U.S. Navy Plan Emerald:
Battleships of 1916

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
April 2023

In the years just before the First World War, dreadnought designs took a huge leap upwards in tonnage and firepower. The British built their Queen Elizabeth and R-class battleships with eight 15-inch guns apiece, the Germans followed with their Baden class, and the Italians with the Caracciolo class fast battleships, all with the same main armament. Japan laid down two battleships skipping the 15-inch stage, instead mounting eight huge 16-inch weapons.

The United States followed suit, with its own battleship mounting eight 16-inch guns, the American design commencing four months after that of the Japanese Nagato class. The Maryland class was a variant of the preceding Tennessee, with four turrets mounting a pair of 16-inch guns replacing the previous design’s triple 14-inch turrets.

The four Maryland class approved in the 1916 fiscal year were an abberation; Congress had not previously authorized more than two ships in a single year. But three had been built under the 1914 appropriations, thanks to cash gained from the sale of older ships to Greece, and with war looming the Navy managed to finagle four by promising to build two of them at the politically-connected Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock.

Along with the powerful main battery, Maryland had a dozen five-inch guns, ten of them in casemates in the central armored citadel, and two in open unshielded mountings. Like most battleships of their time, they had a pair of submerged torpedo tubes as well. Like previous American battleships, they were designed to the fleet speed of 21 knots but Colorado never made even this figure.

The battleship Washington hits the Delaware River, 1 September 1921. Colorado is fitting out, upper center.

Negotiators at Washington haggled over two nearly-complete ships, the Japanaese Mutsu and the American Washington. The Japanese rushed Mutsu into trials and delcared her complete, saving her from the scrappers’ torches. The Americans failed to do the same with Washington, though in an open society it would have been far more difficult to hide such chicanery. NNS&D again showed its clout, preserving West Virginia while New York Shipbuilding’s Camden, New Jersey yard stood to lose the more-advanced Washington.

The treaty was signed on 6 February 1922, and work stopped on Washington two days later with the ship 75.9 percent complete. The Navy stalled on her scrapping, however, and by the fall of 1924 she was the only warship slated for destruction under the treaty’s terms still in existence. When the Navy announced that she would be sunk as a target at the end of November 1924, a civilian clerk working for the Navy, William Baldwin Shearer, filed suit to stop the destruction.

Shearer argued that the ship had cost $35 million, and represented not only a significant investment of tax money but a vital asset to national defense. If she could not be completed as a battleship, she should instead be converted into an aircraft carrier. He obtained a temporary restraining order, but the Justice Department intervened to fight the suit while the Navy towed the hull into the Atlantic off the Virginia Capes. As soon as the court order was rescinded, demolition charges shattered the hull, and a few days later gunfire finished her off.

Maryland joined the fleet in 1921, and West Virginia and Colorado in 1923. All three served in the Second World War, but their low speed relegated them to secondary duties.
For the next fiscal year’s ships, the Navy’s General Board at first proposed a much greater increase in fighting power: massive 80,000-ton ships carrying fifteen 18-inch guns and making 35 knots. The engineers couldn’t confirm that such a ship was even technically feasible, though they dutifully made drawings. The giant battleship would be far more expensive than the Navy could hope to fund, and would not fit through the Panama Canal, but it did satisfy South Carolina Sen. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman's demand for a “maximum” design.

Instead, the Navy “settled” for a greatly enlarged Maryland, 43,200 tons as opposed to 32,600 for the previous design. The new South Dakota class would be slightly faster, at 23 knots where Maryland made 21. She was 10 percent longer and beamier, and carried an almost-identical armor scheme. Congress funded three of them for the 1917 fiscal year and three more for 1918.

Artist's rendition of the (first) South Dakota class.

Internally, South Dakota was almost identical to Maryland, only much larger. South Dakota had a dozen boilers compared to eight in Maryland, and could deliver 50,000 horsepower compared to 28,900 in the older design. The most noticeable difference was the huge single funnel of South Dakota, with all of her exhausts trunked together.

In place of the dual turrets for Maryland’s 16-inch guns, South Dakota had triple turrets. In place of Maryland’s 45-caliber main weapons, South Dakota had the much more powerful 50-caliber model.

She also carried a heavier secondary battery, sixteen 6-inch rather than fourteen 5-inch guns. Those sited aft would be mounted with the same odd “tower” arrangement of the Omaha-class light cruisers that were part of the same building program. The forward pairs had the lower gun in a casemate and one above it mounted open and unshielded. These probably would have been found just as unsatisfactory as the cruiser mounts. While this increased her firepower, the real reason seems to have been to coordinate gun production with the Omaha program, though the Navy thought highly of the 6-inch/53-caliber gun.

Iowa under construction at Newport News Shipbuilding.

While South Dakota represented a great increase in size and fighting power over Maryland, some within the Navy wanted to increase her gunnery even more. A new 18-inch gun would have been used in the Fiscal Year 1919 battleships, and some pointed out that the dual turret planned for these ships could be fitted in the same space as the triple 16-inch turret of the South Dakota class. Agitation to re-cast the three 1918 ships (North Carolina, Iowa and Massachusetts) with the giant rifles went nowhere, though reports surfaced in the international naval press that Montana had been so fitted.

The Americans sacrificed all six ships at the Washington talks, as none of them were close to completion. The most advanced, South Dakota herself, was said to be 38.5 percent complete when construction halted on 8 February 1922, with Indiana and Iowa not far behind. Montana and North Carolina were declared 28 percent complete; Massachusetts lagged well behind at 11 percent. Armor and boilers from the cancelled South Dakota class and from Washington were used to rebuild older coal-fired dreadnoughts during the 1920s and 1930s, so at least some of Shearer’s concerns were met — the assets were not totally wasted.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and NASA Journalist in Space finalist, he has published a great many books, games and articles on historical subjects; people are saying that some of them are actually good. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife and three children. He misses his Iron Dog, Leopold.

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