Newport News shipbuilders marked the end of an era when they laid down the keel of the yard's last battleship on Nov. 20, 1939.
Called the "longest, widest and luckiest" by the men who built it, the USS Indiana was the 14th and final ship in a long line of Newport News battle wagons that reached back to the USS Kearsarge in 1900, writes historian William A. Fox in "Always Good Ships: Histories of Newport News Ships."
And when work began at the bustling yard, which had to squeeze the vessel into a demanding stream of aircraft carrier, cruiser and destroyer construction, it had been more than a dozen years since the nation's last battleship had been commissioned.
Like the other four vessels of the South Dakota class, BB-58 was more compact and better protected than the two battleships of the slightly earlier North Carolina class, which were laid down in 1937 and '38 but completed at about the same time.
Despite its slight 40-foot disadvantage in length, however, the Indiana still brandished the same main battery of nine 16"-inch guns mounted in three turrets. It also boasted an innovative hull design with an internal armor belt that protected its interior against 16" shells, not to mention both improved anti-torpedo side protection and more powerful engines capable of generating 130,000 horsepower and matching the longer North Carolina class's speed of 27 knots.
Christened on Nov. 21, 1941 -- just 17 days before the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor -- the Indiana was commissioned the following April after a greatly accelerated wartime construction schedule.
Following an equally speedy shakedown in the Atlantic, it joined the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Saratoga in the south and central Pacific in November 1942, providing what the Naval Heritage and History command describes as "a welcome reinforcement to the Navy's surface battle fleet at a critical stage of World War II."
As the U.S. went on the offensive, the Indiana's unusually heavy complement of anti-aircraft guns proved particularly well-suited for helping protect the fast carrier task forces from attacks by enemy planes. It also employed its main battery guns in shore bombardment during numerous operations in the Solomon, Gilbert and Marshall Islands.
Damaged in a nighttime collision off the Marshalls in February 1944, the ship returned from the repair yard in April, when it escorted carriers in raids on Japanese positions in the Carolines.
In June, the Indian joined the campaign in the Marianas, including the pre-invasion bombardment of Saipan and the Battle of the Philippine Sea as well as the "Great Marianas Turkey Shoot" that downed an unprecedented number of enemy aircraft.
During the fall of 1944, the battleship screened the fast carriers striking in the Palaus and the Philippines. Overhauled on the West Coast late that year, it returned to the Western Pacific in January 1945, then took part in the invasion of Iwo Jima, a series of carrier raids on the Japanese Home Islands and the invasion of Okinawa.
In the last weeks of the Pacific War, the Indiana was part of the fleet that conducted the first American naval bombardment of various coastal targets, including a Japan Iron Company plant about 250 miles north of Tokyo, on the Japanese Home Islands.
Returning home soon after the Japanese surrender, the ship was placed in reserve status in September 1946 and formally decommissioned a year later after winning 9 battle stars.
Sold for scrap in the early 1960s, the Indiana's prow was preserved by a California restaurateur who mounted it outside his restaurant for many years.
Later given by the family to the University of Indiana, it can still be seen today on prominent display outside the school's football stadium.
-- Mark St. John Erickson
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