The Battleship that Fired the Last Shot of WWII

U.S.S. Massachusetts Battleship, Fall River, Massachusetts (Photo Credit: By Marcbela (Marc N. Belanger) - Own work, Public Domain)
U.S.S. Massachusetts Battleship, Fall River, Massachusetts (Photo Credit: By Marcbela (Marc N. Belanger) - Own work, Public Domain)

USS Massachusetts was from the South Dakota-class of fast battleships built under the limitations enforced by the Washington and London Naval Treaties. As with the other ships in her class, Massachusetts’ size was governed by weight limits but she still maintained good armor protection and firepower, resulting in a very cramped ship. Regardless, these vessels were one of the few notable engineering exceptions that tried to achieve many different things at once and actually ended up as a successful design.

The U.S. Navy battleship USS Massachusetts
The U.S. Navy battleship USS Massachusetts (BB-59) underway in the Atlantic Ocean in 1944 or 1945. She is painted in Modified Measure 12 Camouflage. (Photo Credit: By USN – U.S. Navy photo from the USS Massachusetts (BB-59) World War II cruise book available at, Public Domain)

Arriving to the fight in 1942, Massachusetts continued in service throughout the war, finishing the conflict as the battleship that fired the last shot of WWII. Like many other wartime vessels, she was decommissioned soon after the war ended.

South Dakota-class

The South Dakota-class came as a follow-up to the preceding North Carolina-class, which consisted of just two vessels. The North Carolina-class was designed under strict limitations of the Washington and London Naval Treaties, and as such was limited in displacement to 39,000 tons. Although these treaties were intended to stop a naval arms race, it meant US designers were struggling to create ships that could provide adequate protection, firepower and speed all on the same platform. In many cases, one of these had to be pushed aside.

When more North Carolina-class vessels were desired, it was decided to build a similar, but separate class – the South Dakota-class.

Thanks to the “Escalator Clause,” the US was able to arm both the North Carolina and South Dakota-class with powerful 16-inch guns. The South Dakota-class were slightly smaller than the North Carolinas, but actually carried more armor. This meant the newer class had the same armament, were better protected and could travel at the same speed as their predecessors. As always, though there is a catch, and with the South Dakota-class it was their extremely cramped interior.

USS ''Massachusetts'' (BB-59)
USS ”Massachusetts” (BB-59) as a museum ship in Battleship Cove (Photo Credit: By Rama – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Four South Dakota-class ships were made in total: South Dakota, Indiana, Massachusetts, and Alabama.

Each vessel was equipped with nine 16 inch guns, sixteen to twenty 5 inch dual-purpose guns, seventy-six 40 mm anti-aircraft guns and a further sixty-seven 20 mm anti-aircraft guns. Armor protection was a 300 mm thick belt, 460 mm thick turret faces and up to 155 mm on the decks.

At full combat load, the 680 ft (210) meter long USS Massachusetts weighed nearly 50,000 tons, but could still travel at 27.5 knots (31.6 mph). She carried a crew of 2,500 and had a range of 17,000 miles while traveling at 15 knots.

USS Massachusetts

As the third ship of the class, Massachusetts was commissioned on May 12 1942, and joined the Western Naval Task Force, which was about to support the invasion of North Africa with Operation Torch. After meeting the task force, Massachusetts was involved in the Naval Battle of Casablanca, which saw US ships engage submarines, coastal guns and French warships, despite hopes that there wouldn’t be any strong French resistance.

USS Massachusetts
USS Massachusetts in Puget Sound, January 1946 (Photo Credit: US Navy Photo # NH 46430, Public Domain)

On November 8 1942, USS Wichita and USS Tuscaloosa dealt with the coastal defenses at Casablanca while Massachusetts engaged the incomplete French battleship Jean Bart, which was anchored up in the harbor and only had half of its main battery of guns installed. She eventually struck Jean Bart with five hits, disabling her. Massachusetts fired the first American 16 inch shells in anger of WWII.

A ceasefire was made on November 11. Some of the damage Massachusetts received during this battle can still be seen today.

With these threats dealt with, Massachusetts was needed in the Pacific. She arrived in New Caledonia in March 1943 and quickly got to work as a convoy escort near the Solomon Islands. She would spend the rest of the war in this theatre, mostly serving as a carrier and convoy escort, but she also performed shore bombardments with its powerful 16-inch guns.

USS ''Massachusetts'' (BB-59)
USS ”Massachusetts” (BB-59) as a museum ship in Battleship Cove (Photo Credit: By Rama – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Towards the end of the year, she was involved in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign, helping to soften up Japanese positions on the small islands. Between these actions, she protected carriers against air and surface attacks with her very capable anti-aircraft defenses proving to be extremely useful. She shelled Kwajalein island on January 30 1944 before a Marine assault.

She was involved in operations on Formosa Iwo Jima, Okinawa. Despite constant kamikaze attacks, Massachusetts managed to come out unscathed. She even made it through Typhoon Cobra with only a single crewman being injured. Her final mission of the war was bombarding industrial targets at Hamamatsu. During this, she was joined by the British battleship HMS King George V.

It was at this time that many believe Massachusetts fired the last 16-inch shell in combat of the war.

More from us: The USS Intrepid Survived Four Kamikaze Attacks And Continued In Service For Decades

USS Massachusetts on display
USS Massachusetts (BB-59) museum ship (Photo Credit: Chris Light – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

When the war ended she returned to the US and underwent an overhaul, which was completed by early 1946. On March 27, 1947, she was decommissioned in Norfolk, Virginia, and placed in the Atlantic Reserve Fleet. As with many other veteran WWII ships, research was conducted to see whether Massachusetts could be converted into something useful, but this never materialized. She was stricken from the Naval Register on June 1, 1962.

Thankfully, the fast battleship was saved from the scrapheap and is today preserved as a museum ship. She resides at Battleship Cove, Massachusetts.

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE