The battleships Washington and South Dakota pushed through the sea with an implacable ease. Admiral William F. Halsey well understood the risks of sending Rear Admiral Willis Lee’s two big ships to set an ambush in Savo Sound. “The plan flouted one of the firmest doctrines of the Naval War College,” Halsey would write. “The narrow treacherous waters north of Guadalcanal are utterly unsuited to the maneuvering of capital ships, especially in darkness.” But the big ships were all he had left.
The Washington (the second and last ship of the North Carolina class) and the South Dakota (the first of a newer breed) were not sisters but close cousins, part of the surge in new major ship construction that followed the expiration of the 1930 London Naval Treaty’s five-year-long “building holiday.” The construction of the big new ships was politically risky for President Franklin D. Roosevelt during the pinchpenny, isolationist-minded years after the Great Depression. He waited until after the 1936 elections to authorize the Washington’s construction.