Ships of Pearl Harbor: USS Tennessee

May 22, 2018

On April 30, 1919, a new battleship class was launched. Named for its lead ship, the Tennessee-class offered more robust protection from enemy torpedoes as well as fire-control systems for both primary and secondary gun batteries.

USS Tennessee (BB-43) and her sister ship, USS California (BB-44), were the first to be designed to shoot over the horizon, which was a great tactical advantage since battleship-based aircraft were able to spot targets far beyond what was visible from the deck.

Through her first two decades of service, Tennessee took part on a series of trials out of her home port of San Pedro, CA, undergoing training, maintenance, and readiness exercises designed to keep the sailors serving on board prepared for any potential battle. USS Tennessee took part in Fleet Problems I through XXI, setting sail for the Caribbean Sea, the Atlantic, Alaska, and Panama.

Fleet Problem XXI, which took place in April 1940, was designed to test the defense of Hawaii. Just over a year and a half later, ships like USS Tennessee were caught in a real situation that echoed the very things planned for during the Fleet Problems.

Damaged, but Still Standing

USS Tennessee (BB-43) with hulk of USS West Virginia (BB-48) at lower right

USS Tennessee (BB-43) with capsized hulk of USS Oklahoma (BB-37) at lower right

Despite the years of training, Tennessee was as ill-prepared for the surprise Japanese attack of December 7, 1941 as all of the other ships at Pearl Harbor. When they realized how serious the situation was, Tennessee’s crew sprang into action and started firing on the incoming craft with the ship’s anti-aircraft guns.

During the attack, USS Tennessee was struck by a pair of armor-piercing bombs. Though they didn’t detonate completely, they did cause a significant amount of damage. The first bomb struck the center gun of turret two and disabled it entirely, while the second crashed through turret three. Debris from the first bomb was blown onto the command deck of USS West Virginia (BB-48), mortally wounding Mervyn S. Bennion, the nearby ship’s commanding officer.

West Virginia sank during the attack, trapping Tennessee in her berth for ten days before being freed and sent to Puget Sound Navy Yard for repairs.

A New USS Tennessee Emerges

In addition to needed repairs, USS Tennessee was given upgrades to her anti-aircraft guns and fire control radars. In February of 1942, she began training with Task Force 1.

After undergoing another round of upgrades and rebuilds, Tennessee looked more like West Virginia and California after they had been rebuilt following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

USS Tennessee at War

USS Tennessee (BB-43) bombarding Guam, 19 July 1944

USS Tennessee (BB-43) bombarding Guam, 19 July 1944

On May 31, 1943, Tennessee set sail for Alaska to support the Aleutian Islands Campaign defending against Japan’s relentless attack. In early 1944, she sailed for Hawaii with Task Unit 58.5 before being rerouted to the Marshall islands, which she bombarded in support of a troop landing. From the Bismarck Archipelago to the Mariana Islands and the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Tennessee took part in most of the the action of the Pacific War. Before her wartime service was finished, Tennessee took part in the Battle of Surigao Strait and the final two main battles of the war, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

On February 14, 1947, Tennessee’s ensign was removed and she was decommissioned. Twelve years later, she was formally struck from the Naval Vessel Register.

For her wartime service, USS Tennessee earned 10 Service stars, the American Campaign Medal/Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal, Navy Occupation Medal (Asia Clasp), Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, Philippine Liberation Medal, American Defense Service Medal, and the Navy Unit Commendation.

Although she was broken up for scrap after being sold in 1959, her bell is on display at the Museum of Scott County in Huntsville, TN.

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