USS Wisconsin: The big battleship with a bad temper

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uss wisconsin in korea
USS Wisconsin (BB-64) Fires a three-gun salvo from her forward 16/50 gun turret, during bombardment duty off Korea. Photograph is dated 30 January 1952. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

The USS Wisconsin has a bit of a reputation. Not only was it one of the battleships re-commissioned for the invasion of Iraq, it was a member of the elite Iowa-class of battleships. And in Korea, it destroyed a target so aggressively that one of its escorts reportedly admonished it with the signal lamp, sending “Temper, temper.”

History of the USS Wisconsin

The USS Wisconsin was built at the end of the battleship-era and launched exactly two years after Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1943. It was one of only four Iowa-class battleships, the largest battleships that America ever built. In World War II, it earned five battle stars, including at Okinawa, where its big guns made a real impact on Japanese positions on the island.

The Wisconsin retired for a bit after World War II, but it was called back up to active service for Korea.

In Korea

When that war rolled around, the supremacy of carriers in major naval operations was well-established, but the Wisconsin and other large ships proved their worth.

While carrier aircraft could take a fight over the horizon, battleships could throw much more firepower at a target every minute than their flat-top counterparts.

“Big Wisky,” as the ship was often known, was in demand. Sailors couldn’t get enough of Big Wisky. They always wanted Wisky around. No matter what the sailors needed to do, they wanted to do it with Wisky. The Marines were big fans as well, since Wisky was often making it rain as the Devil Dogs made their own assaults.

And so it was, on March 15, 1952, that Wisky and its friends were shelling the absolute hell of North Korean positions at Songjin. The ship even collapsed a tunnel as a troop train tried to exit it, trapping the train and cutting off Korean reinforcements. The Koreans, meanwhile, took some weird umbrage to this and were trying to fire BACK at the Wisconsin. Rude, right?

Well, the Wisconsin had very thick armor, was quick, and was firing from fairly far out. So it’s not like the Koreans were ever going to hit Wisc…

Damage to Wisconsin‘s bow from collision with Eaton on May 6, 1956.

North Korea hits Wisconsin, Wisky hits back

Oh, wait, they actually did manage to hit it? With a 155mm shell? Jesus, that’s fairly big. Let’s check and see how many sailors survived this terrible sinking…

Oh, all of them. Three sailors were injured when the Korean round struck a gun mount’s shield. There was almost no damage to the ship. 

Despite this being a single, ineffective attack, the Wisconsin lost its cool like an egg in the microwave. It just blew up on the Korean artillery position.

Wisconsin aimed all nine of its 16-inch guns (406mm) at the 155mm emplacement and fired them all.

Wisky hit the artillery position so hard that the damage actually went back in time and killed the crew three weeks before the battle. North Korean widows report their husbands crumbling in their embrace like a Thanos snap had occurred. 

And then, in a moment of brilliant wit, the escort USS Buck reportedly aimed its signal lamp at the USS Wisconsin and sent “T E M P E R T E M P E R.”

Now, this story is very popular on the internet. Very popular. There are memes, T-shirts, and probably branded tramp stamp tattoos if you go to the right parlors during Fleet Week.

But, unfortunately, there’s not a ton of evidence for the story. It’s fun, but the digitized copies of the USS Buck’s deck logs don’t go back that far, and the Wisconsin’s are not available.

But if you want to get the tattoo, you have my permission to declare it military history. And that’s coming from the former junior-most member of a military history detachment.