The Korean War, often remembered primarily as a land conflict leading to the establishment of the 38th parallel, had an overlooked naval dimension. Among the naval assets, the Iowa-class battleships played a significant role.
The Iowa Class Battleships
Commissioned in 1939 and 1940, the Iowa Class battleships were originally designed to intercept swift Japanese vessels and engage in traditional naval battles. Among them, Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri, and Wisconsin were the completed ones. The Illinois and Kentucky were laid down but later scrapped before completion.
These battleships measured 860 feet in length at the waterline and displaced around 55,000 tons. They featured a triple bottom under their heavily armored core and armored structures around the inboard shafts. Despite their focus on speed, stability was a hallmark of the Iowa class, enhancing their effectiveness as gun platforms. Remarkably agile for their size, especially the Iowa, they boasted excellent maneuverability.
Characterized by a lengthy, refined bow and a hull that widened sharply in front of the foremost turret, these ships were notably prone to producing substantial spray formations due to their “wet” design. Their weaponry comprised nine 16-inch 50-caliber Mark 7 naval guns with a firing range of up to 23.4 nautical miles, capable of discharging high-explosive and armor-piercing shells. Additionally, the Iowa class incorporated six 5-inch/38 caliber Mark 12 guns that could fire shells at speeds between 2,500 to 2,600 feet per second.
The Iowa Class Battleships in the Korean Conflict
Initially deactivated after World War II, the outbreak of the Korean War led to the reactivation of four Iowa class battleships: Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri, and Wisconsin. Requiring only minor modifications, such as replacing World War II-era floatplanes with helicopters, these battleships were deployed to shell Chinese and North Korean positions along the coastline.
Their armament, both the sixteen-inch and five-inch guns, was employed in these operations. These battleships were not confined solely to coastal targets but also targeted strategic sites like railways, industrial parks, and transportation hubs located up to 20 miles inland from the coast. One of the significant challenges they faced was navigating through the Yellow Sea’s mine-laden waters, which restricted their mobility.
The Iowa Effect
The exact impact of the Iowa battleships on the conflict remains uncertain. The presence of these battleships prompted Communist forces to relocate valuable targets further inland, beyond the battleships’ firing range. It’s worth noting that extensive aerial bombings were conducted by the US, making it challenging to differentiate between the destruction caused by the Iowa class battleships and that wrought by American bombers.
The US Navy acknowledged the Iowa class’s commendable performance, though it was observed that the Iowa battleships were not inherently more effective than smaller, more cost-efficient heavy cruisers deployed for similar roles. Despite the ambiguity surrounding their effectiveness, the Iowa battleships returned to Reserve status after the war. However, their presence during the conflict had a lasting impact, prompting both the North Koreans and Chinese to adjust their naval doctrines in anticipation of potential vulnerabilities to battleship bombardments.