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History’s Last Battleship vs. Battleship Battle Was Epic

Iowa-class battleship firing a broadside. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

A capital ship for an ocean trip/Was ‘The Walloping Window Blind’/No gale that blew dismayed her crew/Or troubled the captain’s mind … And the gunner we had was apparently mad/For he sat on the after-rail/And fired salutes with the captain’s boots/In the teeth of the booming gale.” 

As sentimental and nostalgic as those song lyrics were, they couldn’t stem the tide of history, as WWII marked the end of the heyday of “capital ships,” i.e. battleships.

Though not the actual last hurrah of battleships as a viable warfighting tool, it did prove to be the one wherein (1) they gave way to carrier-borne aircraft and submarines as the dominant instruments of seapower, and (2) the last time that battleships would engage each other in battle.

The U.S. Navy can take pride in the fact that it won both of the last two battleship fights, both of which took place against the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN). Neither one of them involved the vaunted Iowa-class battlewagons; as discussed in a previous 19FortyFive article, the first of these was won by Vice Admiral Willis Augustus Lee and the USS Washington (BB-56) during the Second Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942. And topping it all off was then-Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf’s battleship fleet at the Battle of Surigao Strait phase of the monumental Battle of Leyte Gulf (a “battle within a battle” if you will) on October 25, 1944. 

Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf Brief Bio

Jesse Barrett “Oley” Oldendorf was born in Riverside, California on February 16, 1887. He was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1905, and during his time as a Midshipman, he participated in swimming, tennis, and won the Sharpshooter’s Medal, en route to graduating 141st out of a class of 174 in June 1909. He then served two years at sea to earn his commission as an Ensign on June 5, 1911. 

During the First World War, Oley served aboard the troop transport USS President Lincoln and was the Gunnery Officer of that vessel when she was sunk by a German U-boat in May 1918. Oley survived.

At the time of America’s official entry into the Second World War, Oldendorf was on the staff of the Naval War College teaching navigation. In March 1942, he was promoted to Rear Admiral and assigned to the Caribbean Sea Frontier, first in the Aruba-Curaçao and then the Trinidad sector, primarily tasked with anti-submarine warfare duties in the latter assignment.  

In January 1944, RADM Oldendorf was reassigned to the U.S. Pacific Fleet, thus setting the stage for the crowning achievement of his career nine months later.

Admiral Nishimura Brief Bio

RADM Oldendorf’s primary nemesis/counterpart in the Battle of Surigao Strait was Vice Admiral Shōji Nishimura, who was born in the Akita Prefecture of Japan on November 30, 1889, and graduated from the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy at Etajima in 1911, ranking 21st out of 148 cadets. 

After being commissioned an Ensign, Nishimura-san served on the armored cruiser Aso and battlecruiser Hiei. Nishimura was promoted to Rear Admiral less than a month prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Rear Admiral solidified his reputation as the commander of the 4th Destroyer Squadron during the Battle of the Java Sea and the Battle of Midway in 1942. 

In November 1943, Nishimura was promoted to Vice Admiral. The following year he was named commander of the Southern Force in Operation Sho-Go, which was intended to be a final and decisive battle against the USN in the Philippines … thus setting the stage for his fateful showdown with RADM Oldendorf. 

Crossing The “T” and Avenging Pearl Harbor

Surigao Strait would prove to be a bit of sweet revenge for the USN battleship community, as five of Oldendorf’s six battleships employed in the engagement had been sunk or damaged during the Pearl Harbor raid and subsequently raised or rebuilt: USS California (BB-44), Maryland (BB-46), Pennsylvania (BB-38), Tennessee (BB-43), and West Virginia (BB-48); the lone exception was USS Mississippi (BB-41), which had been on convoy-escort duty off of Iceland at the time. Pennsylvania was the only ship of the Pennsylvania class besides the ill-fated USS Arizona, with twelve 14-inch main guns. Maryland and West Virginia were part of the Colorado-class, bearing eight 16-inch main guns. Tennessee and California belonged to the Tennessee class of super-dreadnoughts, packing a dozen 14-inch guns. Last but not least, Mississippi was a member of the New Mexico-class super-dreadnought club, packing twelve 14-inch cannons. 

The victims of this vengeful gauntlet of American battlewagons were the IJN Fusō-class battleship Yamashiro – which bore twelve 14-inch guns – and the heavy cruiser Mogami (the latter having survived heavy damage during the Battle of Midway two years prior), which carried five 7.99-inch main guns. West Virginia got in the first licks, firing her first salvo at 0353 local time that morning at a range of 13 miles and scoring with the same. In turn, the last salvo ever fired by one battleship against another in naval history was fired by Mississippi.

What provided RADM Oldendorf ultimate satisfaction was pulling off the classic maneuver of “crossing the T,” whereupon a line of warships crosses in front of a line of enemy ships to allow the crossing line to bring all their guns to bear whilst it receive return fire only from the enemy’s forward guns. 

Yamashiro and Mogami slipped beneath the waves, with Shōji Nishimura perishing and thus joining 12,500 of his countrymen as casualties of the largest naval battle in history. By contrast, Jesse Oldendorf won the Navy Cross, lived to see the end of the war, retired from the Navy as a four-star Admiral on September 1, 1948, and passed away in Portsmouth, Virginia on April 27,1974 at the age of 87; his remains were cremated and his ashes were fittingly scattered at sea.

Iowa-Class Battleship

Iowa-Class Battleship USS New Jersey. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Iowa-Class Battleship

Iowa-Class Battleship. Image Credit: Creative Commons.

Iowa-Class Battleships

The Iowa-class battleship USS New Jersey fires at positions near Beirut on 9 January 1984 during the Lebanese Civil War.

Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force Security Forces officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon). Chris holds a B.A. in International Relations from the University of Southern California (USC) and an M.A. in Intelligence Studies (concentration in Terrorism Studies) from American Military University (AMU). He has also been published in The Daily Torch and The Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security. Last but not least, he is a Companion of the Order of the Naval Order of the United States (NOUS)

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Christian D. Orr is a former Air Force officer, Federal law enforcement officer, and private military contractor (with assignments worked in Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, Kosovo, Japan, Germany, and the Pentagon).