Big “J” and Wisky


(Originally published by the Navy League
of the United States, New York Council in
The Log, Fall 2007).
The Iowa-class battleships were the United States Navy's largest and
most powerful battleships.  Indeed, with their upgrades in the 1980s,
they became perhaps the most powerful surface combatants ever
built.  The most decorated of these ships (16 battle stars), USS NEW
JERSEY (BB 62) (“Big J”) now resides only about an hour from New
York in Camden, New Jersey.  Her slightly younger sister, USS
WISCONSIN (BB 64), known to her friends as “Wisky,” is somewhat
further away in Norfolk, Virginia.  Recently, The Log visited both

The Battlewagons’ Navy Careers

By 1937, the post-World War I disarmament regime was on its last
legs.  It appeared likely that Japan was not going to ratify the 1936
London Naval Conference which sought to continue the regime started
in the Washington Naval Arms Limitation Treaty of 1922, limiting the
number and size of battleships and other capital ships.  Under the
London agreement, such a failure by Japan would allow those
countries that had signed the treaty to build battleships up to 45,000
tons rather than the 35,000 ton limit originally negotiated.   
Accordingly, the Navy began looking at various designs for such a ship.
       There were two competing schools of thought.  One advocated a
design that would have provided greater fire power and more armor
than on the NORTH CAROLINA and SOUTH DAKOTA classes that
were then in the later stages of development.  The other school argued
that the new battleships should be even faster than the 27-knot
Japan, it was feared that the Japanese might use fast aircraft carriers
and cruisers to attack the long lines communication.  Furthermore, the
fast KONGO class battleships might be detached from the fleet and
used for independent operations.  (In fact, this did occur, resulting in
the Naval Battle Of Guadalcanal in November 1942.  See The Log,
Winter 2005 at p. 9).  President Franklin Roosevelt ended the debate
in March 1938 by specifying that the third class of new battleships
should be high speed and have a large endurance.
       The design that eventually emerged was of an 880 foot long ship
with nine 16 inch 50 caliber guns as the main battery, a speed of 33
knots, a standard displacement of 45,000 tons and a full load
displacement of 55,000 tons.   During construction, numerous changes
were made including the addition of numerous light anti-aircraft
weapons and additional electronics so that the full load displacement
was closer to 57,000 tons.  Furthermore, the top speed of the ships is
unknown as none were ever officially tested at full speed over a
measured mile.
       In July 1939, contracts were issued for two ships, USS IOWA
(BB 61) and USS NEW JERSEY (BB 62), based on the new design.  
The next year, two more ships of this design were ordered, USS
MISSOURI (BB 63) and USS WISCONSIN (BB 64).  The Navy
concluded that this would be enough fast battleships and said that no
more would be authorized.  However, a month later, after the Nazi
Blitzkrieg caused the fall of France, two more ships were hastily
ordered, USS ILLINOIS (BB 65) and USS KENTUCKY (BB 66) but
neither ship was ever completed.
       Construction began on NEW JERSEY on 16 September 1940 at
the Philadelphia Navy Yard.  Her construction was given top priority
and she was launched on 7 December 1942.  Commissioning took
place less than six months later on 23 May 1943.  However, she was
back in the yard in September 1943 for some modifications.  After that
in January 1944, she sailed with her sister IOWA to the Pacific.
NEW JERSEY only participated in one surface action in the Pacific.  
During a raid on Truk, IOWA and NEW JERSEY encountered several
enemy cruisers and destroyers.  IOWA is credited with sinking the
cruiser KATORI and the destroyer MAIKAZE.  NEW JERSEY's fire
straddled the Japanese ships but scored no hits.  She was credited,
however, with sinking an armed trawler.
       During the Battle of Leyte Gulf, NEW JERSEY was Admiral
William Halsey's flagship.  In that action, the Japanese planned to lure
the American fleet away from the landing beaches on Leyte Island in
the Philippines with a force consisting of several aircraft carriers that
had no pilots or planes.  Meanwhile, Japanese surface ships would
attack the beaches.  When Halsey took the bait and took the American
carriers and modern battleships off after the useless Japanese carriers,
NEW JERSEY of course went with him.  As a result, NEW JERSEY
was not present for the battleship action in the Surigao Straits or when
the super battleship YAMATO and several other battleships and
cruisers attacked the American escort carriers and destroyers that had
been left to guard the beachhead.
       Still, NEW JERSEY showed herself to be a valuable asset in the
Pacific earning nine battle stars.  Her speed allowed her to keep up
with the fast carriers and her antiaircraft batteries provided protection
for them.  She is credited with shooting down 20 enemy aircraft
including five in one day.  In addition, her main battery provided
valuable gunfire support for landings and in raids against enemy-held
territory including Truk, Saipan, the Philippines, Okinawa, Formosa,
and the Japanese Home Islands. The ship also served at various times
as flagship of the Third and Fifth Fleets.  Nonetheless, she was
decommissioned in June 1948 in Bayonne as part of the post-war
reduction in the size of the fleet.
       The keel of WISCONSIN was laid down on 25 January 1941 at
the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and the ship was launched 7
December 1943.  Commissioned in April 1944, she sailed for the
Western Pacific in September joining Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet in
early December 1944.  In addition to providing anti-aircraft protection,
WISCONSIN provided naval gunfire support for the invasions of
Okinawa and Iwo Jima.  She also attacked factories on the Japanese
Home Islands.
       After the war, WISCONSIN participated in a number of
exercises in the Atlantic during 1946 and 1947.  She was inactivated in
July 1948.  In September, IOWA was also inactivated, leaving
MISSOURI as the Navy's only active battleship.  
       While the prevailing thinking was that battleships would have no
part to play in the next war, the Navy found itself without adequate
naval gunfire support when North Korea's invasion of South Korea in
1950.  Accordingly, in November 1950, NEW JERSEY was
reactivated and served in the Korean theater from April to November
1951 and then from March to November 1953.   During this time, the
ship attacked and destroyed trains, bunkers, radar emplacements,
roads, troop concentrations, communications facilities, observation
posts, artillery batteries, bridges, tunnels, oil facilities, and provided
direct fire support for United Nations troops.  Several times, NEW
JERSEY came under fire from shore batteries but only sustained one
fatality.  NEW JERSEY also acted as flagship for the Seventh Fleet.
After the Korean War, NEW JERSEY served with the Sixth Fleet in
the Mediterranean.  She remained with the fleet until August 1957
when once again the idea that there was no place in the modern Navy
for battleships prevailed.
       WISCONSIN was recommissioned in March 1951 and served in
Korea from November 1951 to March 1953.   On 15 March 1952, a
North Korean artillery battery struck the ship with a 152mm shell,
wounding three Sailors.  This was the only time in her career that
WISCONSIN was so struck and the ship unleashed the entire main
battery quickly destroying her assailant.  An escorting destroyer that
witnessed the exchange flashed the signal: "Temper, temper!"
Following the Korean War, WISCONSIN served as flagship of the
Seventh Fleet from September 1953 to June 1954.  Returning to the
United States, WISCONSIN suffered extensive damage to her bow
when she collided with the destroyer EATON (DDE 510) in a heavy
fog off of Norfolk in March 1956.  To repair this damage, a 120-ton,
68 foot long section of the bow of KENTUCKY, the incomplete sixth
Iowa-class battleship, was spliced onto WISCONSIN.
       As noted above, in 1957, the Navy decided it had no more use
for battleships and in November 1957, during an inactivation overhaul
at the New York Naval Shipyard, an electrical fire broke out on
WISCONSIN near the officer's wardroom.  Since it was envisioned
that the ship would never be used again, the damage was not repaired.  
Instead, the ship was decommissioned on 8 March 1958 and the Navy
was without an active battleship for the first time since 1895.
       The Navy again found itself without adequate naval gunfire to
support land operations during the Vietnam War.  In addition,
expensive aircraft were being lost attacking targets a battleship could
attack at least as well.  Accordingly, in 1967, the Navy began to
reactivate NEW JERSEY.  She was selected because it was
determined that she was in the best condition of the four IOWAs and
because she had had an extensive overhaul prior to her inactivation in
1957.  Even so, parts were taken from IOWA and WISCONSIN in
order to make her ready.  In addition, the ship was equipped with new
radar, sophisticated electronic countermeasures and new gunfire-
control computers.  The obsolete 40mm antiaircraft batteries were
removed.  Interestingly, because of concerns that the public might
perceive her as a luxury item for admirals, the ship's flagship areas
were not activated or improved.  She was recommissioned on 6 April
       During her deployment off Vietnam, NEW JERSEY fired 5,688
16 inch shells (many times more than in all of World War II) as well as
several thousand shells from her secondary five inch battery.  For eight
months, she attacked targets in North Vietnam, the Demilitarized Zone
between North and South Vietnam, and provided direct fire support
for troops in South Vietnam.   Proof of her effectiveness, came when
North Vietnam indicated that removing NEW JERSEY from the
conflict was a pre-condition to peace negotiations.  Despite this proof
of her value, NEW JERSEY was deactivated again on 17 December
1969.  One can only speculate how many aircraft were shot down
attacking targets that would have been within the range of NEW
JERSEY's guns during the remaining years of that war.
       At NEW JERSEY’s decommissioning, her commanding officer,
Captain Robert C. Peniston, USN, said: "Rest well, yet sleep lightly
and hear the call, if again sounded, to provide firepower for
       With the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, the nation
embarked on a goal of re-building the military with a goal for the Navy
of a 600-ship fleet.  The goal was to counter the enormous military
power that the Soviet Union had built-up during the years of détente.  
While new capital ships could be built, a problem was that it would
take years to do so.  A solution offered was to reactivate the IOWAs
and modernize them with missiles and contemporary electronics.  By
so doing, the Navy would have four capital ships around which to
create surface action groups.  The Tomahawk cruise missiles that
would be added to these ships could be equipped with conventional or
nuclear warheads and thus the battleships would be capable of
projecting power thousands of miles inland and would become part of
the strategic deterrent.  The Harpoon anti-ship missiles would make
them powerful modern surface combatants.  And, the main battery
would be able to provide naval gunfire support.  Moreover, during the
debates in Congress over the ships’ reactivation, it was pointed out that
because of their extensive armor, these ships would not be as
vulnerable to missile attacks as the modern frigates and destroyers that
were damaged or destroyed during the recent Falklands War.
       NEW JERSEY was once again selected to lead the way.  
Because of her reactivation during the 1960s, she was in the best
condition of the four even though several of the 1960s renovations
would have to be re-done.  She was re-commissioned on 28 October
1982 in a ceremony attended by President Reagan.
       After some training exercises, NEW JERSEY was dispatched to
the Mediterranean for operations off Lebanon.   Before her arrival, U.
S. destroyers had been under fire from Syrian shore batteries.  
However, when NEW JERSEY appeared, the batteries fell silent.  In
December 1983, she fired eleven 16 inch shells against Syrian
antiaircraft batteries that had shot down two Navy jets.  The firing
silenced the batteries but a political controversy erupted because some
of the shells had fallen into sections of Beirut not involved in the
       During the next seven years, NEW JERSEY participated in a
series of exercises with allied nations, showing the flag around the
world.  In 1989, in one of her last operations, NEW JERSEY along
with MISSOURI took part in a major fleet exercise with the Japanese
Maritime Defense Force.
       In 1990, the Navy once again decided to deactivate NEW
JERSEY and she became part of the Reserve Fleet in February 1991 -
- just as her remaining sisters were going into action.  
       Meanwhile, WISCONSIN had been towed from the Philadelphia
Naval Shipyard to the Avondale (Louisiana) Shipyard in August 1986.  
Her teak decks had been allowed to deteriorate badly during her 30
years of deactivation.  As a result, the decks had to be renewed.  In
addition, new air-conditioning was installed throughout the ship and
electrical cabling and lighting fixtures were renewed or replaced.  Two
thousand tons of steel were used in repairing the hull and the
superstructure.  The damage from the fire some 30 years before was
repaired. Her armament was upgraded with missiles and CIWS as it
had been on NEW JERSEY and the other Iowas.  On 22 October
1988, WISCONSIN was re-commissioned.
       During a training exercise in the Caribbean, problems with
WISCONSIN's forced draft blowers and main feed pumps were
revealed.  As a result, she spent most of 1989 at the Philadelphia
Naval Shipyard having the blowers replaced and 12 feed pipes
       In August 1990, Iraq invaded Kuwait and WISCONSIN was
deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of the international force
enforcing U.N. sanctions against Iraq.  She made the 8,500-mile trip in
just 16 days.
       The next year, WISCONSIN was in the Persian Gulf as part of
the force assembled for Operation Desert Storm.  When the
counteroffensive began in January, WISCONSIN fired 24 of her 32
Tomahawk missiles against targets in Iraq, some as far as 800 miles
away from the ship.   The missiles were accurate in hitting their targets
thus demonstrating that the battleship had a reach its designers never
would have dreamt.  WISCONSIN also served as the Tomahawk
strike-warfare center during the opening of Desert Storm.
       In February, WISCONSIN along with MISSOURI began to
engage targets in Iraq and Kuwait with their 16-inch guns.  Targets
included artillery batteries, bunkers and boats used by the Iraqis to raid
the Saudi coast.  Of particular significance, WISCONSIN used her
guns to support the Marines' liberation of Kuwait City, breaking up
pockets of heavy resistance and destroying fortifications that were
impeding the Marines' advance.
       Having demonstrated their effectiveness, the two battleships were
decommissioned not long after they returned home.             
       All four IOWAs were stricken from the Navy Register in
February 1995.  However, Congress was persuaded largely by Marine
Corps supporters that the Navy lacked adequate assets for naval
gunfire support and in the National Defense Appropriation Act for
Fiscal Year 1996, directed that the Navy retain in the Reserve Fleet
two of the battleships until such time as the Secretary of the Navy
could certify that the Navy had within the operational fleet "fire
support capacity that equals or exceeds the fire support capability that
the IOWA class battleships . . . would, if in active service, be able to
provide for the Marine Corps amphibious assaults and offshore
       The Navy, however, never really fell in line with the spirit of the
bill.  It delayed complying and did not approach the obligation with a
view toward what made the most sense militarily.   Since MISSOURI
and WISCONSIN had been the last to leave the active fleet, one
would have thought they would have been the ones put back on the
Navy List.  However, since MISSOURI was already in the process of
becoming a museum, the Navy listed NEW JERSEY instead.  When
interest arose in turning NEW JERSEY into a museum, the Navy
obliged and substituted IOWA, the ship in the worst condition, for
NEW JERSEY.  NEW JERSEY was once again struck from the Navy
list for the last time on 4 January 1999,
       In January 2006, President George W. Bush signed a bill
authorizing the Secretary of the Navy to strike the remaining
battleships from the Naval Register.  The law specified that IOWA
would be donated for use as a museum in the State of California and
WISCONSIN would be donated for use as a museum in the
Commonwealth of Virginia.

Below: Big J's wheel is protected by steel
walls 17 inches thick.
NEW JERSEY's Combat Engagement
Above: Harpoon anti-ship missiles.

Below: A cruise missile emerges from its
Above:  The Phalanx close-in weapons
system (CIWS) was protection against
aircraft and missiles.

Below:  The 16 inch 50 caliber guns of
NEW JERSEY's main battery.  
Above:  Inside the 16 inch gun turrets are
very cramped.  The photo shows the back
of one of the guns.

Below:  The periscope in a 16 inch gun
NEW JERSEY'S original Kingfisher
float-planes were replaced by a helicopter.


Navy ships - - article - - USS Wisconsin, USS New Jersey