The design of the Tennessee-class was a considerable improvement over that of earlier U.S. Navy battleships. The two ships featured the same twelve 14"/50 guns and armor protection as in the preceding New Mexico-class, and had a similar hull. However, their newly developed four-layer anti-torpedo system, built into the hull sides, and the revised arrangement of boiler and engine rooms permitted by their turbo-electric machinery greatly enhanced their combat survivability. Increased elevation of the main-battery guns and improved gunfire directors atop heavier "cage" masts allowed greater battle ranges. All of the five-inch secondary battery guns were now in the superstructure, where they were less vulnerable to heavy seas.
These ships were active units of the inter-war Battle Force. They received modest improvements during the 1920s-1930s, among them heavier 5"/25 anti-aircraft guns, the addition of .50 caliber anti-aircraft machineguns and improved gunfire controls. Both were at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese began the Pacific War with their 7 December 1941 surprise attack. Following that disaster, the sunken California was out of the war for over two years, but the relatively lightly-damaged Tennessee was back in service by early 1942.
Both ships received what was probably the most extensive reconstruction given to any of the Navy's wartime major combatants, emerging with much heavier deck armor, a huge improvement in their anti-aircraft battery and modern gun directors. Standard displacement went up some 2500 tons, speed dropped slightly below 21 knots and beam increased to 114 feet, making them too wide to transit the Panama Canal. Their appearance was drastically changed, and now superficially resembled that of the brand-new South Dakota-class. Tennessee completed her modernization in May 1943, in time to take part in the Aleutians Campaign. California, which needed extensive repair of her Pearl Harbor damage, was finished in early 1944.
Both ships were heavily engaged in providing bombardment support for amphibious operations through the rest of the war. They were present for the world's final battleship-against-battleship engagement, the Battle of Surigao Strait on 24-25 October 1944, and stayed in action despite receiving kamikaze damage in 1945. Laid up in 1946-47, they were part of the Reserve Fleet until sold for scrapping in 1959, nearly forty years after they were first commissioned.
The Tennessee-class numbered two ships, one each built in east coast and west coast Navy yards:
- USS Tennessee (BB-43), built at the New York Navy Yard. Keel laid in May 1917; launched in April 1919; completed in June 1920.
- USS California (BB-44), built at the Mare Island Navy Yard, California. Keel laid in October 1916; launched in November 1919; completed in August 1921.
- Displacement: 32,300 tons (standard)
- Dimensions: 624' (length overall); 97' 4" (maximum beam)
- Powerplant: 26,800 to 28,500 horsepower steam turbines with electric drive, producing a 21 knot maximum speed
- Armament (Main Battery): Twelve 14"/50 guns in four triple turrets
- Armament (Secondary Battery): Fourteen 5"/51 guns in single casemate mountings (seven guns on each side of the ship). Later in the 1920s, two 5"/51 guns were removed and eight 5"/25 anti-aircraft guns were added.
USS Tennessee (BB-43)
Tennessee was commissioned in June 1920, and operated in the Atlantic area for a year before being transferred to the U.S. Pacific coast, where she was based for nearly two decades. As a unit of the Battleship Force, she participated in regular training and fleet exercises, winning the "E" for excellence in gunnery during the mid-1920s. In 1925, Tennessee transited the Pacific to visit New Zealand and Australia. With tensions with Japan rising, her base was moved forward to Pearl Harbor in 1940.
On 7 December 1941, Tennessee was one of eight battleships present when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Moored inboard of USS West Virginia (BB-48), she was hit by two bombs, which damaged two of her four gun turrets, and was scorched by burning oil from the sunken USS Arizona. In late December, after temporary repairs, Tennessee steamed to the Puget Sound Navy Yard, Washington, for an overhaul. From February through August 1942, she operated off the U.S. west coast, then briefly went to Pearl Harbor before returning to Puget Sound for extensive modernization.
With her appearance completely changed and her weapons, combat systems and protection considerably enhanced, Tennessee emerged from the shipyard in May 1943. She almost immediately moved up to the Aleutians area, where her 14-inch guns bombarded Kiska when that island was invaded in August. During the next year, from November 1943 into September 1944, she participated in bombardments of Tarawa, Kwajalein, Eniwetok, New Ireland, Saipan (where she was damaged by Japanese counter-fire), Guam, Tinian, Anguar and Pelieu. In October, Tennessee's guns pounded the Leyte invasion area as U.S. forces returned to the Philippines, and, on the night of 24-25 October, she helped sink the Japanese battleship Yamashiro in the Battle of Surigao Strait.
After a Stateside overhaul, Tennessee supported the Iwo Jima operation in February and March 1945, firing nearly 1400 fourteen-inch and over 6000 five-inch shells at targets on the small, but fiercely defended island. Beginning in late March, she bombarded Okinawa. Hit by a suicide plane on 12 April, Tennessee remained in action until 1 May, when she went to Ulithi for repairs, then returned to Okinawa to continue her gunfire support during June. In July and August, she operated in the waters off China. Following Japan's surrender, the battleship took part in the occupation effort before returning to the United States via the Cape of Good Hope, arriving at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Pennsylvania, early December 1946. Through the next year, she underwent the "mothballing" process and was decommissioned in February 1947. USS Tennessee was part of the Atlantic Reserve Fleet for twelve more years and was sold for scrapping in July 1959.
USS California (BB-44)
California was commissioned in August 1921, and during the 1920s and 1930s she actively participated in the activities of the United States Battle Fleet, often acting as flagship. In 1925, California was one of the ships that conducted a major trans-Pacific cruise to Australia and New Zealand.
With most of the fleet, California deployed to Hawaii in 1940 and was based there as tensions rose in the Pacific over the next year. When Japanese carrier planes raided Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, she was badly damaged by torpedoes and bombs, slowly settling to the harbor bottom over the next few days. Her salvage, repair and modernization represented a major undertaking by the Pearl Harbor and Puget Sound Navy Yards and was not completed until January 1944.
Over two and a half years after she was sunk, California reentered combat, providing heavy gunfire support for the invasions of Saipan, Guam and Tinian during June and July 1944. In October and November, she took part in the Leyte Campaign, including action at Surigao Strait. In January 1945, California participated in the Lingayen Gulf invasion. Damaged by a kamikaze suicide plane on 6 January, she remained in action for more than two weeks before steaming to the U.S. for repairs and an overhaul.
California returned to the Western Pacific in June 1945, in time to take part in the final stages of the Okinawa campaign. She covered occupation activities in the wake of Japan's surrender, then sailed for the Atlantic by way of the Indian Ocean and the Cape of Good Hope. After her arrival at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in December 1945, the battleship was generally inactive until her formal decommissioning in February 1947. After twelve years in the Reserve Fleet, USS California was sold for scrapping in July 1959.
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