missions with an old Royal Navy comrade from the Murmansk days, HMS King George V. The end of Imperial Japan had come. . . .

When the war was over Alabama would re-enter her grateful country when passing under Golden Gate Bridge on October 15th, 1945. Over the next few weeks, previewing her eventual fate, over 9,000 civilians came aboard to pay respects to the valiant ship and her sailors. Alabama would be decommissioned at Puget Sound on 9 January 1947. On 1 June 1962, BB60 was officially stricken from the navy’s list, and she awaited the scrap yard, a fate which had already descended on many of her comrades.

The Mobile Chamber of Commerce had other ideas. It was estimated that to tow the ship 5,600 miles would cost about $1,000,000. A state-wide campaign to raise money was the result. Awards were given out for large donations. For $100 you were given a commission as a rear admiral in the Alabama Navy, for $500 a vice admiral, and for an even grand, a full admiral! In less than two years the money was raised, even allowing for rising costs!

Alabama at her memorial, submarine Drum astern.

I long gave my father grief over this event. A veteran of the United States Army, he was at the time a civilian technician working for the U.S. Air Force (I, the Red Goblin, would be born amidst the fund raising on 1 October 1963). If William J. Sariego Sr. had donated more than the $25 he did, he could have effectively served all three branches of the military. As it was, the Alabama Navy had one battleship (she would later add the Gato-class submarine, Drum) and more admirals than any fleet in history!

The Navy (the U.S. Navy, that is) officially turned over the ship to the state of Alabama on 16 June 1964. She would arrive under tow at Mobile Bay on 14 September 1964. The focal point of a 100-acre military park, Alabama is a monument to the men and women who have served this country. She has also served as the set of more than one Hollywood movie! A trip down Battleship Parkway is well worth your time. Alabama is a classy lady who helped defend the freedoms many enjoy today.

Send Alabama into battle. Order Arctic Convoy right now!