The Alaska-class large cruisers was a class of six heavy cruisers ordered for the United States Navy before World War II. Officially the navy classified them as large cruisers (CB), but it is claimed that they were battlecruisers by other sources. The naming of the class is more related to that of the US battleships, being named after "territories or insular areas" of the United States.
The Alaskas resembled the modern battleship in appearance, sharing characteristics of the North Carolina-class, South Dakota-class, and Iowa-class battleships, such as the 2-A-1 arrangement of the main battery and the huge columnar mast. Because the design limited the amount of underwater protection in order to conserve weight, the ships were vulnerable to torpedoes and and artillery shells that might fall short of the ship. Other armor protection was also a vulnerability to shells larger than 11 inches.
The main battery comprised of nine 12 inch Mk. 8 guns, divided into three triple turrets in the common 2-A-1 configuration, with two turrets fore, and one aft. The main battery was greatly superior to the other naval guns in use by the US Navy, even those aboard the Iowa-class battleship. The secondary battery comprised of twelve dual purpose 5 inch guns in six dual turrets, with three offset to either side of the superstructure and two centerline turrets, one fore, one aft. Point-defense was provided by fifty-six Bofors AA guns and thirty-four Oerlikon AA guns. A further point-defense armament comprised of up to sixty-two Browning M2HB 12.7 mm machine guns, serving for defense against both aircraft and small battle units. Like most battleships and heavy cruisers of it's time, the Alaskas carried four aircraft for reconnaissances and spotting purposes. The aircraft were usually OS2U Kingfisher or SC Seahawk aircraft that when not in use, were stored in an enclosed hanger amidship. The onboard machinery of the the Alaskas was the same as that of the Essex-class aircraft carriers and the Baltimore-class heavy cruisers, being 8 Babcock & Wilcox boilers powering General Electric steam turbines and turning 4 shafts using double reduction gearing, generating up to 150,000 shp, giving the Alaskas a top speed of 33 knots (38 mph). Maintaining a speed of 15 knots continuously gave the ships a range of 12,000 nautical miles (13,670 standard miles). The general displacement of the Alaska-class was 29,771 tons standard, outweighing the set parameters by the General Board for only 25,000 tons standard. Under full load, the ships displaced at 34,253 tons. Armor protection measured 9 inches at the belt, gradually thinning to only 5 inches. Deck armor measured at 3.8 to 4 inches, main deck armor at 1.40 inches, third deck armor at 0.625 inches, barbette protection at 11 to 13 inches, turrets at 12.8 inches at the face, 5 inches at the roof, 5.25 to 6 inches at the side, and 5.25 inches at the rear, while the conning tower was protected by 10.6 inches around the sides and 5 inches at the roof. Armor protection of these ships was not strong enough to resist a direct hit by a shell larger than 11 inches. Dimensions of the Alaskas was more that of a battleship rather than a cruiser, measuring a total of 246.43 meters (808 feet, 6 inches) in length, 28 meters (91 feet, 9.3 inches) in beam, and 8.26 meters (27 feet, 1 inch) draught at the waterline and 9.68 meters (31 feet, 9.2 inches) total draught. Complete crew numbered from 1,517 (minimum) to 2,251 crewmembers.
The "large cruiser" concept originated in the early 1930s when the United States Navy was hoping to counter Deutschland-class "Pocket Battleships" that had just been commissioned by Germany. Planning for the Alaska-class only began in the late 1930s, however, after Germany commissioned the two Scharnorst-class battle cruisers, and when rumors reached the US that the Imperial Japanese Navy was constructing a new battle cruiser class. The Alaskas were designed to be "cruiser-killers", with the purpose of seeking out and destroying these post-Treaty battle cruisers.
Historians have described the designing of the Alaska-class as "torturous" due to the many changes and modifications made to the drafts by various departments and individuals. Designing resulted in at least nine different drafts, ranging from the 6,000 ton Atlanta-class anti-aircraft cruisers to over sized heavy cruisers and even a 38,000 ton mini-battleship bearing the armament of twelve 12 inch and sixteen 5 inch guns. The General Board, in an attempt to keep the displacement under 25,000 tons, allowed the designs to offer only limited underwater protection. The final design chosen was essentially a larger version of the Baltimore-class heavy cruiser and would have the same machinery as the Essex-class aircraft carriers. The Alaskas were officially funded in September 1940 along with a vast amount of other ships as a part of the Two-Ocean Navy Act. The role of the Alaskas had been altered slightly, now, in addition to their surface-to-surface role, they were planned to protect carrier groups. Because of their bigger guns, greater size and increased speed, they would be more valuable in this role than heavy cruisers, and they would also provide insurance against reports that Japan was building super cruisers more powerful than US heavy cruisers.
Early in its development, the Alaska-class used the hull code CC, which signified that they were intended to be battle cruisers, following in the wake of the Lexington-class battle cruisers, which were now the Lexington-class aircraft carriers. The General Board, however, officially discouraged the use of the term battle cruiser, and changed the code to CB, to reflect on their new classification as large cruisers. The United States Navy then named the individual ships after territories of the United States, rather than states, as was the tradition with battleships, or cities, for which cruisers were named, in order to symbolize the belief that these ships were designed to fulfill an intermediate role between heavy cruisers and actual battle cruisers. Even though the Alaskas shared similar characteristics to modern battleships, such as the North Carolina-class battleships and British King George V-class battleships, they were officially classified as large cruisers when in theory, they arguably were battle cruisers.
Six Alaska-class cruisers were planned, only three, however, were laid down. The first two, USS Alaska (CB-1) and USS Guam (CB-2), were the only ones completed. Construction of USS Hawaii (CB-3), the third ship, was suspended on April 16, 1947 when she was mostly complete. The last three ships, USS Philippines (CB-4), USS Puerto Rico (CB-5), and USS Samoa (CB-6), were delayed since all available materials and slipways were allocated to higher priority ships, such as aircraft carriers, destroyers, and submarines. Construction had still not begun when steel shortages and a realization that these "cruiser-killers" had no more cruisers to hunt — as the fleets of Japanese cruisers had already been defeated by aircraft and submarines — made the ships "white elephants". As a result, construction of the last three members of the class never began, and they were officially cancelled on June 24, 1943.
Yet another drastic change was considered during the "carrier panic" of late 1941. The US Navy and President Franklin Roosevelt, realized that the United States needed more aircraft carriers more urgently than cruisers or battleships. As a result, the Bureau of Ships decided to convert some of the hulls that were currently under construction to carriers. It was considered to convert the Alaskas, but ultimately the Cleveland-class light cruisers were chosen for conversion over the Alaskas due to the various complications involved in converting the large cruisers.
USS Alaska and USS Guam served with the United States Navy during the last year of World War II. Similar to the Iowa-class battleships, their speed made them useful for coastal bombardment and fast carrier escorts. Both protected USS Franklin when she was on her way to be repaired in Guam after being hit by two Japanese bombs. Afterward, USS Alaska supported the landings on Okinawa, while USS Guam went to San Pedro Bay to become the leader of a new task force, Cruiser Task Force 95. USS Guam, joined by USS Alaska, four light cruisers, and nine destroyers, led the task force into the East China and Yellow Seas to conduct commerce raids. However, they only encountered Chinese junks. By the end of the War, the two vessels had become celebrated within the fleet as proficient carrier escorts. After the War, both vessels were decommissioned and mothballed in 1947, after having spent 32 and 29 months in service, respectively.
Ships in class
- USS Alaska (CB-1)
- USS Guam (CB-2)
- USS Hawaii (CB-3)
- USS Philippines (CB-4)
- USS Puerto Rico (CB-5)
- USS Samoa (CB-6)