Thursday, February 16, 2017

Seventy-Five Years Ago: Alabama on the Elizabeth

Over the last couple of years, prevailing strategic thinking in the United States Navy's surface community has, for the first time in decades, gravitated back towards an emphasis upon offensive capability.  This concept, known as Distributed Lethality, marks the return to a posture presuming that the navies of rival nations present a credible threat wherever the US Navy operates.  Thanks in part to advances in missile technology, rival militaries now possess anti-access/area denial capabilities that can effectively put American naval vessels under threat hundreds, if not thousands, of miles from their shores.  This new reality has forced a paradigm shift on the part of American planners.  The Cold War-era battle groups of a dozen or more frigates, destroyers and attack submarines screening a huge capital ship have been replaced by three to four American and allied vessels comprising a hunter-killer surface action group.

Seventy-five years ago today, however, a different mindset held sway as the South Dakota-class battleship Alabama (BB-60) was launched at Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth, Virginia.  Perhaps the ethos behind her conception and construction could be thought of as "Concentrated Lethality."
An aerial oblique view of USS Alabama (BB-60) in the Elizabeth River after launching at Norfolk Navy Yard, February 16, 1942.  Her Sponsor was Henrietta McMcormick Hill, wife of J. Lister Hill, senior senator from Alabama. (US Navy/ National Archives via NHHC Flickr)
Two years and two weeks after her keel was laid at Norfolk Navy Yard, Alabama was launched on February 16, 1942.  Commissioned in August, she taunted the Kreigsmarine in the North Atlantic for a year before earning her 9 battle stars in the Pacific, serving as protection for aircraft carriers and providing shore bombardment.  Although her concentrated lethality in the form of nine 16-inch guns, 20 five-inch guns and numerous 20mm antiaircraft guns made Alabama a devastating machine of war, it was her air search radar that proved pivotal in the run-up to the June 1944 battle later called the "Marianas Turkey Shoot," from which Japanese naval air power would never recover.

Perhaps one of the greatest testaments of her effectiveness is that, despite repeated action against enemy forces during the war, during which over 1,200 16-inch shells were fired and 22 enemy aircraft were shot down, the only casualties incurred during the war were accidental.  Like many of the most powerful and effective ships ever to sail the seas as a part of the most unrivaled navy ever assembled, however, Alabama's operational life was short.  It was not because of obsolescence or any other reason that she was consigned to mothball status after the war.  It was just that there were no worthy adversaries still afloat.
USS Alabama (BB-60), seen here in September 1974, is permanently docked at Battleship  Memorial Park in Mobile, Alabama. (US Navy/ PH1 Richard Pendergist, National Archives via NHHC Flickr)
Decommissioned on January 9, 1947 and stricken from the naval register on June 1, 1962, a grassroots fundraising drive on the part of the citizens of Alabama saved the battleship from the cutting torch, and for over a half-century she has served the public in Mobile as a reminder of the battles she fought and the men who fought those battles.  Not to be forgotten, however, are the over 3,000 shipyard workers at Norfolk Naval Shipyard who worked around the clock for two and a half years to make her a reality.

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