clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Schadenfreude Fridays: The Alaska Class Cruiser

Big. Fast. Powerful. And kinda useless. via <a href=""></a>
Big. Fast. Powerful. And kinda useless. via

To help Commodores across the nation deal with the pain of fresh losses and the lingering memories of historic ones, we've instituted Schadenfreude Fridays. The aim here is to comfort Vanderbilt's faithful by presenting train wrecks even worse than the past 35 years of Commodore football. Schadenfreude is pleasure taken from the suffering of others - and even though this football season may be a triumph of Coach James Franklin's spirit, the odds that we still finish 3-9 are pretty good. Ergo, the joy of watching others fail may be one of the few highlights of 2011. These don't necessarily have to be football related or even sports related - just something so spectacularly terrible that it makes Vandy fans a little bit happier to be cheering for their lovable group of three-star recruits with high GPAs and even higher 40 yard dash times.

The U.S. military has had some great triumphs; it's a big reason why America is such a great country. Some of the most brilliant minds in the world have come up with innovations that have kept Americans safe and defended liberty at great costs.

The Alaska-class cruiser is not one of them.

The Alaska-class cruiser was a beast of a machine. A 34,000 ton battleship that was custom made to destroy the best and biggest ships that Japan and Germany had to offer. These boats were one of the largest projects the U.S. Navy had ever undertaken at the time. They were agile behemoths that could induce pant-wetting fear in even the most grizzled enemy officer. They were the Allied Forces' trump card to any suit the Axis could pull on the open water. They were the end result of two decades of naval innovation.

Of course, by the time they were ready for combat, they were mostly useless.

The Alaska-class was strictly designed to take out one of the biggest sea threats of World War II - enemy cruisers. These ships, also referred to as "pocket battleships" on the German side, combined heavy artillery and the speed of a smaller boat to cause problems on the sea. Their combination of speed and power made them the Maurice Jones-Drew of World War II era armored ships. They could punch holes in opposing formations and rip through fleets with the destructive force of a wolverine taped to a badger. And by the time the Alaska showed up, they were all gone.

The U.S. Navy understood this potential enemy threat in the early 1930s. Several years later, they decided to act on it by haggling over design and funding for two full years.

It wasn't until the actual deployment of German cruisers in 1938, along with rumors that Japan was developing a similar fleet, sprung the United States into action like a sloth ascending up a tree branch. Discussions and design meetings were deliberate and "tortuous," going through at least nine major layouts before settling on the proper combination of speed and power to provide sharks with a proper high-protein diet across the Pacific Ocean. 

The designs were completed and the ships were ordered in 1940, but this process included setbacks. Plans arose to convert the half-built ships into aircraft carriers, and issues with the boat's role in combat shifted parts of the design. Aside from wreaking terror on all those who stood in the Alaska's way, it would also be used in escort missions as the Navy's bodyguard. The complexities of the ships and their ever-changing role and design made construction difficult. Laborers didn't quite know what the hell they were building; they just knew it was going to kick more ass than Winston Churchill at a bourbon convention.

The costs for the ships were astronomical. The project, which produced just two finished boats, stretched into the hundreds of millions of dollars. The Alaska's main armament cost $4.56 million alone, but that was a small price to pay for a gun that could lob half-ton shells of exploding brimstone over 24 miles. For President Roosevelt, that was a perfectly sound cost-to-Bruckheimer ratio.

In June of 1944, nearly five years into the second great war and six years after the design process had started, these battlecruisers were finally ready for combat. The leviathan Alaska steamed to Hawaii and laid anchor in the Pacific by late January of 1945. Finally, the United States' superboat had arrived, ready to rain hellfire on any ship audacious enough to stand in its way.

Of course, by then the Japanese battle cruisers, the very ships that the Alaska-class had been designed to destroy...had already been destroyed.

The U.S. submarine and air forces had already crippled Japan's naval fleet. As a result, there were no cruisers left for the Navy's pet project to hunt. Instead, the Alaska was relegated solely to escort missions, providing the tough backup and playing bouncer to any enemy ship that wanted to get inside the Allies' path.

The Alaska was there in Okinawa and sustained a few Japanese aircraft attacks, but for the most part the ship stood as a protector with no offensive combat duty. The cruiser and its crew played a heroic role in coming to the aid of attacked ships and escorting them from harm's way. It drove off air-attacks on the wounded ship Franklin in efforts that saved hundreds of lives and screened fast carriers in and out of Japanese water to allow American operations to commence in the Pacific.

However, none of these actions were what the ships were actually built for in the first place. 

The Alaska and her sister ship, the Guam, had been turned into impressive looking bodyguards, but found little actual use than for protecting smaller ships. Neither boat saw much combat and operated mostly through intimidating presence alone. The final seven months of World War II were uneventful for each crew, as even their last significant mission - a raid on shipping lanes in the Pacific - turned up nothing but Chinese boats. The raid suggested that the Alaska-class was no longer needed; the Pacific seas were already clear.

These mammoths, specifically built for ship-to-ship combat, didn't make it to the party until there were no ships left to blow holes in. Neither the Alaska nor the Guam lasted three full years as commissioned boats. The costs for retrofitting these vessels into new and useful ships were prohibitive (over $160 million each), and the pair were eventually just broken down for scrap metal instead, dying an inglorious death back in America.

The Navy had planned on creating a battle cruiser that would rule the Pacific with a costly blend of speed and power, destroying the new Japanese fleet of powerful boats. What these ships actually did was look impressive and fight off the rare aircraft attack. While the Alaska-class filled the role of protector, savior, and escort, they never fulfilled their promise as a doom-bringer. In all, six years and hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on a series of ships that ended up doing the same things that their regular cruisers were capable of.

So here's to you, Alaska-class. You were the potential Death Star of the sea, but when you were finally complete there were no planets left to destroy. If our armed forces hadn't been so competent, you could have lived up to your potential, but the devastating force of the U.S. troops in World War II made you obsolete almost before you ever set sail.