August 02, 2019

How to Build a Battleship - 1942

Life Magazine, the famous news weekly that published from 1936 to 1972, is online. Google books has the entire archive, free of charge. I, of course, went looking for battleship-related content, and came across a real gem. In April 1942, Life published How to Build a Battleship, a look at the construction of the new battleships at Philadelphia Navy Yard.

Washington ready for launch at Philadelphia

I thought I would add commentary, things that Life either didn't know or couldn't say for security reasons.1 Philadelphia built three battleships in this era, Washington, New Jersey and Wisconsin. Washington was in service when the article was written, while the other two were still on the ways.

Most of the photos can't be identified with a specific ship, although in some cases, we can get clues from context, and in others, it's obvious enough. The keel laying on p.86 is New Jersey. I found the exact same photo on navsource. I'm not sure what prompted the comment on p.87 that the number and location of compartments is "jealously guarded". At the time, there was no real way to target specific parts of the ship, and any well-designed ship should be resistant to the enemy knowing that. Also, amusingly, the diagram in the upper right is a pretty good representation of the layout of a North Carolina.

The bow of the ship on p.88 looks like an Iowa, and navsource attributes it to New Jersey. The launching picture is almost certainly Washington. The hull form is definitely a North Carolina, and Washington was built at Philadelphia, while her sister was constructed in New York. Likewise, everything after that is Washington, according to both visual observation and Navsource.

I was initially confused as to why they were focusing on the Washington instead of one of the more modern SoDaks. But I think there were two reasons. First, Philadelphia and Brooklyn were the only two yards to actually build more than one of the treaty ships, and they split the North Carolinas and Iowas between them, while the SoDaks were farmed out to other yards. Only Alabama was built at a Navy yard, and I suspect it was a lot easier for the Navy to get permission from itself to release these photos than it would have been for a private shipbuilder. Second, I'm not sure that the SoDaks had been publicly acknowledged at this point. The 1942 Jane's Fighting Ships shows the "Washington class" as having six ships, although it does say "Last 4 ships not only differ from first pair in dimensions and appearance, but have improved protection". That's rather an understatement of the differences between the two classes, but by not publishing the photos of the later vessels, they could keep people guessing.

Overall, it's an interesting article, with some great pictures and a few useful details on how they put American battleships together. Life's archives are a treasure trove of cool stuff, and I'd encourage all of you to look for topics of interest.

1 General battleships construction has been covered elsewhere in some detail.


  1. August 03, 2019Mike Kozlowski said...

    "The 1942 Jane’s Fighting Ships shows the “Washington class” as having six ships, although it does say “Last 4 ships not only differ from first pair in dimensions and appearance, but have improved protection”. That’s rather an understatement of the differences between the two classes."

    ...Along, a few years ago I was aboard North Carolina, and part of a display in the visitors center was an old Ideal wooden kit of the Showboat, made in (IIRC) 1939. The instructions had the ships names printed so you could cut them out and glue them to the hull - North Carolina, and Washington....followed by Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri, and Wisconsin. One wonders if the folks at Ideal knew something the USN wasn't telling us.

  2. August 05, 2019Chuck said...

    So, what purpose do the musclemen serve in the construction process?

    Seriously, I thought that the bodybuilders were somehow part of the battleship article at first glance, and was very confused. Are these supposed to be the crew? Maybe they represent the different classes of battleship...

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