Today in 1992, the USS Missouri was decommissioned at Long Beach, California. Thus ended the career of the United States’ last battleship, a vessel that served the nation through three wars and helped maintain the balance of power during the last decade of the Cold War.
The USS Missouri, called “Big Mo” or “Mighty Mo” by the men who served aboard her, was the last vessel of the Iowa class to be commissioned. Designed in 1938, Missouri and her three sisters were the culmination of nearly half a century of battleship design. However, the ships came on the scene at a time when large guns and heavy armor were giving way to fast aircraft carriers. The battleships and heavy cruisers of the world’s fleets would no longer form the tip of the offensive spear at sea, but would serve as escorts and platforms from which to bombard distant shores.
The Missouri was launched on January 29th, 1944 and christened by Mary Margaret Truman, the daughter of Harry S. Truman. She was commissioned into the Navy on June 11th, 1944 and immediately set off on her shakedown cruise. She entered the Pacific Theater war zone in January, 1945 as part of Task Force 58, the first Allied force to launch carrier-based air strikes against mainland Japan since the Doolittle Raid in April, 1942. From there, the task force steamed to Iwo Jima, where the Missouri used her 16-inch main guns in support of the invasion of February 19th. March, 1945 found Missouri off the coast of Japan again as navy aircraft bombed bases near the Inland Sea. That same month, she bombarded the beaches of Okinawa in preparation for the invasion of that island.
On April 11th of that last year of the war, a low-flying kamikaze plane managed to sneak through Missouri’s defenses and hit the ship on her starboard side just below the level of the main deck. A small gasoline fire erupted, but was quickly brought under control and left only superficial damage. The Japanese pilot’s body was recovered, something that did not often happen in the case of kamikaze attacks. Missouri’s captain, William Callaghan, ordered that the young man receive a proper military funeral, a decision that was not popular with the ship’s crew. Later, Callaghan explained himself by saying that the young pilot had done his duty to the best of his ability and had done so with honor, despite the fact that he was trying to kill as many Americans as possible. It was Callaghan’s hope that if the situation were reversed, the Japanese Imperial Navy would grant an American pilot a military funeral.
USS Missouri became the 3rd Fleet flagship in May, 1945 and spent the summer hitting targets on Okinawa and the Japanese Home Islands. She was on station on August 15th when word was received that Japan had accepted the allied demand for unconditional surrender. Two weeks later, on August 29th, Missouri steamed into Tokyo Harbor to serve as the location for the signing of the official instrument of surrender. She had been chosen for the task by President Truman, who was from the state of Missouri and had a special place in his heart for the battleship. On September 2nd, 1945, representatives of all the Allied Powers arrived on board. They were from France, China, the Soviet Union, England, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and New Zealand. The Japanese delegation arrived a few minutes before 9AM. 23 minutes later, the surrender ceremony was concluded and the most devastating war in human history was over.
The end of the war brought with it large military reductions, but the Missouri was initially spared. Although all three of her sister ships were placed in reserve status, Big Mo kept her place in the active fleet through the direct intervention of President Harry Truman. The Navy saw the ship as a symbol of times past, but events would prove the brass wrong when, in June 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea and introduced the world to the concept of limited war. The Missouri was quickly sent to the Pacific again and by September was on the firing line off the coast of North Korea. She moved from one assignment to another up and down the coast until March, 1951, when she was relieved and sent back to the east coast for overhaul. She would return to the Korean war zone one more time in the fall of 1952 and remain there until spring of the next year. She went on a midshipman training cruise during the summer of 1954, during which time she met up with her three now re-activated sisters, the only time all four sailed together. The next year, with President Truman long gone from office, Missouri was sent to the Pacific Reserve Fleet. By 1958, all the Iowa-class battleships found homes there.
With the exception of the USS New Jersey, which was re-commissioned in 1968 for a one year tour off the coast of Vietnam, the US Navy had nothing to do with her battleships for nearly 30 years. That changed in the early 1980’s when President Ronald Reagan committed the United States to a 600-ship navy. Missouri was reactivated in the summer of 1984 and her modernization began. Her nine giant 16-inch guns were kept, but much of her anti-aircraft artillery was removed because it was no longer effective. She was loaded with Harpoon anti-ship missiles, launchers for Tomahawk cruise missiles and four Phalanx Close In Weapons System guns for protection against enemy missiles and aircraft. When she was formally re-commissioned in May, 1986, the Missouri was the most heavily-armed warship to ever put to sea.
As it is today, the Persian Gulf was an area of great tension during the decade of the 80’s. After an around-the-world cruise in 1986, Missouri was sent to the Gulf to take part in Operation Earnest Will, a US-led mission escorting Kuwaiti tankers. She spent over 100 continuous days at sea, an incredible feat for such a maintenance-intensive class of ship. She was back in the US for an overhaul in 1989 and served as the setting for Cher’s music video “If I Could Turn Back Time.” Those men in the background are real sailors.
The Missouri was called into action one more time, this during the first Gulf War in 1991. On January 17th of that year, she fired the first of 28 cruise missiles at Iraqi targets. Her guns were used for the first time in combat since the Korean War against Iraqi command and control bunkers later in the month before she became part of a planned diversion campaign meant to make Iraqi military leaders believe a seaborne invasion of Kuwait was underway. Two Silkworm missiles were fired at the battleship during this time: one was intercepted by a Royal Navy destroyer and the other one veered wildly off course. With the war soon over, the Missouri headed home in March, 1991.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s brought another reduction in US military strength and the Missouri found herself on the chopping block once again. This time, however, she would not sit in Puget Sound as part of a forgotten fleet reserve. Instead, she was towed to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii and in January, 1999 opened as a public museum. She continues in this role today.