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World War II: USS Tennessee (BB-43)

The lead ship of the Tennessee-class of battleship, USS Tennessee (BB-43) was laid down shortly after the United States’ entry into World War I (1914-1918). The first class to take advantage of the lessons learned in the conflict, the battleship was not completed until two years after the fighting had ended. Entering the peacetime US Navy, Tennessee spent almost the entirety of its career in the Pacific. The battleship was moored at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked. Though struck by two bombs, it was not severely damaged and soon joined in operations against the Japanese.

Withdrawn in August 1942, Tennessee underwent an eight-month modernization which radically changed the appearance of the battleship and left it better equipped to deal with the challenges presented by World War II (1939-1945) naval warfare. Rejoining the fleet in mid-1943, it took part in the Allies’ island-hopping campaign across the Pacific and played a role in the Battle of the Surigao Strait. Despite sustaining a kamikaze hit in April 1945, Tennessee remained an active participant in operations through the end of the conflict in August.


The ninth class of dreadnought battleship (South CarolinaDelawareFloridaWyomingNew York, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico) designed for the US Navy, the Tennessee-class was intended to be an improved version of the preceding New Mexico-class. The fourth class to follow the Standard-type concept, which called for ships that possessed similar operational and tactical characteristics, the Tennessee-class was powered by oil-fired boilers instead of coal and employed an “all or nothing” armor scheme. This armor approach called for key areas of the vessel, such as magazines and engineering, to be heavily protected while less important spaces were left unarmored. Also, Standard-type battleships were required to have a minimum top speed of 21 knots and have a tactical turn radius of 700 yards or less.

Designed following the Battle of Jutland, the Tennessee-class class was the first to take advantage of the lessons learned in the fighting. These included enhanced protection below the waterline as well as fire control systems for both the main and secondary batteries. These were mounted atop two large cage masts. As with the New Mexicos, the new ships carried twelve 14″ guns in four triple turrets and fourteen 5″ guns. Unlike its predecessors, the main battery on the Tennessee-class could elevate its guns to 30 degrees which increased the weapons’ range by 10,000 yards. Ordered on December 28, 1915, the new class consisted of two ships: USS Tennessee (BB-43) and USS California (BB-44).


Laid down at the New York Naval Shipyard on May 14, 1917, work on Tennessee moved forward while the US was engaged in World War I. On April 30, 1919, the new battleship slid down the ways with Helen Roberts, daughter of Tennessee Governor Albert H.Roberts, serving as sponsor. Pressing forward, the yard completed the ship and it entered commission on June 3, 1920 with Captain Richard H. Leigh in command. Finishing fitting out, the battleship ran trials in Long Island Sound that October. As part of this process, one of the ship’s electrical turbines exploded, injuring two members of the crew.

USS Tennessee (BB-43) – OverviewUSS California, 1921

  • Nation: United States
  • Type: Battleship
  • Shipyard: New York Navy Yard
  • Laid Down: May 14, 1917
  • Launched: April 30, 1919
  • Commissioned: June 3, 1920
  • Fate: Sold for scrap

Specifications (as built)

  • Displacement: 33,190 tons
  • Length: 624 ft.
  • Beam: 97.3 ft.
  • Draft: 31 ft.
  • Propulsion: Turbo-electric transmission turning 4 propellers
  • Speed: 21 knots
  • Complement: 1,083 men

Armament (as built)

  • 12 × 14 in. gun (4 × 3)
  • 14 × 5 in. guns
  • 2 × 21 in. torpedo tubes

Interwar Years 

Following standardization trials at Guantanamo Bay in early 1921, Tennessee received orders to join the Pacific Fleet. Passing through the Panama Canal, the battleship arrived at San Pedro, CA on June 17. Operating from the West Coast, the battleship moved through annual cycles of peacetime training, maneuvers, and war games. In 1925, Tennessee and other battleships from the Pacific Fleet conducted a goodwill cruise to Australia and New Zealand. Four years later, the battleship’s anti-aircraft armament was enhanced. Following Fleet Problem XXI off Hawaii in 1940, Tennessee and the Pacific Fleet received orders to shift their base to Pearl Harbor due to increasing tensions with Japan.

World War II Begins

On the morning of December 7, 1941, Tennessee was moored inside of USS West Virginia (BB-48) along Battleship Row. When the Japanese attacked, Tennessee‘s crew manned the ship’s anti-aircraft guns but were unable to prevent two bombs from hitting the ship. Additional damage was sustained by flying debris when USS Arizona (BB-39) exploded. Trapped by the sunken West Virginia for ten days after the attack, Tennessee finally moved free and was sent to the West Coast for repairs. Entering Puget Sound Navy Yard, the battleship received needed repairs, additions to its anti-aircraft battery, and new search and fire control radars.

Return to Action

Departing the yard on February 26, 1942, Tennessee conducted training exercises along the West Coast and then patrolled the Pacific. Though it was initially slated to support the landings on Guadalcanal in early August, its slow speed and high fuel consumption prevented it from joining the invasion force. Instead, Tennessee returned to Puget Sound for a major modernization program. This saw the battleship’s superstructure razed and rebuilt, enhancements to its power plant, the trunking of its two funnels into one, additions to the anti-aircraft armament, and incorporation of anti-torpedo protection into the hull. Emerging on May 7, 1943, Tennessee‘s appearance was radically changed. Ordered to the Aleutians later that month, the battleship provided gunfire support for landings there.

Island Hopping

Steaming south that fall, Tennessee‘s guns aided US Marines during the invasion of Tarawa in late November. Following training off California, the battleship returned to action on January 31, 1944, when it opened fired on Kwajalein and then remained offshore to support the landings. With the capture of the island, Tennessee rendezvoused USS New Mexico (BB-40), USS Mississippi (BB-41), and USS Idaho (BB-42) in March to attack targets in the Bismarck Islands. After rehearsals in Hawaiian waters, Tennessee joined the invasion force for the Marianas in June. Arriving off Saipan, it struck targets ashore and later covered the landings. In the course of the fighting, the battleship took three hits from Japanese shore batteries which killed 8 and wounded 26. Withdrawing for repairs on June 22, it quickly returned to the area to aid in the invasion of Guam the next month.

On September 12, Tennessee aided Allied operations against Peleliu by attacking the island of Angaur to the south. The following month, the battleship fired in support of General Douglas MacArthur’s landings on Leyte in the Philippines. Five days later, on October 25, Tennessee formed part of Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf’s line at the Battle of Surigao Strait. In the fighting, the American battleships inflicted a severe defeat on the enemy as part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf. In the wake of the fighting, Tennessee returned to Puget Sound for a routine refit.

Final Actions

Re-entering the fighting in early 1945, Tennessee joined Rear Admiral W.H.P. Blandy’s Iwo Jima bombardment force. Reaching the island, it opened fire on February 16 in an effort to weaken the Japanese defenses. Supporting the landings three days later, the battleship remained offshore until March 7 when it sailed for Ulithi. There briefly, Tennessee then moved to take part in the Battle of Okinawa. Tasked with striking targets ashore, the battleship also was routinely threatened by kamikaze attacks. On April 12, Tennessee was hit by a kamikaze that killed 23 and wounded 107. Making emergency repairs, the battleship remained off the island until May 1. Steaming to Ulithi, it received permanent repairs.

Arriving back at Okinawa on June 9, Tennessee supported the final drives to eliminate Japanese resistance ashore. On June 23, the battleship became Oldendorf’s flagship and commenced patrols in the Ryukyus and East China Sea. Raiding the Chinese coast, Tennessee was operating off Shanghai when the war ended in August.  After covering the landing of occupation forces at Wakayama, Japan, the battleship touched at Yokosuka before returning to the United States via Singapore and the Cape of Good Hope. Arriving at Philadelphia, it began the process of moving into reserve status. Decommissioned on February 14, 1947, Tennessee remained in reserve for twelve years until being sold for scrap on March 1, 1959.


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