Life Aboard "Battleship X": The USS South Dakota in World War II

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Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
Life Aboard "Battleship X":
The USS South Dakota
in World War II
Relics of the Second World War still linger on the South Dakota
landscape. A few World War I l-era buildings remain at Ellsworth Air
Force Base near Rapid City and at Joe Foss Field in Sioux Falls, remnants of the facilities constructed there for the Army Air Force in
the massive military buildup following Pearl Harbor. Satellite airfields
for those training bases now serve as municipal airports at Mitchell,
Pierre, and Watertown. Unexploded ordnance still litters what was
once the Badlands Gunnery Range, where B-17 bomber crews from
Rapid City Air Force Base, as Ellsworth was then known, practiced
beforeflyingofftobombGermany. The site of the Black Hills Ordnance Depot at Igloo, built in 1942, continues to provide a focus
for conflicts over large-scale solid-waste disposal in the state. All of
these vestiges of the Big War seem, somehow, part of the landscape
on which they rest. What is probably South Dakota's most unusual
souvenir of the conflict sits far from its element, however. Visitors
to Sherman Park in Sioux Falls can look up the Big Sioux River at
most of what remains of one of the most famous battleships of
World War ( l - t h e USS South Dakota. The story of the battleship
and the affection that South Dakotans developed for it is a unique
chapter in the heritage of the state.
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
Life Aboard "Battleship X"
Officially designated BB 57 (Battleship Number 57) in the ship
nomenclature of the United States Navy, the South Dakota was not
the first American fighting ship to bear the name. !n 1908, the navy
had commissioned the armored cruiser South Dakota, a vessel displacing 13,680 tons and carrying a main armament of eight-inch guns.
Its twenty-two-year span as an active warship far exceeded the less
than five years of its more illustrious successor. Before World War
I, the old South Dakota operated in both the Atlantic and Pacific
oceans. Its initial wartime station was in the southern Atlantic, off
the coast of Brazil. Later in the war, it escorted convoys operating
out of Halifax, Nova Scotia. In 1919, the armored cruiser joined the
Pacific Fleet, serving for a time as its flagship. Renamed the USS
Huron in 1920, the vessel finished its career in the Pacific, performing such services as the good-will visit it made to Japan in 1923 to
assist earthquake victims. Decommissioned in 1930, the Huron was
sold for scrap later that year. Ironically, parts of the old ship may
have aided Japanese efforts to sink the new South Dakota during
The original USS South Dakota, an armored cruiser
commissioned in 1903, was renamed the USS Huron m 1920.
y.*5.a0üTH DAKOTA.orfw/f/J
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
South Dakota History
World War II, a result of Japanese purchases of scrap metal from
the United States in the 1930s.^
During the 1930s, as the growing belligerence of both Germany
and Japan began to threaten world stability, the process of rebuilding
the United States Navy slowly began. On 27 March 1934, Congress
authorized major new ship construction, including that of a battleship to be designated the South Dakota. At the same time, however, isolationist and pacifist sentiment proved strong enough to
block appropriations for most of the authorized ship construction.
While Congress continued to debate the need for naval rearmament,
navy designers refined plans for the next generation of warships.
In 1938, responding to japan's renunciation of all naval treaty obligations and its invasion of China, Congress agreed to fund major shipbuilding programs.2
The new generation of battleships reflected rapidly developing
changes in naval warfare. Two new weapons, the submarine and the
airplane, had rendered battleships more vulnerable than in the days
when other battleships were their only deadly adversaries. Newgeneration vessels of the South Dakota class, their predecessors of
the North Carolina class, and the ultimate heavyweights of the Iowa
class all shared characteristics intended to make it harder for airplanes and submarines to catch and destroy them. In addition to
speed and maneuverability, the modernized battleships had thicker
armored decks, sixteen-inch main batteries, and five-inch secondary
batteries in twin mounts.^
When Congress funded the South Dakota in 1938, Navy Department shipyards were inundated with new construction projects.
Consequently, the South Dakota became the first battleship since
1. U. S., Department of the Navy, Naval History Division, Ships' Histories Section,
"History of USS South Dakota (BB 57)," n.d., p. 1. The armored cruiser was renamed
because construction of a new, state-of-the-art battleship to be called the South Dakota
had begun in 1920. The vessel was never built, however. When it was nearly forty
percent complete, it became a casualty of the Washington Treaty for Limitation of
Naval Armament, which was intended to end a rapidly escalating naval arms race
among the United States, Creat Britain, and Japan. The Washington Treaty required
the scrapping of nearly all capital ships (battle cruisers and battleships like the South
Dakota) under construction and the destruction of many older ships as well. Russell
F. Weigley, The American Way of War: A History of United States Military and Strategy
Policy (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co,, 1973), pp. 243-45.
2. Alan R. Millett and Peter Maslowski, For the Common Defense: A Military History
of the United States of America (New York; Free Press, 1984), pp. 386-87
3. Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War
II, vol. 1: The Battle of the Atlantic, September 1939-May 1943 (Boston: Little, Brown
& Co., 1970), p. Iviii.
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
Life Aboard "Battleship X"
the early 1920s to be built at a private shipyard, the New York Shipbuilding Corporation of Camden, New )ersey. The South Dakota's
keel was laid 5 July 1939, and the project ran ahead of schedule from
the beginning. Launching ceremonies were held four months ahead
of the originally projected date. Displacing 28,000 tons at launching,
the South Dakota was the heaviest United States ship constructed
up to that time. Its $52.8 million price tag also made it one of the
most expensive ships in the navy's inventory.'*
Battleship launchings have long been a favorite navy public-relations ploy, and the trip of the South Dakota down the ways at Camden was no exception. Scheduled for 7 june 1941, the launching
created considerable excitement in the ship's namesake state. Naval
tradition attributed feminine gender to all ships {even those named
after men), and women were preferred as sponsors at official launching ceremonies. The honor of christening the South Dakota fell to
Vera Bushfield, the wife of South Dakota governor Harlan Bushfield.
Her delegation of four hundred South Dakotans, including the Sioux
Falls Washington High School Band, would compose almost a third
of the fifteen hundred invited guests. Worsening relations between
the United States and Japan contributed to a sense of urgency that
the South Dakota be readied as soon as possible. The public was
barred from the launching ceremony, and there would be no official day off in the shipyard, whose thirteen thousand employees
would see the battleship down the ways on their lunch break.^
In some respects, the adventures and misadventures surrounding
the launching of the USS South Dakota provided a preview of its
eventful career. The ceremonies, scheduled for 12:45 in the afternoon, did not begin until 1:20, when the tide in the Delaware River
had risen sufficiently to prevent grounding the ship. Some officials
welcomed the delay, because they were struggling with a difficult
question of protocol. The launching ceremonies were being covered
by several major radio networks, which had recently concluded a
bitter labor dispute by agreeing to use only union musicians on their
broadcasts. By no stretch of the imagination did the Washington
High School Band, which was scheduled to play at the ceremony,
fit the definition of union labor. James C. Petrillo, president of the
American Federation of Musicians, refused to allow the networks
to carry the high school band's music. Other officials overruled him
at the last minute, however, and the Washington High band re4. Paul Stillwell, USS South Dakota: The Story of "Battleship X" ([Sioux Falls, S.Dak.]:
Battleship South Dakota Memorial Association, 1972), pp. 1-4.
5. Ibid., pp. 2-3; Sioux Falls Daily Argus-Leader, 8 June 1941.
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
Dwarfed by
the giant
vessel (above).
South Dakota's
first lady Vera
Bushfield prepares
to christen the
USS South Dakota.
Shortly thereafter,
the battleship
slid down the
ways at the
Camden, New ¡ersey,
shipyard (right).
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
Life Aboard "Battleship X"
sponded with the "Star-Spangled Banner" and "Anchors Aweigh."
With the traditional "I christen thee South Dakota'/ Vera Bushfield
pushed the ritual champagne bottle toward the ship's bow, and the
navy's newest battleship slid into the water."*
Bushfield's bottle was not the only one to hit the South Dakota
that day. A shipyard official broke another bottle of champagne, one
that had begun its long career as a wedding gift from Howard Trask
of Pierre to his sweetheart, Geneviève, on Thanksgiving Day in 1912.
The champagne survived the marriage ceremony when the couple
decided to save it for another special occasion. Their offer to donate
it for the dedication of the Missouri River bridge between Pierre
and Fort Pierre in 1926 was turned down when officials deemed the
alcohol inappropriate for a prohibition-era ceremony. By the time
the Trasks offered their bottle for the South Dakota christening, it
had evaporated to become half a bottle, and there was concern that
it might not break properly. It did, however, and the pieces found
their way back to South Dakota in an inscribed mahogany souvenir
Even though it had been christened and launched, the South
Daitofa was far from complete. Turrets, guns, and mostof the ship's
superstructure were added at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. By the
time this work was finished, the nation was at war. While the ship's
official commissioning day was 20 March 1942, construction continued until 4 June, when it sailed for its first brief sea trials in
Chesapeake Bay. The crew of 115 officers and 1,678 men, who had
begun arriving in early March, then sailed the ship to Casco Bay
off the Maine coast, where they test-fired its sixteen-inch main batteries. By mid-August, the South Dakota was ready for wartime sea
The completed South Dakota was 680 feet long, 108 feet and two
inchesat its greatest beam, and displaced 35,000 tons. It drew almost
thirty feet of water. Eight Babcock and Wilcox oil-fired boilers, which
supplied steam to four General Flectric geared turbines, powered
6. Sioux Falls Daily Argus-Leader, 8 june 1941.
7. Ibid., 7 Sept. 1969,
8. Stillwelt, USS South Dakota, p. 4; "History of USS South Dakota (BB 57)," p.
14. During World War II, several South Dakotans served aboard the ship named after
their home state. Navy Department records compiled shortly after the war's end indicated the following men: Thomas D. Morris of Sioux Falls, Herbert G. Klein of
Calriche, Roy Flores of Ortley, G. ). Hirshman of Yankton, David |. Wipf of Fthan, Francis
Hojnacke of Butler, and Stanley Holbetk of Colman. Howard Anderson, "Battleship
South Dakota in World War II," in South Dakota in World War II, ed. Will G. Robinson ([Pierre, S.Dak.]: World War II History Commission, n.d.), p. 437.
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
South Dakota History
the vessel, whose maximum speed of twenty-seven knots placed
it in the navy's "fast battleship" category. Fast battleships were able
to steam in task forces with aircraft carriers, a trait that would determine the type of action its men would see during World War II. The
nine sixteen-inch guns in the ship's main batteries, which could fire
shells weighing over a ton, had a range of almost thirty thousand
yards. The superstructure included quarters for an admiral, an arrangement that limited secondary-gun-mount space to eight pairs
of five-inch guns. South Dakota-class sister ships, like the Indiana,
Massachusetts, and Alabama, each mounted ten five-inch gun turrets. The South Dakota's antiaircraft armament initially consisted of
seven 1.1-inch quad mounts (for a total of twenty-eight guns) and
thirty-five twenty-millimeter guns, an arrangement that would
change drastically as the navy gained knowledge of the damage air
attacks could inflict on fighting ships. Two catapults on the ship's
stern were used to launch OS2U Kingfisher spotting planes."
The first commanding officer of the USS South Dakota was Capt.
Thomas L. Gatch, whose eccentricities made him something of a
navy legend. A 1912 Annapolis graduate, Gatch had no prior combat experience and had, in fact, spent much of his career ashore
in the office of the navy's judge advocate. He was a great admirer
of Shakespeare and an avid student of the American Civil War. A
deeply religious man, he revived the old navy custom of the ship's
captain reading the lesson at religious services on board. Gatch also
adopted a simple philosophy concerning the mission of the South
Dakota, which, he believed, existed solely to destroy enemy fighting
ships and planes. Because the vessel's guns were the only means
to accomplish this mission, its sailors should know how to shoot.
As a result, Gatch emphasized gunnery at the expense of almost
every other task on shipboard. Historians and those who knew him
personally agree that the captain's men adored him and that the
South Dakota earned a reputation unique among the navy's battleships. Spit-and-polish ritual was noticeably absent. Gatch allowed
his men to wear anything or nothing. The sailors have been described as looking like a lot of wild men, and the ship was said to
have been dirty—except for its guns.'" However, according to naval
historian Samuel Eliot Morison, "No ship more eager to fight ever
entered the Pacific, for Captain Gatch, by . . . exercising a natural
9. "History of USS Soui/ïDa/iofa (BB 57)," p. 14; Stillwell, USS South Dakota, p. 16.
10. An interesting and readable profile of Captain Gatch by Capt. |. V. Claypool,
chaplin of the South Dakota, appears in the 13 May 1944 issue of the Chicago Tribune.
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
Life Aboard "Battleship X"
The USS South Dakota had a single funnel, or smokestack,
and four five-inch gun turrets on both sides, giving it a slightly
different appearance from other battleships in the navy's fleet.
gift for leadership, had welded the green crew into a splendid
fighting team."^'
On 16 August 1942, three years to the day before Japan's surrender,
the South Dakota began a long voyage to the South Pacific and to
war. By the beginning of September, it was headed for the Solomon
Islands as the flagship of Battleship Division Six, commanded by
Vice-Admiral Willis A. Lee, Jr. At Tongatabu, in the Tonga Islands, the
ship struck a reef, severely damaging its hull and necessitating a
return to Pearl Harbor for repairs. In the long run, the accident may
have been fortunate, for workers also replaced the ship's 1.1-inch
11. Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World Wör
//, vol. 5: The Struggle for Cuadalcanal, August 1942-February 1943 (Boston: Little, Brown
& Co., 1975), p. 200.
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
South Dakota History
antiaircraft guns with forty-millimeter guns in quad mounts. These
weapons were highly effective against aircraft, and the vessel would
eventually have seventeen of the quad mounts. Early in October,
the South Dakota, the carrier Enterprise (affectionately known as
the "Big-E"), and their escorting destroyers headed back to the
South Pacific to join the desperate battle for Guadalcanal.'^
In the fall of 1942, Guadalcanal Island in the Solomons was the
focus of a vast campaign to control the South Pacific. A United States
Marine landing force had established an airfield on the island in
August. Japanese troops fought desperately to drive the Americans
into the sea, where Japanese naval units also sought to win control. By the time the South Dakota and the Enterprise arrived, several
bloody naval battles had al ready been fought. When a large Japanese
fleet, including three carriers, moved in to sweep the American navy
from the area, the result was the 26 October Battle of the Santa Cruz
The Santa Cruz engagement was a long-range battle, with distant
United States and Japanese carrier forces exchanging air strikes. Playing a major role in the battle was Task Force 16, commanded by Rear
Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid and made up of the South Dakota, the
Enterprise, two cruisers, and eight destroyers. At the time, the navy
was still perfecting its tactics for defending against air attacks. Enemy
planes that slipped past a ship's first line of defense, its combat air
patrol, were to be engaged by the ships' antiaircraft guns. Carriers
were prime targets for the Japanese, who quickly broke through the
Enterprise's combat air patrol, which had been placed too close to
the ships. Maneuvering to within one thousand yards of the Big-E,
the South Dakota put out a withering volume of antiaircraft fire.
Crew members claimed thirty-two enemy aircraft destroyed, and the
battleship was officially credited with twenty-six. Three bombs hit
the Enterprise, but it was able to continue operations. Bombs and
torpedoes repeatedly hit and eventually sank the carrier Hornet,
operating in a separate supporting task force whose escorting
cruisers and destroyers had much less firepower. The protection of
the Enterprise by the South Dakota indicated the value of fast battleships in the support of carriers.
The South Dakota itself did not escape the Santa Cruz engagement unscathed. A five-hundred-pound bomb hit the main gun turret, but the massive sixteen-inch gun mount was so heavily protected
that most of the gun crew did not realize they had been hit. A number of crew members standing on the bridge were less fortunate.
12. Ibid.; "History of USS South Dakota (BB 57)," p. 1.
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
Life Aboard "Battleship X"
Bomb fragments hit the group, which included Captain Gatch, and
a number of men were injured. Quick action by two quartermasters
saved the life of the skipper, whose jugular vein had been severed.
Of the fifty crew members wounded, one died. The confusion on
the bridge nearly caused an even greater disaster. Running out of
control, the South Dakota headed directly toward the Enterprise,
which beat a hasty retreat. When control was transferred aft to the
executive officer, the battleship steadied and moved back to protect the carrier. Caught up in the intensity of the battle, the South
Dakota crew continued to fire at anything in the air, including, unfortunately, six SBD dive bombers returning to the Enterprise. Their
planes running low on fuel, the pilots begged the carrier's air controller to call off its battleship.'^ This incident may have sparked the
South Dakota's reputation for shooting first and asking questions
later. Navy veteran Donald E. Young of Spearfish recalls that navy
fliers had a simple rule regarding the ship named after his home
state: "Don't fly anywhere near that big so-and-so; she'll shoot you
Although the United States Navy suffered heavier losses, the engagement at Santa Cruz forced Japanese carrier forces to retire
northward. Attempts to reinforce Japanese troops on Guadalcanal
continued, however. During the night of 26-27 October, the South
Dakota collided with the destroyer Mahan while attempting to avoid
a Japanese submarine. Officials decided to repair the battleship temporarily, for the likelihood of new attacks made it essential to keep
every ship in operation. On the morning of 14 November, a large
Japanese naval force shelled Henderson Eield on Guadalcanal
Island. Task Force 64, including the Enterprise, the Washington, and
the South Dakota (whose command Captain Gatch had resumed
after recovering from his injuries), steamed up from the south to
engage the attackers. By that evening, Japanese naval units were
known to be moving toward Cape Esperance on Guadalcanal. The
Enterprise could not conduct nighttime air operations, so Task Force
64 commander Admiral Lee took the South Dakota, the Washington,
and four destroyers on a search for the enemy. Near Savo Island
shortly before midnight, the destroyers encountered Japanese
destroyers and cruisers, which quickly sunk or heavily damaged all
four American ships. Two Japanese heavy cruisers and the battleship
13. Ibid., pp. 2-3; Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, pp. 210, 214-15, 218; Stillwell,
USS South Dakota, p. 8; John Costello, The Pacific War (New York: Rawson, Wade,
1981), pp. 361-64.
14. Interview with Donald E. Young, Spearfish, S.Dak., 17 Jan. 1993.
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
South Dakota History
Kirishima then moved in for the kill, while the South Dakota and
the Washington also closed in on the action. As the South Dakota
moved toward its radar contacts, it lost all electrical power. Even
though power was restored three minutes later, most of the ship's
radar continued to malfunction. Losing contact with the Washington,
it steamed through the darkness directly toward the Japanese vessels, which fired thirty-four torpedoes. By some miracle, the American battleship managed to dodge them all. When the South Dakota
had approached within five thousand yards of the enemy, the
Japanese ships shined searchlights on it and opened fire.^^
During the next few minutes, a rare event in World War II naval
history occurred—a direct surface action between battleships. Focusing their entire attention on the Soui/i Da/roía, the Japanese repeatedly lobbed five- to fourteen-inch shells, scoring forty-two hits in
all and producing casualties of thirty-eight men killed and sixty
wounded. The firing allowed the Washington crew to get a clear view
of the positions of both the South Dakota and the enemy. Absolutely
unhampered, the Washington concentrated on destroying the
Kirishima. Within seven minutes, the Japanese battleship took nine
sixteen-inch and forty five-inch shells. Reduced to a flaming wreck,
it sank a few hours later. The South Dakota, which had one inoperable main turret, major radar damage, and a number of superstructure fires, left the battle at full speed. Mostof the surviving Japanese
ships also retired. The rapid disappearance of the South Dakota after
what became known as the Second Battle of Savo Island caused
the Japanese to believe that the ship had been sunk. Because
aviators had mistakenly reported it lost in the Battle of the Santa
Cruz Islands, this "sinking" was the ship's second. Naval intelligence
chose to encourage the belief, and, for a time, the South Dakota
was identified only as "Battleship X" in dispatches. The press later
referred to it as "Old Nameless." To the sailors aboard, the South
Dakota was always simply the "Sodak." Whatever the ship's name,
the survival instincts of its men were excellent. The crew of the
unscathed Washington was relieved to find the South Dakota waiting
at a prearranged meeting point at 0900 the next morning.'"
Damage to the South Dakota was serious enough to force it to
return to the United States for repairs. While the ship refitted at
15 Costello, Pacific War, pp. 369-71; Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, pp. 223, 277-79;
"History of USS South Dakota (BB 57)," pp. 3-S. At the beginning of the war, the ability of the Japanese navy to fight night actions had clearly been superior. American
use of radar, at which Admiral Lee was expert, largely negated this advantage.
16 Morison, Struggle for Guadalcanal, p. 279; "History of USS South Dakota (BB
57)," p. 4; Stillwell, USS South Dakota, p. 1.
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
Life Aboard "Battleship X"
the Brooklyn Navy Yard, Captain Gatch and the crew got plenty of
attention from an American public and media eager to find war
heroes. Here, direct from the South Pacific, was a real American
fighting ship and crew. Ironically, the Washington, still on duty in
the South Pacific, received little attention for its exploits at the Second Battle of Savo Island. Following sixty-two days of repairs, the
South Dakota was again ready for sea duty. Capt. Lynde D. McCormick took the place of Captain Gatch, who had been reassigned
Upon leaving the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Soui/i Dakota began
a unique chapter in its wartime career. Unlike many other American
battleships, which served in only one theater of operations, the
South Dakota would claim both Pacific and Atlantic service. In June
1943, it joined an Anglo-American effort to bag the German navy's
most elusive battleship, the Tirpitz. Sent north from German home
waters to Trondheim, Norway, in January 1942, the presence of the
Tirpitz posed a substantial danger to Allied convoys headed for
North Russia on the Murmansk run. Convoy escorts were generally made up of cruisers and destroyers, whose thin hulls and lighter
guns made them no match for the big German battleship. Air attacks launched from carriers might have neutralized the Tirpitz, but
in 1942 and 1943, Allied carriers were precious resources that rarely
saw duty as convoy escorts.
British attempts to destroy the Tirpitz had been repeatedly frustrated. In mid-March 1943, the British admiralty decided to suspend
the North Russian convoys, and the search for a means to dispose
of the Tirpitz intensified. Anglo-American naval planners finally
decided to position British and American warships provocatively
close to the Tirpitz's anchorage. Allied ships cruising along the Norwegian coast might lure the big German ship into a battle, where
surface and air units held in reserve could destroy it. Aside from
the Tirpitz itself, the primary danger to the ships acting as bait would
be German planes based in Norway Because the fast American battleships had demonstrated excellent ability to defend themselves
from air attacks in the South Pacific, the South Dakota and her sister
ship, the Alabama, were chosen as primary lures. In July and early
August 1943, the two ships cruised the Norwegian coast, daring the
7/rp/fz to come out and fight. Direct orders from Hitler kept the ship
in port, however, foiling the decoy-and-ambush pían. In August 1943,
the South Dakota gave up and, with its destroyer screen, steamed
westward toward the Pacific. In the unsuccessful effort to bag the
17. "History of USS South Dakota (BB 57)," p. 5,
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
South Dakota History
Aside from the ships hit at Pearl Harbor, the South Dakota was
among the most heavily damaged battleships of World War II. It went into dry
dock several times for repairs during its active five-year career.
Tirpitz, the South Dakota had twice crossed the Arctic Circle, operating to almost seventy degrees north latitude, perhaps as far north
as any American battleship in the war.^**
Upon returning to the Pacific, the Soutb Dakota found itself engaged in a naval war in which the United States was rapidly gaining
the upper hand. Between mid-November 1943 and june 1944, the
ship participated in actions in the Caroline Islands, against the big
Japanese base at Truk, and in support of Marine landings on the
18. The South Dakota crew was not alone in its failure to bag the Tirpitz. The German battleship survived damage inflicted during a British midget submarine attack
in the fall of 1943 and an attack by British carrier aircraft in April 1944. British Lancaster bombers carrying twelve-thousand-pound bombs finally sunk it on 12 November 1944. Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World
War 11, vol. 10: The Atlantic Battle Mton, May 1943-May 1945 (Boston: Little, Brown &
Co., 1975), pp. 231, 310.
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
Life Aboard "Battleship X"
Marianas Islands. Most of the ship's activities involved providing
antiaircraft protection for carriers and the bombardment of landing
beaches prior to invasions. When hundreds of Japanese planes attacked fleet operations near Guam on 19 June 1944, the South Dakota
had the unpleasant distinction of being the only major ship damaged. A five-hundred-pound bomb hit the superstructure, destroying the captain's quarters and killing or wounding sixty-five men.
By the end of the day, fleet surface and air units, including the Souih
Dakota, had accounted for 402 enemy planes in an engagement that
would be remembered as the "Marianas Turkey Shoot." At the end
of the Marianas operation, the South Dakota again returned to the
United States for repairs and overhaul lasting through July and
August 1944.'"
When the battleship returned to the war, it carried some new crew
members, including a journalist-turned-sailor from Metropolis, Illinois. His writings and copies of ship's crew letters that he sent home
to southern Illinois provide some valuable glimpses of life aboard
theUSSSoui/7 Da/rofa during the last year of the war. Little is known
about Seaman Allan Vernon Robinson. He worked for the Metropolis
Republican-Herald, a small weekly newspaper, for several years
before and after serving in the navy. Sometime in 1948, he left his
spouse, Mayme Teuton Robinson, moved on to find other work, and
disappeared. Mayme Robinson spent the rest of her life in
Metropolis, and the wartime writings of her husband eventually
found their way into the estate of her friend, Mildred Parr of
Metropolis. Following Parr's death in 1992, her son, Ron Parr, gave
the materials to the author, a childhood friend. They are now part
of the collections of the South Dakota State Historical Society.
Most of Seaman Robinson's writings reflect on the uncertainties
of life aboard the South Dakota. One brief essay, written at the end
of the war and entitled "Some Anxious Moments," explains that
soldiers and sailors often experienced little fear in pitched battles,
which had usually been expected and prepared for. "It was the
sometimes small, sometimes large, spontaneous, unannounced actions that threw more fear into one," he wrote. "You did not always
know what the enemy had in mind and what might start as small
and insignificant may [sic] turn out into something you were most
totally unprepared for. Added to these uncertainties was the peculiar
psychology of the Jap: He fought to die; we fought to live."
Robinson continued his chronicle of "anxious moments" with
memories of the role the South Dakota crew played in the Caroline
19. "History of USS South Dakota (BB 57)," pp. 5-a
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
South Dakota History
Islands landings of late September 1944. Ulithi Island, the easternmost atoll in the Caroline chain, had a deepwater harbor that could
shelter a large fleet. As American naval forces approached the island,
Japanese units evacuated, and it was captured without opposition
on 22 September 1944. Upon receiving this word, Robinson recalled:
the South Dakota with an escort of two destroyers headed north to be the
first heavy ship into Ulithi lagoon. The Japs hacl heavily mined the entrance
and a few mine sweepers were hastily sweeping the channel. A few mines
were certain to be missed the first time, and one of these blew to match
sticks a sweeper just ahead of us. It was a frightening sight to see an entire ship lift up and disintegrate before your eyes. There were Americans
on that sweeper; men just like me, who rioped to go home some day; just
as I did.
Death came to many other Americans in the struggle for nearby
Peleliu Island, which was heavily defended and required over two
months of bloody fighting to capture. During this time, fleet units,
including the USS South Dakota, stood by to protect the island
assault forces. Robinson wrote of two of the unexpected but inevitable attacks that terrorized the men on the battleship:
Ulithi was an advance anchorage and was supposed to be a haven for
rest and recreation, among other things, but the Japs would not leave us
alone. They were based yet on Yap and a few isolated islands in the rest
of the Carolines. They never came in force, but just enough to heckle and
would sometimes get in a good blow. While anchored here at one time,
another and I were sleeping topside on the first superdeck forward, starboard. About 6 a.m. I heard^a dull thud but just rolled over paying no attention. My buddy then gave me a punch and told me something was
happening up forward. I jumped up and dead ahead a tanker was just beginning to burn. As we watched Captain (now Admiral) [R. A.] Riggs came out
to view the situation. The tanker was beginning to blow up and burn furiously. We immediately went to general quarters and trie destroyers and
destroyer escorts began dropping their depth charges. One or two midget
subs had gotten in arid torpedoea the tanker. A torpedo is a fierce weapon
and the nasty holes it can tear in a ship can soon send it to the bottom.
We could hear and feel the depth charges exploding against our bottom
and sides. The Dds and Des [destroyers and destroyer escortsj were laying
a pattern of charges. We were in the suspense of never knowing when we
might take a torpedo and we had hundreds of men below decks, fortunately
the tanker was the only ship hit. Two midget subs were brought to the surface and a large sub was struck dead in the water just outside the entrance
nets and towed Into captivity. Breakfast was latetnat morning, but we had
lived through another scrape.
Still later and again at Ulitrii, movies were being shown on the main deck
aft. The lagoon was filled with supply ships and war ships of all kinds. The
Wrangelt, an ammunition ship, loaded to trie gunwales with bombs, powder
and ammunition was tied sharply alongside the South Dakota. We were
always uneasy when a powder ship was at our side. I was sitting at a corner of No. 3 turret watching the show; a good thousand others were there
too. The carrier Randolph was anchored just off our starboard quarter. Suddenly a huge flame rose from the stern of the Randolph. It was so sudden
no one realized what was happening. We didn't even rise. A second later
agreat ball of orange shot up from thecarrier—magazines were exploding.
We knew it then—it was an air attack; sirens started screaming and the
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
Life Aboard "Battleship X"
stampede began. 1 drew my chair in front of me to get a little protection
from the mob. I thought 1 had plenty of time and would let the stampede
pass before I joined in the rush to battle stations. The ammunition ship
was tied to our port beam and I was on the port side. Before the mob cleared
another great explosion went up to port and forward, and its center again
was a ball of orange fire. Lines to the ammunition ship were cut witri an
axe and it was shoved off. If that ship had blown up triere would not be
a man alive in the harbor. The two hits were suiciders. The Randolph was
not seriously hurt and the other hit was on Asor Island. You can say for
me that I was scared.
Another rendezvous with the Wrangell in May 1945 nearly proved
deadly as the South Dakota took on supplies and ammunition at
the end of a bombardment campaign against Okinawa. Robinson
recalled that the ammunition ship was positioned
80 feet to the starboard and steaming at 10 knots. Lines were over and
powder was coming aboard the South Dakota. The great tanks of high
capacity powder were being lowered below decks to trie fourth level and
from there into the magazines. Tanks were standing in the trunk, or passageway, and the magazine doors were open. Suddenly a tank blew up.
We heard a muffled explosion throughout the ship; then another and still
a third in quick succession. A fourth tank exploded while the sirens and
alarms sounded. Each one of these tanks contained 300 pounds of powder
and each explosion spread burning powder through the decks around the
trunk. The ship billowed smoke. The decks around the trunk were solid
masses of flame. All personnel not connected with fire-fighting assembled
on the main deck to abandon ship if necessary. When it was all over 11
men were dead and 32 injured. That experience caps them alt for fright.
Even when the men had prepared themselves for the worst, the
unexpected often intervened to create a situation that was suspenseful, to say the least. Robinson recalled that the ship's duty in the
South China Sea from 12 to 21 January 1945 had been "introduced
with as terrific a typhoon as we had ever experienced" and "was
no sideshow" when compared with his other wartime experiences.
The ship continued to encounter the unexpected, Robinson wrote:
Returning from Hong Kong, Swatow and Amoy on the China Coast brought
us a bad nour. We emerged from the South China Sea at the northern tip
of Luzon and began the 100 mile passage through the Luzon straits. The
straits were narrow and the Japs were stnl strong, and were waiting for us.
The midnight attack was expected and we were prepared for it. But at daybreak after a sleepless night, as we neared the eastern end of the straits
with the open sea in sight, the South Dakota fouled a screw and had to
come dead in the water. As destroyers screened us, and divers went over
the side, we stood by for a torpedo, but Lady Luck was still with us,^**
Luck stayed with Robinson throughout his tenure on the South
Dakota. From late 1944 until the Japanese surrendered in August
20. Allan Vernon Robinson, "Some Anxious Moments," 10 Aug. 1945, South Dakota
State Historical Society, Pierre, S.Dak. (this repository is hereafter cited as SDSHS).
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
South Dakota History
1945, the battleship served mainly in carrier escort and shore bombardment, supporting operations against the enemy on Okinawa
and in the Philippines. Most memorable of all the bombardments
were the ship's actions against the Japanese home islands, which
took place near the end of the war. On 14 July 1945, the South Dakota
became the first enemy warship in almost a century to fire directly
on Japanese shores. Robinson left no record of this first attack on
the Japanese Imperial Iron Works at Kamaishi, 275 miles north of
Tokyo, but he vividly described the bombardment of the same target
on 9 August 1945:
Shortly before noon we opened fire with our 16 inch guns and kept at
it until about 3 p.m. That is hard work, and it grew harder as the powder
charges were gradually increased to get more range and to drive larger
projectiles through the air. Kamaishi was burning smartly. The bombard-
Crewman Allan
Robinson recalled
that the concussion
from the broadsides
firing of the
South Dakota's
sixteen-inch guns
"stood your hair
on end."
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
Life Aboard "Battlesbip X"
ment charges were running low so larger high capacity charges were substituted. The flashes burned your eyes, the concussion jarred you off your
feet, the blast blew off you[r] hat, tore at your clothes and stood your hair
on end in wild disorder; to keep your phones on you had to hold them
with your hands. All the while Kamaishi was being systematically and
methodically erased.
As the rapidity of fire increased, targets decreased. When the 5 inch guns
quit there were not enough targets fit for a .22 rifle. It had been a good
aay's shooting. As it might take a naif-dozen 16 inch shots to sink any possible Jap ship that might dispute our retirement, we saved seven rourids
against that possibility. We riad exhausted outr] heavy shells. Other ships
laying off that did not participate in the bombardment stood by to give
us protection if needed.
Tired and hungry, we retired in the middle afternoon. Kamaishi was
Again, the unexpected intervened in "a fight that was as fierce
as it was freakish." Following the bombardment, Robinson remem-
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
South Dakota History
bered, " w e . . . served ourselves hot soup and coffee, and sprawled
anywhere that there was room for a little rest. But there was no rest
yet. Three Jap planes roared into the formation." He described the
subsequent raid:
A three-plane raid is a puny one, a penny-ante raid, but they might get
a ship if^they chose to suicide it. The picket destroyers opened up and
missed. Then the cruisers and carriers opened up, and missed. Attracted
by gunfire many on the South Dakota went on deck to see the show. When
our own guns opened up, there was no question asto what to do. We tore
through tneship to battle stations like greased lightning, tired as we were.
In a way it was a show. Three stinking planes that couldn't be hit. They
dived and recovered; they ducked and dodged; squirmed in and out of
anti-aircraft fire like snakes, but they couldn^ get a target. At length every
ship in the formation was pumping anti-aircraft with the fury that marked
the first days in the Philippines, wnen 100-200 plane raids were common
affairs. No one can say who got these three bogies but they hit the drink
In quick succession when the hail really got thick. And that was the end
of tne day.^'
Some of those sailors scrambling to battle stations on the South
Dakota during the second bombardment of Kamaishi were wearing unconventional garb. With the exception of a brief pause for
repairs at Guam in June 1945, the South Dakota had been operating
at sea almost continuously for nearly a year. Aside from ammunition, fuel, and provisions, opportunities to resupply had been
limited. Robinson recalled that the sailors had been especially glad
to receive one new issue—trousers—but that some of them had
seemed a bit odd. After conducting some detective work, Robinson wrote a brief essay, dated 10 August 1945 and entitled "Milady's
Pants." It offers some insight into the origin of the strange garments
and displays attitudes typical of the time before the American armed
forces had seriously begun to confront such issues as women serving in combat:
At first they seemed alright, but this feeline soon gave way to an uncomfortableness. I promptly took them off anii gave triem away without having satisfactorily explained to myself the reason why the discomfiture. But
that feeling of having invaded something inviolate persisted for some days
afterward and mysteriously disturbed my peace of mind. Others who had
done the same thing expressed a like feeling but offered no acceptable
explanation. All who tried them felt as if they were where they ougrit not
to be. These pants were definitely not suitable for males; perhaps to piay
in, but not to work in.
After being in this situation for months the navy comes up with a public
announcement which clears up the mystery ana permits a discussion of
the subject. It seems an enormous excess of dungarees, tailored and styled
for Waves and Spars, were sent to ships at sea for use by that unimportant
part of the Navy that is manned by men. That announcement explains a
21. Robinson, "The War's End," 1 Sept. 1945, SDSHS.
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
Life Aboard "Battleship X"
lot of things and removes all trepidation on our part. We didn't know the
pants were for the women.
. . . The women, God bless 'em! Who can deny their influence is allencompassing. But if you want to know what is wrong with the Navy—it's
gone panty-waist.
Please send us some rouge and nail polish.^^
More glimpses of American society in the 1940s and of life aboard
the battleship are scattered throughout the mimeographed "crew
letters" that Robinson also sent home. These items were produced
so that the ship's crew could send information on their activities
back to the home front without violating wartime censorship rules.
The crew letters were not written according to any schedule but
seem to have appeared whenever circumstances allowed. The mailing of a Mother's Day letter was delayed "because of a lamentable
shortage of air mail stamps." The writer concluded, "We were thinking of you, however, and as this letter tells you the ship and its complement are still in one piece." Although there is no direct evidence
that Robinson wrote these letters, he may have been the author.
The writing style resembles that of his essays, and handwritten comments at the bottom of several of them—"I hope you enjoy this"—
raise the possibility of Robinson's authorship.^^
While the American armed forces were segregated according to
gender during World War II, the crew letters from the Souf/i Dakota
indicate that, while prejudice continued to operate, some racial integration existed aboard the ship:
In one of our actions some time ago the colored boys on the machine guns
saw something dropping from the Jap bombing plane—and it wasn't grapes,
grandma! They kept firing on the Nip despite their imminent danger from
trie bomb. A marine near by who also saw what was coming and knowing
that the plane had no more bombs but had very accurate machine guns
shouted to them, "Drop down, drop down on the deck!" They stood erect
and continued to fire. Suddenly all was silence as the plane, a flaming comet, trailed off into the sea. The machine gun had only crumbled figures
around it. Some of the boys were taken to sick bay. One of them, heavily
bandaged and sorely wounded, was asked: "Did you hear the marine call
to you to lay on the deck?" "Yes, we heard," came the answer, "but that
ain't no way for a fighting man to die—laying on the deck."
Stories of such wartime heroism, patriotism, and the need for
everyone to sacrifice and do his or her part found their way into
each crew letter:
We are sorry to be away at Christmas time. Perhaps in another year we
can all beat home. At the present time it is difficult for everyone, but when
22. Robinson, "Milady's Pants," 10 Aug. 1945, SDSHS.
23. USS South Dakota, "Crew Letter Number Eight," 20 Mar. 1945, and "Crew Letter No. 9," 19 May 1945, SDSHS.
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
South Dakota History
we look back in the years to come, our reaction to the whole episode will
be like that of the boy dying in our sick bay. He had been shot up, was
ravely wounded and life was fast fleeting. One of the Chaplains knelt
eside him to listen as he whispered with a last heroic effort, "I am happy
to have done my part." We all feel that way, no matter how small the part.^''
Thoughts of the world back home and the comforts and pleasures
it might offer again someday often crept into the letters. Describing the transfer of several wounded men to a hospital ship, the
author of the crew letter for 19 May 1945 wrote:
We had dropped back a little from the front line during the night and there,
in the early morning light at the rendezvous was the hospital ship. What
was so special about it? One of the boys told us he counted "Thirteen white
women. That is something special. He had thought the breed extinct.^'^
When he could, the author of the crew letters also tried to leave
the impression that the men did have an occasional laugh to relieve
the monotony, loneliness, and danger that filled their lives aboard
During the last few operations things have quieted down and most of
the "glamour" comes from fueling destroyers as they come alongside, We
have done this so much that now the boys break out a big canvas sign
with "Welcome to AO-BB57. Oil and Gas, Hot Dogs and Ice Cream." An
"AO" is a tanker. On the canvas, beside the gas pump, is pictured a beautiful
(?) girl attired in "brevities." The visiting destroyer personnel have quite
a laugh on us. Recently we had some fun at the expense of a "pore little"
destroyer pup. As the "can" came along side the dog walked trie deck in
solitary granaeur—the canine king of the Pacific Ocean Areas. One of our
carpenters had an idea and a little spare time. He constructed a wooden
dog on wheels; the next time we fueled this destroyer the pup discovered
that his regency was apparently being challenged! He spent most of the
operation barkmg insulting remarks at the wooden dog pulled around by
one of the sailors. Some of the men laughed so heartily at the pup's antics
and anger that we could not tell whetner they were laughing or crying.
With laughs few and far apart this one made up for many.-"
By 10 August 1945, when the second bombardment of Kamaishi
had been completed and the crew of the South Dakota had survived the Japanese suicide attack, the men had time to relax and
to begin considering the possibility of peace. Not far away, B-29
bombers had dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima on 6 August
and on Nagasaki on 9 August. None of the men realized how close
at hand peace was, however. In an essay written a few weeks later
and entitled "The War's End," Robinson recalled:
We expected the war to end suddenly, untrumpeted and without ceremony.
For us it did that [but] we did not expect it to end when it did.
24. USS South Dakota, "Crew Letter Number 7," n. d.
25. "Crew Letter No. 9."
26. "Crew Letter Number Eight."
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
Life Aboard "Battleship X"
It was 8:55 p.m. on the night of August 10,1945, that this bad dream came
to an end for us. At that moment vwjrd was received and relayed throughout
the fleet that the Japs were feverishly radioing that: "We have accepted
your terms." It came through the air repeatedly and repetitive. It was unofficial as far as the statesmen were concerned, but the sources from which
it came left no doubt in our minds that the Japs meant it. Shouts, screams
and impromptu celebrations reverberated throughout the ship. It was too
good to be true, but it was.
In the days that followed the surrender of Japan, there was more
time to reflect on the significance of the war's end. Having seen
Heavy seas made vivid memories for the South Dakota
crewmen who sailed on the battleship through typhoons.
the destructive force of the South Dakota in action, Robinson was
guardedly optimistic about the future:
Like the bride, it happened so suddenly, we have yet hardly had time
to soberly review and reflect the implications of the war's end. it has many
and a lot of them are unpleasant. Trained to destroy or be destroyed many
may find the transition to peaceful pursuits difficult. Not the least disturbing factor is the first hand knowledge of what desolation and death . . .
can be wreaked on civilians, and that the next war, if any, will see still more
civilians involved. Maybe us; atomic energy is free.
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
South Dakota History
In a sense it may be a blessing that so many millions of men have been
veterans of this war, the world over. For it will be from among these veterans
that will come the politicians and statesmen for generations to come. Having
lived through this hellish nightmare he [sic] wiiïthink long and hard before
releasing another and more terrible one loose upon the
27. Robinson, "War's End."
Along with a number of artifacts salvaged from
"Battleship X," the USS South Dakota Battleship Memorial museum
in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, houses this scale model of the vessel.
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
Life Aboard "Battleship X"
After the hectic pace of the previous three years, the sudden end
of the war was anticlimactic for the crew of the South Dakota. The
vessel was one of the first large American ships to enter Tokyo Bay.
There, as the flagship of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, it awaited
the official surrender ceremonies that took place aboard the USS
Missouri on 2 September 1945. Ceremonies ended, the South Dakota
began the long voyage home on 20 September 1945. By the time
it left Tokyo Bay, it had traveled 246,970 miles—roughly the distance
from the earth to the moon. It had crossed the equator and the
international dateline thirty times each and the Arctic Circle twice.
Its guns had claimed three ships and sixty-four airplanes. The navy
awarded the South Dakota thirteen battle stars.^^
The South Dakota returned to the United States via Okinawa,
where it stopped to pick up as many homeward-bound veterans as
it could carry. After Navy Day ceremonies in San Francisco Bay, the
ship was based at San Pedro from 29 October 1945 to 3 January 1946.
Its voyage from there to the Philadelphia Navy Yard via the Panama
Canal marked, for all practical purposes, the end of the ship's
operating life. On 31 January 1947, the South Dakota was decommissioned and added to the reserve, or "mothball," fleet. It remained there until a 1962 decision to scrap all battleships of its
Desiring to preserve at least part of the ship named for their state,
a group of South Dakotans worked with the Sioux Falls Chamber
of Commerce and the Navy League to form a nonprofit foundation
to raise funds for a memorial. By 1964, the group had obtained a
number of artifacts from the ship, including its mast and anchor,
which were placed at a site in northwest Sioux Falls. The completed
USS South Dakota Battleship Memorial, whose museum houses
smaller items from shipboard, was dedicated on 7 September 1969.^"
These relics of South Dakota's namesake battleship still rest near
the banks of the Big Sioux River—a stream where its mammoth steel
hull could never have found room to float.
2a "History of USS South Dakota (BB 57)," pp. 12-13; Anderson, "Battleship South
Dakota," pp. 424-36.
29. "History of USS South Dakota (BB 57)," pp. 12-13; Stillwell, USS South Dakota,
p. 1; Sioux Falls Daily Argus-Leader, 8 Sept. 1969.
30. Stillweil, USS South Dakota, p. 31.
Copyright © 1993 by the South Dakota State Historical Society. All Rights Reserved.
Copyright of South Dakota History is the property of South Dakota State Historical Society and its content may
not be copied or emailed to multiple sites or posted to a listserv without the copyright holder's express written
permission. However, users may print, download, or email articles for individual use.
All illustrations in this issue are property of the South Dakota State Historical Society except for those on the
following pages: pp. 103, 107, 108, 111, 119, 120, from South Dakota National Guard Historical Resource
Collection, Beulah Williams Library, Northern State University, Aberdeen, S.Dak.; pp. 125, 126, 128, 130,
from Presentation Heights Archives, Aberdeen, S.Dak.; p. 135, from Helen J. Bergh, Aberdeen, S.Dak.; p.
180, from Ken Hirsch, Sioux Falls, S.Dak.

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