The USS Alaska Was the US Navy’s Impractical Warship

40mm gun practice on USS Alaska (CB-1), 1945, and the U.S. Navy large cruiser USS Alaska (CB-1) underway at sea on 13 January 1945, the day she arrived at Pearl Harbor. (Photo Credit: Naval Historical Center, Public Domain)

The USS Alaska was a large, powerful and extremely capable ship built during WWII. If going by statistics alone, one could easily confuse her for a battleship. Alaska was not a battleship though, instead, she was a large cruiser, sometimes known as a battlecruiser. This formidable vessel was fast and armed to the teeth, but due to her late commissioning and the drastically different conditions from when she was ordered, she had limited use in the war.

Alaska was the lead ship of the Alaska-class, which was meant to be a family of six vessels in total. Only the USS Alaska and USS Guam were completed though, with a third being canceled during construction. They were the largest cruisers built by the US in WWII.

Alaska Class

These ships were unique as they were a middle ground between cruisers and battleships. Conventional cruisers are fast, heavily armed yet thinly armored ships that were useful in situations that needed plenty of firepower, but weren’t worth dedicating an entire battleship to.

USS Alaska asea
USS Alaska photographed underway on September 11, 1944. (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy – here; specifically here, Public Domain)

The US 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, US intelligence suggested that Japan was building large “super cruisers” – much larger and more powerful than any American cruisers – that could speed around the Pacific as commerce raiders.

At this time the aircraft carrier had not yet become the king of the seas, so to combat these Japanese vessels the US decided to build large cruisers of their own; the Alaska-class. All of the ships – including the unbuilt ones – were named after US territories in homage to their not-quite-battleship not-quite-cruiser status.

Even though there were only two of this class, they were mighty vessels. At 808 ft (246 m) long they were about as long as the Bismarck and with a displacement of 34,000 tons they were heavier than Essex-class carriers.

Powered by eight Babcock and Wilcox boilers, the Alaska-class could reach speeds of 33 knots (38 mph) and had a range of 12,000 nautical miles.

As mentioned, these vessels were heavily armed. Their main battery consisted of nine 12 inch (305 mm) L/50 Mark 8 guns in three turrets; two forward turrets in a superfiring position and one aft. Six turrets housed another twelve 5 in (130 mm) L/38 dual-purpose guns while 56 quad-mounted 40 mm (1.6 in) Bofors guns and 34 single-mounted 20 mm (0.79 in) Oerlikon guns served as the ship’s light anti-aircraft defense.

40 mm ammo
40 mm ammo aboard USS Alaska (CB-1) in March 1945 (Photo Credit: Official U.S. Navy photo 80-G-K-3733 from the U.S. Navy Naval History and Heritage Command, Public Domain)

In comparison to their armament and battleships of the same era, the Alaska-class featured thin armor, but it was by no means poor. Their belt armor was 229 mm thick, their deck was 102 mm thick and their turret faces were 325 mm thick. This is much less than something like the Yamato or USS Missouri, but comparable to older and smaller battleships.

USS Alaska

Work started on Alaska in December 1941, just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and launched on August 15, 1943. 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 of the seas had changed. When she was ordered, heavily armed ships ruled the seas, but by mid-1944 aircraft carriers had proven to be the dominant force.

USS Alaska (CB-1) during launching
USS Alaska (CB-1) photographed during launching at the New York Shipbuilding Corp., Camden, New Jersey, on 15 August 1943 (Photo Credit: By U.S. Naval Historical Center – Naval Historical Center, Public Domain)

Even the most formidable battleships could be attacked by hundreds of aircraft from hundreds of miles away, and couldn’t do a great deal to stop it. Lightly armored vessels like the Alaska-class were at a particularly high risk, so they were put to work as fast carrier escorts instead, defending the vital carriers from air and sea attacks.

Alaska helped to support the landing at Iwo Jima in February 1945, protecting the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Saratoga. After this, she joined the carriers Yorktown and Intrepid, 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 American fleet. She shot down two Japanese aircraft, one of which was attempting to crash into Intrepid.

On a night in March, she opened up on Minamidaitō with forty-five 12 inch shells and three hundred and fifty-two 5 inch shells. Then, on April 11, Alaska shot down a Japanese aircraft and another that was likely a Ohka rocket-powered kamikaze aircraft.

under air attack in 1945
USS Alaska (CB-1) under air attack in 1945 (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy – U.S. Navy All Hands magazine March 1948, Public Domain)

For the rest of the war, she conducted similar missions – bombardment and carrier escort – before spending some time as part of the occupation force in Japan shortly after the war. She took US soldiers home as part of Operation Magic Carpet, and was finally removed from active service in August 1946. She was decommissioned on February 17, 1947.

A few studies were done to see if Alaska and Guam could be repurposed, but when it was released this would be too expensive they were both stricken from the naval registry and scrapped in the early 1960s.

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