USS Tennessee (BB-43) 1941-1943

See the main article USS Tennessee (BB-43)
This article is about the USS Tennessee (BB-43), a U.S. Navy battleship, during the years 1941, 1942 and 1943.


Pearl Harbor

On the morning of December 7 1941, Tennessee was moored starboard side to a pair of masonry "mooring quays" on Battleship Row, the name given to a line of these deep water berths located along the southeast side of Ford Island. West Virginia (BB-48) was berthed alongside to port. Just ahead of Tennessee was Maryland (BB-46), with Oklahoma (BB-37) outboard. Arizona (BB-39), moored directly astern of Tennessee, was undergoing a period of upkeep from the repair ship Vestal (AR-4), berthed alongside her. The three "nests" were spaced about 75 feet apart.

At about 07:55, Japanese carrier planes began their attack on Pearl Harbor. As the first bombs fell on Ford Island, Tennessee went to general quarters and closed her watertight doors. In about five minutes, her antiaircraft guns were manned and firing. Sortie orders were received, and the battleship's engineers began to get steam up. However, this quickly became academic as Oklahoma and West Virginia took crippling torpedo hits. Oklahoma capsized to port and sank, bottom up. West Virginia began to list heavily, but timely counter-flooding righted her. Nevertheless, she also settled on the bottom, but did so on an even keel. Tennessee, though her guns were firing and her engines operational, could not move. The sinking West Virginia had wedged her against the two massive concrete quays to which she was moored, and worse was soon to come.

As the Japanese torpedo bombers launched their weapons against Battleship Row, dive bombers were simultaneously coming in from above. Strafing fighters were attacking the ships' antiaircraft batteries and control positions as high-level horizontal bombers dropped heavy battleship-caliber projectiles modified to serve as armor-piercing bombs. Several bombs struck Arizona; and, at about 08:20, one of them penetrated her protective deck and exploded in a magazine detonating black-powder saluting charges which, in turn, set off the surrounding smokeless-powder magazines. A shattering explosion demolished Arizona's foreport, and fuel oil from her ruptured tanks was ignited and began to spread. The torpedo hits on West Virginia had also released burning oil, and Tennessee's stern and port quarter were soon surrounded by flames and dense black smoke. At about 08:30, horizontal bombers scored two hits on Tennessee. One bomb carried away the after mainyard before passing through the catapult on top of Turret III, the elevated after turret, breaking up as it partially penetrated the armored turret top. Large fragments of the bomb case did some damage inside the turret and put one of its three 14 inch guns out of operation. Instead of exploding, the bomb filler ignited and burned, setting an intense fire which was quickly extinguished.

The second bomb struck the barrel of the center gun of Turret II, the forward "high" turret, and exploded. The center gun was knocked out of action, and bomb fragments sprayed Tennessee's forward superstructure. Captain Mervyn S. Bennion, the commanding officer of West Virginia, had stepped out on to the starboard wing of his ship's bridge only to be mortally wounded by one of these fragments.

While her physical hurts were relatively minor, Tennessee was still seriously threatened by oil fires raging around her stern. when Arizona's magazines erupted, Tennessee's after decks were showered with burning oil and debris which started fires that were encouraged by the heat of the flaming fuel. Numerous blazes had to be fought on the after portion of the main deck and in the officers' quarters on the deck below. Shipboard burning was brought under control by 10:30, but oil flowing from the tanks of the adjacent ships continued to flame.

By the evening of December 7, the worst was over. Oil was still blazing around Arizona and West Virginia and continued to threaten Tennessee for two more days while she was still imprisoned by the obstacles around her. Although her bridge and foremast had been damaged by bomb splinters, her machinery was in full commission; and no serious injury had been done to ship or gunnery controls. Ten of her 12 14 inch guns and all of her secondary and antiaircraft guns were intact. By comparison with most of the battleships around her, Tennessee was relatively unscathed.

The first order of business was now to get Tennessee out of her berth. Maryland, just forward of her and similarly wedged into her berth when Oklahoma rolled over and sank, was released and moved away on December 9. The forwardmost of Tennessee's two concrete mooring quays was next demolished—a delicate task since the ship's hull was resting against it—and had been cleared away by December 16. Tennessee carefully crept ahead, past Oklahoma's sunken hull, and moored at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard.

Temporary repairs were quickly made. From Turret III to the stern on both sides of the ship, Tennessee's hull gave mute evidence of the inferno that she had survived. Every piece of hull plating above the waterline was buckled and warped by heat; seams had been opened and rivets loosened. These seams had to be rewelded and rivets reset, and a considerable amount of recaulking was needed to make hull and weather decks watertight. The damaged top of Turret III received a temporary armor patch.


On December 20, Tennessee departed Pearl Harbor with Pennsylvania (BB-38) and Maryland—both superficially damaged in the Japanese attack—and a screen of four destroyers. From the moment the ships put to sea, nervous lookouts repeatedly sounded submarine alarms, making the voyage something more than uneventful. Nearing the west coast, Pennsylvania headed for Mare Island Naval Shipyard while Maryland and Tennessee steamed north, arrived at the Puget Sound Navy Yard on December 29 1941, and commenced permanent repairs.


Working around the clock during the first two months of 1942, shipyard craftsmen repaired Tennessee's after hull plating and replaced electrical wiring ruined by heat. To allow her antiaircraft guns a freer field of fire, her tall cage mainmast was replaced by a tower similar to that later installed in Colorado (BB-45) and Maryland. An air-search radar was installed; fire-control radars were fitted to Tennessee's main battery and 5" antiaircraft gun directors. Her three-inch and .50-caliber antiaircraft guns were replaced by 1.1" and 20 mm automatic shell guns, and her 5" antiaircraft guns were protected by splinter shields. 14" Mark IV turret guns were replaced by improved Mark XI models. Other modifications improved the battleship's habitability.

On February 26 1942, Tennessee departed Puget Sound with Maryland and Colorado. Upon arriving at San Francisco, California, she began a period of intensive training operations with Rear Admiral William S. Pye's Task Force 1, made up of the Pacific Fleet's available battleships and a screen of destroyers.

However, her role in the war was not to be in the line of battle for which she had trained for two decades. Most of the great battles of the conflict were not conventional surface-ship actions, but long-range duels between fast carrier striking forces. Fleet carriers, with their screening cruisers and destroyers, could maintain relatively high force speeds; and a new generation of fast battleships beginning with the North Carolina class and continuing into the South Dakota and Iowa classes were coming into the fleet and were to prove their worth in action with the fast carrier force. But the older battleships—Tennessee and her kin—simply could not keep up with the carriers. Thus, while the air groups dueled for the approaches to Port Moresby and the Japanese naval offensive reached its zenith in the waters west of Midway, the battleship force found itself steaming restlessly on the sidelines.

On May 31, Admiral Pye sent two of his battleships to search for a Japanese carrier erroneously reported approaching the California coast. Reports of the Battle of Midway came in, and Pye sortied from San Francisco on June 6 with the rest of his battleships and destroyers and the escort carrier Long Island (AVG-1). The battleship force steamed to an area some 1,200 miles (2,200 km) west of San Francisco and about the same distance northeast of Hawaii in the expectation that part of the Japanese fleet might attempt an "end run" raid on the US Pacific coast. On June 14, after it had become clear that Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto's fleet—reeling from its loss of four carriers ten days before—had returned to Japanese waters, Pye ordered his force back to San Francisco.

On August 1, Tennessee again sailed from San Francisco with Task Force 1. After a week of exercises the battleships joined Hornet (CV-8)—on her way to the South Pacific to support the Guadalcanal operation—and escorted the carrier as far as Hawaii.


Arriving at Pearl Harbor on August 14, Tennessee returned to Puget Sound on the 27th for modernization. California, Tennessee's sister ship, had been sunk in shallow water during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Refloated, and her hull temporarily patched, she returned to Puget Sound in June for permanent repairs which included a thorough modernization. It was decided to include Tennessee in this program as well.


By the time Tennessee emerged from Puget Sound Navy Yard on May 7 1943, she bore virtually no resemblance to her former self. Deep new blisters increased the depth of her side protection against torpedoes by 8 ft 3 in (2.5 m) on each side, gradually tapering toward bow and stern. Internal compartmentation was rearranged and improved. The most striking innovation was made in the battleship's superstructure. The heavy armored conning tower, from which Tennessee would have been controlled in a surface gunnery action, was removed, as were masts, stacks, and other superstructure. A new, compact, superstructure was designed to provide essential ship and gunnery control facilities while offering as little interference as possible to the fields of fire of the ship's increasingly essential anti-aircraft guns. A low tower foremast supported a main-battery director and bridge spaces; boiler uptakes were trunked into a single fat funnel which was faired into the after side of the foremast. Just abaft the stack, a lower structure accommodated the after turret-gun director. Tennessees old five inch (127 mm) battery, and combination of five inch (127 mm) 25 caliber antiaircraft guns and five inch (127 mm) 51 caliber single purpose "anti-destroyer" guns, was replaced by eight five-inch (127 mm) 38 caliber twin mounts. Four new directors, arranged around the superstructure, could control these guns against air or surface targets. All of these directors were equipped with fire-control radars; antennas for surface and air search radars were mounted at the mastheads. Close-in antiaircraft defense was the function of ten quadruple 40 mm gun mounts, each with its own optical director, and of 43 20 mm guns.

Thus revitalized, and her battleworthiness greatly increased, Tennessee ran trials in the Puget Sound area and, on May 22 1943, sailed for San Pedro, California. The days of seeming purposelessness were over. Though the slow battleships were still incapable of serving with the carrier striking force, their heavy turret guns could still hit as hard as ever. Naval shore bombardment and gunfire support for troops ashore, then coming to be a specialty in its own right, was well suited for this the earlier generation of battleships which were also still quite usable for patrol duty in areas where fire-power was more important than speed. The refurbished //Tennessee**s first tour of duty combined both of these missions.

Aleutian Islands

Tennessee departed San Pedro with the cruiser Portland (CA-33) on May 31, bound for the North Pacific, and arrived at Adak, Alaska, on June 9 to begin patrol operations with Task Force 16, the North Pacific Force. During the Midway operation, the Japanese had occupied the Aleutian Islands of Attu and Kiska. Attu was recaptured in May 1943; but Kiska was still in hostile hands; and Japanese air and naval forces still operated in the Aleutian Islands\ area from bases in the Kuril Islands. Tennessee plied back and forth through the legendary fogs and foul weather of the Aleutians, with her crew heavily bundled in arctic clothing for protection against intense cold and freezing rain as her radars probed for some sign of the enemy. There was still much to be learned about radar and its pit-falls; on several occasions, convincing images on the radar screens sent patrolling forces to general quarters. During one patrol in July, radio messages reported a force of nine surface ships 160 miles (300 km) away, steaming rapidly to intercept Tennessee and her consorts. Tension grew as the unknown enemy drew closer, and all hands intently prepared for their first action. The radar images were only 46 miles (85 km) away, and Tennessee's crew were at battle stations when the enemy suddenly disappeared. Where the screens had been displaying what seemed to be a hostile squadron, there was nothing. The hostile fleet had been a mere electronic mirage. During this same period, another surface force fought a brief, but energetic, gunnery action with the same kind of electronic "ghost" force south of Kiska. Distant land masses had appeared on ships' early radar sets as ship contacts at much closer ranges.

At about noon on August 1, Tennessee was out on what all thought another routine patrol when the word was passed to prepare to bombard Kiska. At 1310, she began a zigzag approach through the usual murk to the island with Idaho (BB-42) and three destroyers. As the water grew more shallow, the ship slowed down and streamed naval mine-cutting paravanes from her bows. Tennessee approached the island from the east, closing to a range from which she could open fire with her five inch (127 mm) secondary battery. Her two OS2U Kingfisher floatplanes were catapulted to observe fire; and, at 1610, the battleship commenced firing from 7000 yards (6.4 km). Though the island's shoreline could be seen, the target antiaircraft gun sites on high ground were shrouded in low hanging clouds and were invisible from the ship. Tennessee's aerial spotters caught an occasional glimpse of the impact area and reported the ship's fire as striking home.

The task group continued along Kiska's southern coast. Tennessee's 14 inch (356 mm) guns chimed in at 1624, hitting the location of a submarine base and other areas with 60 rounds before firing ceased at 1645. Visibility had dropped to zero, and results could not be seen. The battleship recovered her floatplanes, and the force turned back toward Adak.

In the early morning hours of August 15, Tennessee again approached Kiska as troops prepared to assault the island. At 0500, the ship's turret guns began to fire at coastal battery sites on nearby Little Kiska as the five inch (127 mm) guns struck antiaircraft positions on that island. The 14 inch (356 mm) guns then shifted their fire to antiaircraft sites on the southern side of Kiska, while the secondary battery turned its attention to an artillery observation position on Little Kiska and set it on fire. The landing force then went ashore, only to discover that nobody was home.

After the loss of Attu, the Japanese, knowing that Kiska's turn would soon come, decided to save the island's garrison. A small surface force closed the island in dense fog and tight radio silence and, on July 27 and July 28 1943, succeeded in evacuating 6,188 troops from Kiska.


Arriving at San Francisco on August 31, Tennessee began an intensive period of training and carried out battle exercises off the southern California coast before provisioning and shoving off for Hawaii. After a week's exercises in the Pearl Harbor operating area, the ship headed for the New Hebrides to rehearse for the invasion of the Gilbert Islands.

Battle of Tarawa

The Japanese had occupied Betio on Christmas Day 1941. In nearly two years, with the help of conscripted Korean laborers, they had done a thorough job of digging themselves in. Americans still had a great deal to learn about pre-landing bombardment. Air attacks and naval gunfire damaged, but did not knock out, the beach defenses; and the landing marines met an intense fire from artillery, mortars, and machine guns. Casualties mounted rapidly, and the landing force asked for all possible fire support: At 1084, Tennessee's 14 inch (356 mm) and five inch (127 mm) guns reopened fire. The battleship continued to shoot until 1138, resuming fire at 1224 and firing until a ceasefire order was issued at 1300. The desperately contested struggle went on until dark, with close support being provided by destroyers which closed the beach to fire their five inch (127 mm) guns at short range and by waves of carrier planes which bombed and strafed. To reduce the chance of submarine or air attack, Tennessee and Colorado (BB-45) withdrew for the night to an area south west of Betio and returned to their fire-support area the next morning to provide antiaircraft protection for the transports and to await a call for gunfire.

The battleships retired to their night area again at dusk. By this time, the battle for the island, its outcome uncertain for the first day and one-half of fighting, had taken a definite turn for the better. By 1600, the Marine commander ashore, Colonel David Shoup, could radio back that "we are winning." Tennessee was back in position south of Betio on the morning of November 22. At 0907, she began to deliver call fire on Japanese defenses at the eastern tip of Betio, dropping 70 rounds of 14 inch (356 mm) and 322 rounds of five inch (127 mm) ammunition on gun positions in 17 minutes of shooting.

During the afternoon, the screening destroyers Frazier (DD-607) and Meade (DD-602) made a sonar contact. Depth charging drove Japanese submarine I-35 to the surface. Her position was hopeless, but the enemy crew scrambled to man the undersea boat's single 5.5 inch (140 mm) deck gun as Tennessee's secondary guns joined Frazier and Meade in hurling five inch (127 mm) projectiles. Tennessee swung clear as Frazier rammed the submarine; four minutes later, I-35 went to the bottom.

Betio was secured by the afternoon of November 23. Tennessee operated in the general area of Tarawa and Abemama atolls, alert for possible counterattacks by air or sea. At dusk on December 3, Tennessee departed the area for Pearl Harbor and, on December 16, headed for the United States with Colorado and Maryland (BB-46). On arrival at San Francisco, four days before Christmas, she was quickly repainted in a "dazzle" camouflage scheme designed to confuse enemy observers. On December 29, Tennessee began intensive bombardment practice, pounding San Clemente Island in rehearsal for the invasion of the Marshall Islands.

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