The USS Alaska (CB-1) Was the US Navy’s Impractical Warship

Photo Credit: 1. US Navy Employee / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 2. U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: 1. US Navy Employee / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain 2. U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The USS Alaska (CB-1) was a large, powerful and extremely capable ship built during the Second World War. Going by statistics alone, one could easily confuse her for a battleship, despite the fact she was a large cruiser. This formidable vessel was fast and armed to the teeth, but, due to her late commissioning and the drastically different war conditions from when she was ordered, she had limited use in the conflict.

History behind the Alaska-class of large cruisers

USS Alaska (CB-1) at sea
USS Alaska (CB-1), September 1944. (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The USS Alaska was the lead ship in the Alaska-class of large cruisers. The class was intended to be a family of six vessels, but only Alaska and the USS Guam (CB-2) were completed, while a third was canceled during construction.

They were the largest cruisers built by the United States during World War II, and were unique, as they were the middle ground between cruisers and battleships. Conventional cruisers are fast, heavily-armed and thinly-armored vessels that are useful in situations that need plenty of firepower. The US Navy took a liking to these ships, which, before the war, were limited to 10,000 tons and 8-inch guns by the Washington Naval Treaty.

In the late 1930s, intelligence suggested Japan was building large “super cruisers” that were larger and more powerful than any of the cruisers operated by the US. At this time, the aircraft carrier wasn’t yet dominating the seas, so, to combat these impressive Japanese vessels, the US Navy decided to build large cruisers of its own.

All of the ships, including the unbuilt ones, were named after US territories in homage to their not-quite-battleship, not-quite-cruiser status.

Alaska-class specs

USS Alaska (CB-1) at sea
USS Alaska (CB-1), 1944. (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / Naval History and Heritage Command / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Even though there were only two Alaska-class large cruisers constructed, they were mighty vessels. At 808 feet long, they were about as long as the German battleship Bismarck, and with a displacement of 34,000 tons were heavier than Essex-class carriers. Powered by eight Babcock and Wilcox boilers, the Alaska-class could reach speeds of up to 38 MPH and had a range of 12,000 nautical miles.

As aforementioned, they were heavily-armed. The vessels’ main battery consisted of nine 12-inch/50 Mk 8 naval guns and two forward turrets in a superfiring position and one aft. Six turrets housed another 12 five-inch/38 dual-purpose guns, while 56 quad-mounted Bofors 40 mm guns and 34 single-mounted 20 mm Oerlikon guns served as the ships’ light anti-aircraft defense.

Compared to battleships of the same era, the Alaska-class featured relatively thin armor, but it was by no means poor. Their belt armor was 229 mm thick, while the armor on their deck was 102 mm thick. Their turret faces featured 325 mm-thick armor. This was much less than vessels like the Japanese battleship Yamato or the USS Missouri (BB-63), but was comparable to older and smaller battleships.

Combat in the Pacific Theater had changed come 1944

Crowd watching the USS Alaska (CB-1) being launched
USS Alaska (CB-1) being launched, August 1943 (Photo Credit: U.S. Naval Historical Center / U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Work started on the USS Alaska in December 1941, just days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. She was commissioned on June 17, 1944. By this time, the original purpose for which she was built – to combat Japanese commerce raiders – had never materialized, and the power dynamic at sea had changed.

When Alaska was ordered, heavily-armed ships ruled the seas, but, by mid-1944, aircraft carriers had proven to be the dominant force. Even the most formidable battleships could be attacked by aircraft from hundreds of miles away and couldn’t do a lot to stop them. Lightly-armored vessels like those in the Alaska-class were at particularly high risk, so they were, instead, put to work as fast carrier escorts, defending the vital carriers from air and sea attacks.

The USS Alaska (CB-1) supported US action on Iwo Jima and Okinawa

USS Alaska (CB-1) under attack
USS Alaska (CB-1) under attack, 1945 (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / U.S. Navy All Hands Magazine / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The USS Alaska helped support the US landing at Iwo Jima in February 1945, protecting the USS Enterprise (CV-6) and Saratoga (CV-3). After this, she joined the USS Yorktown (CV-10) and Intrepid (CV-11), which were launching airstrikes on Okinawa.

During the Battle of Okinawa, Alaska had her first taste of combat, being thrown straight into the deep end against a fierce Japanese air strike on the US fleet. She shot down two Japanese aircraft, one of which was attempting to crash into Intrepid.

One night in March 1945, Alaska opened up on Minamidaitō with forty-five 12-inch shells and 352 five-inch shells. Following this, on April 11, she shot down one Japanese aircraft and another that was likely a Kugisho MXY7 Ohka 22.

The USS Alaska (CB-1) was ultimately decommissioned

USS Alaska (CB-1) at sea
USS Alaska (CB-1), August 1944. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / U.S. Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

For the remainder of the Second World War, the USS Alaska conducted similar missions, before spending time as part of the occupation force in Japan. She transported US soldiers home as part of Operation Magic Carpet, and was removed from active service in August 1946. Just under a year later, on February 17, 1947, Alaska was decommissioned.

A few studies were done to see if Alaska and Guam could be repurposed, but it was found this would be too expensive an endeavor. As such, both were stricken from the Naval Vessel Register and scrapped in the early 1960s.

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Despite arriving late to the war (and without much purpose), the USS Alaska was put to work and scored a number of victories, kept her crew safe and earned an impressive three battle stars.

Jesse Beckett

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