By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
Carrier air power determined the outcome of the Battle of Midway; no surface warship fired a gun or launched a torpedo at their opposite numbers. Yet both sides had their battleships close to hand and available for action, something rarely mentioned in histories of the battle.
Every American battleship present in Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 received at least some damage, but by 20 December three of the eight battleships were considered ready to leave for West Coast ports where they could receive more substantial repairs and undergo emergency refits. Pennsylvania went to San Francisco’s Mare Island Navy Yard while Tennessee and Maryland entered Puget Sound Navy Yard where Colorado was already undergoing an overhaul.
Meanwhile, the Atlantic Fleet had dispatched three more battleships to the Pacific. Idaho, Mississippi and New Mexico were detached from Neutrality Patrol duties on 9 December and ordered to East Coast ports for refitting. The departed Norfolk on 12 January along with an escort of seven destroyers, transiting the Panama Canal on the 17th and arriving at San Francisco by the 29th.
Maryland in February 1942. She retains her cage masts and casemate-mounted guns.
The three battleships at Puget Sound completed their repairs and overhauls by late February. They set out for San Francisco on the 26th and arrived on 3 March 1942. And for the rest of the month, the seven battleships remained there on twelve-hour steaming notice, never leaving their dockside positions.
That changed when Vice Admiral William S. Pye took command of the fleet, now designated Task Force One, on 4 April 1942. Pye had commanded the Pacific Fleet’s Battle Force (the battleships and their supporting destroyers) in 1941 and at Pearl Harbor, and briefly commanded the Pacific Fleet after the relief of Husband E. Kimmel. Kimmel had assigned the battleships to convoy duty between Hawaii and the West Coast, a meaningless directive since none of them were available for action during his brief tenure. New Mexico participated in one such mission just after her arrival in the theater, but with the Japanese deploying only submarines, not surface raiders, adding battleships to the convoys only added a high-prestige target.
Pye sketched out an aggressive training schedule. The battle fleet remained at sea continuously between 14 April and 10 May, and again between 31 May and 19 June. The ships practiced division and squadron maneuvers and drills of all sorts, particularly gunnery practice. All told, the battleships spent 74 percent of their time at sea.
Pye’s seven battleships represented far greater fighting power than the eight dreadnoughts he’d commanded on 7 December. Colorado and Maryland each boasted eight 16-inch guns, while the other five had a dozen 14-inch guns each. All had been extensively overhauled and refitted, with improvements to their armor and particularly their torpedo protection. All seven had the same surface search and fire control radar as the new fast battleships; none of the ships at Pearl Harbor had had these devices.
The three sisters of the New Mexico class, seen at Pearl Harbor, December 1943.
Except for the older Pennsylvania, these ships featured superior internal arrangements that made them far more survivable in battle. Their turbo-electric drives meant that no direct mechanical contact existed between their machine rooms and their drive shafts, eliminating a key weakness of older battleships and allowing far more compartmentation. They had no shell-handling rooms; hydraulic lifts brought ammunition directly from the magazines to the guns, simplifying loading procedures and eliminating a potentially fatal flaw.
Most importantly, the ships were manned by American battleship sailors, a self-anointed elite of long-service professionals. Pye’s intensive training regime brought the gun crews to a high level of speed and efficiency, while their gunnery control crews had ample opportunity to practice with their new radars.
And then in the wake of the Battle of Midway, the intense training cycle ceased. The battleships spent only seven days at sea of the next 42, deploying to Pearl Harbor in August and exercising intensively along the way. There the training regimen slacked off again, until Pye was relieved in late October as the task force deployed to the South Pacific. But that’s another story.
Chester Nimitz, the Pacific commander in chief, could easily have summoned Pye’s battle fleet to join the carriers at Midway. They stood at peak readiness in early June with all seven ships fully prepared for action. Yet Nimitz left them well outside the theater of operations and they played no part in the Battle of Midway.
The reason was very simple: the Pacific Fleet could not provide fuel for Pye’s battleships if they operated out of Hawaii. While California had essentially a limitless supply of oil and refineries to process it, Nimitz had only seven tankers available to bring that production to Pearl Harbor. Nimitz’s staff calculated in April that with the limited storage available at Pearl Harbor and the paltry flow of oil from the West Coast, the Pacific Fleet could operate four aircraft carriers and their escorts but no more. At Midway Nimitz deployed three carriers with a fourth (Saratoga) and her escorts rushing to join them. The battleships simply could not be maintained; the older battleships burned an enormous amount of fuel (1200 barrels a day compared to 1,100 for an aircraft carrier or 950 for the more-efficient fast battleship North Carolina).
There’s no evidence that Nimitz disdained the fighting power of the battleships; had he been able to keep them fueled, he likely would have brought them to Pearl Harbor and deployed them alongside the carrier task forces. But his fuel situation forced him to prioritize his assets, and he gave that priority – correctly – to his aircraft carriers and their less-inefficient heavy cruiser escorts. The seven battleships, their destroyer escorts and escort carrier Long Island were all at sea during the battle, but did not move toward Midway.
How would Pye’s battle fleet have performed, had they been brought forward in June 1942? The Japanese likewise deployed seven battleships in the operation – three with the fleet’s Main Body, including the massive super-battleship Yamato, and four attached to the Aleutians invasion force but actually stationed halfway between the two fleets so they could be sent in either direction at need.
Idaho mashes Okinawa, April 1945.
The Japanese would have had the advantages of speed (every one of their ships was much faster than every American battleship), heavy guns (nine 18-inch, sixteen 16-inch and forty 14-inch against sixteen 16-inch and sixty 14-inch) and the nearly-unsinkable Yamato. The Americans had better protection (at least compared to the six older Japanese battleships) and immeasurably superior gunnery (in addition to radar, the Americans had just completed an intense training cycle where the Japanese battleships practiced haphazardly if at all and were notorious for their poor shooting).
You can test out that proposition in Second World War at Sea: Midway Deluxe Edition, which includes a section of scenarios based battleship action. It’s not a huge stretch of reality to consider that the American fleet at Midway could have included substantial surface combat power. But for the lack of a few more tankers, the battleships would have been there.
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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold. Leopold likes catching lightning bugs.