The Battleship That Never Was

November 19, 2019

As tensions rose across the Pacific in the run-up to the outbreak of war, the Imperial Japanese Navy tried to intimidate the United States with the massive Yamato-class battleship. Little was known about the new class of battleship, though it was rumored to have battery configurations that violated the Second London Naval Treaty, which Japan refused to join.

Britain, France, and the United States saw the Yamato-class battleship as a major threat in the Pacific, causing them to invoke what was known as the “Escalator Clause” to allow for an increase in the size and armament of their warships. Almost immediately, the United States started planning the Montana-class battleship. Over the course of the War in the Pacific, however, the value of this mighty battleship diminished, which resulted in five planned ships being canceled before construction even began.

As history has shown, though, scrapping these ships wasn’t a great loss for the Americans, as aircraft carriers had already begun to play a much more important role in modern naval warfare.

The History of the Battleship That Never Was

A successor of the Iowa class of battleships, Montana was planned to have twelve, 16” Mark 7 guns mounted in four turrets holding three guns apiece. This was an increase from Iowa’s three-by-three, 16”-gun configuration. The idea of the Montana-class was that it would be a slower, but much stronger and more heavily armored battleship that could stand up to Japan’s Yamato. Without the restrictions of the Second London Naval Treaty, the US Navy was free to build the most heavily-armed battleship in its history.

Yamato-class Battleships anchored at Chuuk Atoll, 1943

Yamato-class Battleships anchored at Chuuk Atoll, 1943

Two years before the United States was drawn into World War II, two Montana-class battleships were approved by Congress.  Before construction could get underway, however, the US suffered a devastating blow that completely changed the course of their plans. On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy struck the Pearl Harbor naval base, forcing the Americans to enter the conflict.

Suddenly at war, the American military planners had to make a crucial decision. Would they continue development of the Montana-class which wouldn’t be ready for service for another few years, or cancel construction and focus on other warships? Feeling the pressure of war, the decision was made to cancel the Montana-class battleship altogether.

The USS Montana (BB-67), USS Ohio (BB-68), USS Maine (BB-69), USS New Hampshire (BB-70), and USS Louisiana (BB-71) had been ordered into construction, but one fateful action by the Empire of Japan led to their cancellation on July 21, 1943.

A Change of Plans

The Battleship Missouri firing 16 inch shells

Last of the Iowa class, USS Missouri (BB-63)

Japan struck Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, nearly crippling the United States Pacific Fleet; but the US Navy recovered much more quickly than anyone expected—and as they did, a different type of warship moved to the forefront.

By mid-1942, the Americans had realized the power of its aircraft carriers, especially at the Battle of Midway. Even without the larger, more powerful battleship, the carrier-led fleet was able to cause considerable damage to Japan’s own carrier-led fleet. The Battle of Midway became a turning point of the war that helped secure the Allied victory in the Pacific. It also added to the realization that battleships no longer had the value they held in earlier wars. No keel was ever laid down for a Montana-class battleship, and the project was scrapped completely to give priority to the Iowa-class fast battleships and Essex-class aircraft carriers that were already in construction.

The age of the battleship was over, replaced by the rise of the aircraft carrier.

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