World War II ended on the deck of the USS Missouri. Five years later the Korean War broke out—and the “Mighty Mo” was the only U.S. battleship ready to fight.
Life was exciting for 23-year-old Ensign Lee Royal in the summer of 1950. The tall, slim Texan had recently graduated from the United States Naval Academy and reported for duty on board the most famous warship in the world, the USS Missouri. Royal was wearing the gold bars of a commissioned officer, a step up from the previous year when he had served on the same ship as a midshipman on a training cruise.
The Missouri had visited England during that cruise, and Royal and two classmates had been brash enough to go to Chartwell, Winston Churchill‘s country home. They wanted to shake the hand of the former British prime minister. Churchill had been even more obliging than that, taking the three young midshipmen on a tour of the grounds and then presenting them with books, cigars, and wine. An amazed bodyguard told them privately that the British statesman had been much more hospitable to them than to many of his famous visitors. The guard mentioned that Churchill was fond of navy men, Americans, and young people. The midshipmen belonged to all three categories.
By 1950, the Missouri was the U.S. Navy’s only active battleship—just a decade after the navy had considered battleships to be its foremost fighting ships. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, however, had dramatically changed the situation. Soon aircraft carriers and submarines became the navy’s primary offensive weapons, while battleships were relegated to a secondary role. They had been designed to fight gun duels against large surface vessels, but those encounters rarely occurred in World War II. The United States entered the war with a number of old, slow battleships commissioned between 1912 and 1923, which were primarily used for shore bombardment and to support amphibious landings. Only the navy’s 10 new battleships, commissioned between 1941 and 1944, were fast enough to travel in aircraft carrier task groups and provide antiaircraft protection.
The USS Missouri was the last battleship the navy completed. Commissioned in June 1944, she reached the Western Pacific war zone in early 1945. The ship served with carrier forces in support of landings at Iwo Jima and Okinawa, and near the end of the war, the Missouri‘s 16-inch guns bombarded industrial targets in Japan itself.
“Mighty Mo” became world-famous as the site of the Japanese surrender ceremony in Tokyo Bay on September 2, 1945, bringing World War II to an end. The Missouri and dozens of other U.S. warships arrived home to a triumphant welcome, but the nation demobilized rapidly once the hostilities ceased. At the end of the war, the navy had 23 battleships in commission but soon began withdrawing them from active service—mothballing the newest ones and scrapping the oldest. The return to peacetime defense budgets emphasized the fact that the battleships’ period of primacy was over.
By the summer of 1950, the Missouri had been downgraded from a full-fledged warship to a training vessel with a reduced crew. Economy-minded Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson would have preferred to decommission the Missouri entirely to save money, but President Harry S. Truman wouldn’t allow it. The president was particularly fond of the ship. Not only was it named for his home state, but his daughter Margaret had christened it.
When Lee Royal returned to the Missouri the year after his visit with Churchill, the ship was making another training cruise, but this time budget considerations limited its itinerary to the western Atlantic Ocean. Still, Royal found it an enjoyable experience, particularly when the battleship made a port visit to New York City in mid-August. One evening Royal and a date went to see a Broadway musical. When he returned to the ship at one in the morning the officer on the quarterdeck asked him, “Did you have a good time?” The ensign replied that he had. “Good,” the officer said, “because that’s the last one you’re going to have for some time.” The Missouri was going back to war.
The Korean War had begun a month and a half earlier, on June 25, 1950. As Communist North Korea army units advanced into South Korea, President Truman committed American troops to the hostilities. Because the Missouri possessed the only active 16-inch guns in the fleet—an important factor in the planning of amphibious assaults—it received orders to report for duty half a world away.
Five years earlier, General of the Army Douglas MacArthur had accepted the Japanese surrender on the captain’s veranda deck of the Missouri. Now the general was planning an invasion at the port of Inchon, behind North Korean lines. He scheduled the action for mid-September and wanted the Missouri‘s big guns to stop North Korean traffic on roads leading into the Inchon-Seoul area.
The Missouri‘s crew had much to do. The ship traveled first to her home port of Norfolk, Virginia, where it spent four days and nights taking on supplies of food, fuel, and ammunition. The battleship’s peacetime crew increased to a fighting complement of 114 officers and 2,070 enlisted men.
On Saturday morning, August 19, 1950, the 887-foot-long warship cruised through Hampton Roads and Thimble Shoal Channel and into the Atlantic Ocean. The same routine trip had been a disaster seven months earlier. On January 17, while leaving for a training cruise to Cuba, the Missouri had run aground in the same port, a huge embarrassment for the navy. Captain William D. Brown was relieved of command shortly after that.
The Missouri‘s role in the Inchon mission was considered so important that she went to sea in the face of threatening weather. That night newly appointed Captain Irving Duke and his crew paid heavily as they encountered a hurricane off North Carolina. Under normal conditions the Missouri was rock steady, but these waters were anything but normal. The wind and waves sent two helicopters over the side and caused serious damage elsewhere. Trying to outflank the storm had been a calculated risk, and the ship suffered for it.
The battleship passed through the Panama Canal and into the Pacific Ocean and proceeded to Pearl Harbor for repairs and installation of antiaircraft guns that had been removed after World War II. She then continued westward—through the Philippine archipelago and toward Japan.
Nature, though, didn’t respect the navy’s scheduling. Typhoon Kezia lay in the ship’s path. This time, Captain Duke took a more deliberate approach, following a course that diminished the risk of storms. The ship came through unscathed, but the delays from the repair period and the zigzag course kept the ship from reaching Korea in time for the Inchon invasion.
Up until this point the fighting in Korea had not been going well for the ill-prepared United Nations forces. The North Koreans had pushed steadily southward, driving the U.N. troops into the Pusan perimeter at the southern end of the Korean peninsula. MacArthur’s invasion at Inchon, however, proved to be a brilliant success even without the Missouri’s firepower. When it became apparent that the battleship could not make it to Inchon in time for the invasion, which had to be precisely timed to take advantage of the tides, the Missouri received orders to bombard North Korean transportation facilities and ground troops along the way. When the ship finally reached Inchon on September 21, MacArthur, an old soldier who was then 70, came aboard for a visit.
Members of the ship’s Marine detachment scoffed at the theatrical general, whom some people scornfully referred to as “Dugout Doug.” Some of the men under MacArthur’s command during World War II had given him the nickname due to his absence during the siege of Bataan on the Philippine Islands.
When the five-star general arrived on board, he spoke with Captain Lawrence Kindred, commanding officer of the Missouri’s Marines. The general told him, “I have just returned from the far north, where your comrades-in-arms are in close combat with the enemy. And I wish to report to you that there is not a finer group of fighting men in the world than the U.S. Marines.” The previously skeptical Kindred became an instant MacArthur fan.
The following month another famous guest boarded the Missouri. Comedian Bob Hope presented a show for the benefit of crew members gathered on the fantail for a Navy Day celebration. Hope’s time-honored formula included both humor and an attractive actress, Marilyn Maxwell.
The ground fighting improved for U.N. forces in the wake of the landings at Inchon. Later in the year, however, the situation turned around again as Chinese forces entered the war to help the North Koreans, and U.N. troops were once again pushed south. In action that became legendary in the annals of Marine Corps history, troops at frozen Chosin Reservoir fought a valiant rear-guard action. Shortly before Christmas, the Marines moved to an evacuation site in the port of Hungnam on the east coast, where the Missouri created a curtain of fire between the advancing enemy and the retreating allies. Though the ship no longer performed the ship-against-ship missions for which it was designed, its guns proved an invaluable weapon for land war, with each 16-inch projectile capable of producing a crater some 30 feet in diameter.
By 1951, the battleship had settled into a wartime routine that included bombarding enemy facilities on shore, supporting ground troops, and providing antiaircraft protection for carriers launching bombing strikes against North Korea. Periodically it would meet up with supply ships for replenishment at sea or travel to Sasebo, Japan, to take on ammunition and give the crew some free time ashore. Missouri’s first combat service in Korea ended in mid-March, six months after its arrival, and soon began the long trip back to the United States.
By this time the navy had begun pulling other World War II-era ships from mothballs for return to active duty. Among them was the Missouri‘s sister ship, New Jersey, slated as its relief. The two ships crossed paths at the Panama Canal. The Wisconsin was recommissioned in March, and the Iowa would be recommissioned in August. With all four ships of the Iowa class back in active service, the situation had changed dramatically from the previous August when Ensign Royal learned that his New York liberty had been the last good time he would see for a while. Now the Missouri became part of a regular rotation as the battleships alternated between midshipman training cruises and deployments to the 7th Fleet off Korea.
The Missouri returned to Norfolk on April 27, more than eight months after it hurried departure for the war zone. Thousands of people turned out for the homecoming celebration. As the battleship headed toward its berth at the naval station’s pier seven, a biplane flew overhead, towing a long banner that read, “WELCOME HOME MIGHTY MO.”
During the summers of 1951 and 1952 the Missouri resumed its role as a training ship, but in September 1952, the battleship returned for more Far East duty. Taking command for the Missouri‘s second deployment to Korea was Captain Warner Edsall. As the ship proceeded westward, Ensign Lawrence “Ace” Treadwell, a recent naval academy graduate and not long married, was standing on the Missouri‘s bridge when he heard Captain Edsall remark, “It’s great to be back to sea.” Treadwell would have preferred to be home with his wife, but the captain realized he had one of the choicest commands in the navy, and he meant to enjoy it.
By the autumn of 1952 the Korean War had settled down to a stalemate. North Korean and U.N. representatives met at Panmunjom to seek some sort of negotiated settlement. President Truman had ruled out taking the war north to China, but he was determined to hold onto territory in South Korea during the peace talks. So the Missouri continued its program of shore attacks.
The battleship remained so far offshore during its bombardment missions that it was essentially invulnerable. One of the Missouri‘s targets was the port of Wonsan, a transportation hub and industrial center on the east coast of North Korea. On March 5 and March 10, 1953, North Korean gunners at Wonsan retaliated and succeeded in firing some shrapnel onto the battleship’s broad fantail. The range was long for Missouri‘s less powerful five-inch guns, but they were aimed toward Wonsan and pumped out 998 rounds, by far the most prolific day for the smaller guns during the deployment.
As the Missouri had done two years previously, it made a number of visits to Japan for re-arming and so that the crew could enjoy liberty. One of those who went sightseeing was Chief Gunner’s Mate Jack McCarron, who had served on the Missouri for roughly five years—a long tour of duty for a navy man. On December 7, 1941, McCarron had been badly burned while manning a five-inch antiaircraft gun on the battleship Arizona during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. McCarron had the distinction of serving on the two battleships that symbolized the beginning and the end of World War II in the Pacific.
The Missouri‘s last bombardment mission of the Korean War came to an end on the morning of March 25, 1953. It fired at targets in the vicinity of Kojo, just south of Wonsan. Captain Edsall was on the Missouri‘s bridge on the morning of March 26 as it steamed into port at Sasebo, Japan, the first stop on the long journey home. At 7:21 a.m., just after Edsall gave the helmsman an order, the captain grasped the arm of his executive officer, Commander Bob North, and collapsed on the deck. North directed the ship to berth, as Edsall was pronounced dead of a heart attack. A new skipper, Captain Robert Brodie, Jr., soon came aboard to take command and shepherd the Missouri back to the States.
In 1953, Dwight D. Eisenhower replaced Harry Truman as president of the United States, and during that summer the negotiators at Panmunjom completed armistice talks and ended the fighting. South Korea had maintained its independence, and the war had remained a limited one, although U.S. casualties totaled about 137,000.
The conflict did not end in a rousing and decisive victory like that of World War II, but the Missouri had made a significant contribution to the Korean War. It was decommissioned after the war, but in 1986 the modernized Missouri was recommissioned once more. During the Persian Gulf War five years later, the battleship again saw active service, when its guns and missiles were used against military targets in Iraq.
In 1992, the ship was decommissioned for the second time. Four years later, the navy donated the battleship to the Honolulu-based USS Missouri Memorial Association. The Missouri will never again see combat but will open as a memorial museum in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in January 1999, allowing visitors the opportunity to board America’s most celebrated battleship.
Paul Stillwell, director of the history division of the U.S. Naval Institute in Annapolis, Maryland, is the author of Battleship Missouri: An Illustrated History and several other books.
This story was published in the February 1999 issue of American History magazine. For more stories, subscribe here.