USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) : Last Battleship Hit in World War 2

USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) : Last Battleship Hit in World War 2

Battleships / World War 2

Fitting-out deck area around forward turrets in early weeks of 1916

Battleship Pennsylvania, the flagship of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, was one of the lucky ships during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Her luck almost ran out three days before the cease-fire ending the war. On the first day of the war, 7 December 1941, Pennsylvania was hit by one bomb from one of the over 350 Japanese aircraft that attacked Oahu, Hawaii. Because she was in the dry dock, she could not be sunk. 

Pennsylvania suffered 32 dead (18 of her own crew, the rest from other ships who were aboard), but she was operational within a week.

CassinDownes and Pennsylvania in the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor

On 12 August 1945, off Okinawa, a solitary Japanese aircraft hit Pennsylvania with one torpedo, killing 20 men and very nearly sinking her. Had she not been being towed into shallow water, she might very well have gone down and been the only U.S. battleship sunk since Pearl Harbor.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Pennsylvania proceeded to San Francisco for repair. During the course of the war, she would be substantially modernized (including extensive anti-torpedo protection) and would awarded eight Battle Stars.

However, as a World War I–vintage battleship, her comparatively slow speed and high fuel consumption relegated her to a primary shore bombardment role in support of numerous amphibious assaults across the Pacific. She did get a measure of revenge for Pearl Harbor when she participated in the last battleship versus battleship action in history, the Battle of Surigao Strait, on 24 October 1944. 

Firing her 14/45 and 5/38 guns while bombarding Guam, south of the Orote Peninsula, on the first day of landings, 21 July 1944. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Pennsylania subsequently came through the kamikaze attacks at Lingayen Gulf in January 1945 virtually unscathed.

She then entered another period of major overhaul (including the replacement of her main and secondary armament guns and addition of improved radar, fire control systems, and more anti-aircraft weapons).

Pennsylvania departed San Francisco on 12 July 1945 en route Okinawa (and the anticipated invasion of Japan), under the command of Captain William Moultrie Moses. She got some target practice on Japanese positions on Wake Island on 1 August. A Japanese shore battery boldly returned fire, and a shell hit close enough that fragments knocked out one of Pennsylvania’s 5-inch gun directors. She also lost one of her two Curtiss SC-1 Seahawk floatplanes when it was irreparably damaged trying to land in choppy seas.

Upon arrival at the anchorage in Buckner Bay, Okinawa, Pennsylvania became flagship of Task Force 95 when Vice Admiral Jesse Barrett “Oley” Oldendorf shifted his flag. Oldendorf was a highly successful commander (he was in command at the Battle of Surigao Strait, an action for which he was awarded a Navy Cross), but he was a bit of a magnet for bad luck. A 1909 U.S. Naval Academy graduate, he was in command of the Naval Armed Guard on the U.S. Army transport USAT Saratoga (ID-1305) when she was accidentally rammed and sunk by the steamer SS Panama in New York Harbor on 30 July 1917.

USAT Saratoga (ID-1305)

His next ship was the troop transport USS President Lincoln, on which he was serving as gunnery officer when the ship was sunk by three torpedoes from German submarine U-90 on 31 May 1918 while on a return transit from France (26 of 715 men aboard were lost when the ship sank in 20 minutes. President Lincoln’s executive officer, Lieutenant Edouard Iazac [USNA ’15]) was captured by U-90 and was later awarded a Medal of Honor for his subsequent escape). Vice Admiral Oldendorf was onboard the battleship New Mexico (BB-40), when she took a bad kamikaze hit in the bridge area at Lingayen Gulf; he was unharmed, but casualties were high. Among the 30 dead were New Mexico’s commanding officer and a British lieutenant general.

On 11 March 1945, his barge collided with a buoy at the fleet anchorage at Ulithi Atoll and he broke his collarbone.

As dusk approached on 12 August 1945, the force at Buckner Bay received intelligence warning that an air attack was possible. In accordance with standard procedures, ships in the anchorage turned on their chemical smoke generators to screen the ships at anchor from attack. Pennsylvania did not have this capability, so smaller amphibious vessels circled the battleship trying to cover her in smoke, but the wind kept blowing it clear.

When a lone Japanese torpedo bomber finally popped out of the twilight murk at close range with no further warning, Pennsylvania was the only ship in the anchorage not obscured by smoke, making her the obvious target.

The torpedo plane’s aim was true, and the deep-running torpedo passed forward of light cruiser St. Louis (CL-49) before hitting Pennsylvania in a particularly vulnerable spot: aft and below the anti-torpedo blisters that had been added after Pearl Harbor. The torpedo blew a 30-foot-diameter hole in the hull well below the waterline on the No. 1 one shaft, and the ship rapidly began to flood, taking on a large amount of water. Because of the heat, many crewmen were sleeping topside and were blown into the air or overboard. Twenty crewmen were killed and many were wounded, including Vice Admiral Oldendorf, who suffered several broken ribs. The attack occurred so quickly that the Japanese plane does not appear to have been engaged and made good its getaway.

All compartments below the third deck and aft of frame 127 (everything aft of the aft main battery turret) flooded immediately and progressive flooding occurred through open doors and hatches. Three of her four shafts were damaged and she lost steering control. As the ship settled by the stern, the fight to save her went on all through the night. Fortunately, two salvage tugs were available to come alongside, adding their pumping capability. In the morning, Pennsylvania was towed into shallow water (and, for a time, probably was on the bottom) as pumping continued until finally the situation was stabilized.

Crewmembers of USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) pump out water over her quarterdeck, after being she was torpedoed in Buckner Bay, Okinawa, on 12 August 1945. Note the hoses led out through her aft 14-inch guns (NH 92512).

On 18 August, Pennsylvania was towed out of Buckner Bay to the floating dry dock at Guam for temporary repair (thereby missing the Tokyo Bay surrender ceremony). She crossed the Pacific under her own power, although on 4 October she suffered a serious shaft casualty and divers had to go below and cut the shaft (and the screw fell to the bottom of the ocean). Pennsylvania subsequently survived being used as a target ship for the two atomic bomb test blasts at Bikini Atoll in July 1946. She remained at Kwajalein Atoll for radiological study before being deliberately sunk off the atoll on 10 February 1948. Pennsylvania was awarded a Navy Unit Commendation for her wartime service. The hit on Pennsylvania was the closest any U.S. battleship had come to sinking since the Pearl Harbor attack.

13 August 1945: Attack Transport Lagrange (APA-124)—Last Ship Hit by Kamikaze
The U.S. Navy attack transport USS La Grange (APA-124) at anchor, in 1945.

The evening after Pennsylvania had been hit, two Japanese Zeke fighters, each armed with a 1,100-pound bomb, flew into Buckner Bay at 1947. They chose as their target the attack transport La Grange. Under the command of Captain Frank R. Walker (who had been awarded a Navy Cross as commander of Destroyer Squadron FOUR during the Battle of Vella LaVella on 6–7 October 1942), La Grange was part of Transport Squadron SEVENTEEN (TRANSRON 17). She was a veteran of seven amphibious landings, including the precursor landing to Okinawa at Kerama Retto, and had narrowly avoided being hit by a kamikaze on 2 April. Two days before the cease-fire, La Grange’s luck ran out.

Unlike the night before, La Grange and other ships engaged the Zekes with anti-aircraft fire. However, despite being hit repeatedly, the two kamikaze kept coming. The first Zeke hit the aft end of La Grange’s superstructure and both plane and bomb exploded in a massive fireball that knocked out all electrical power. This severely hampered the ship in fighting the fires that, at times, were 200 feet high.

The second Zeke hit a king post, which spun the plane into the sea about 20 yards from the ship on the port side, but fuel and parts of the aircraft landed on the ship, causing more casualties and adding fuel to the fire (literally). The fires destroyed the bridge deck, communications spaces, and navigational aids. Despite the severe damage, the transport’s damage control and repair parties eventually gained the upper hand and the ship remained afloat, at a cost of 21 killed and 89 wounded.

This incident may have served as part of the inspiration for the 1956 Hollywood movie Away All Boats, starring Jeff Chandler, which was one of the more realistic Navy war movies and featured color footage of actual kamikaze attacks. The movie was filmed aboard attack transport Randall (APA-224), and was also one of Clint Eastwood’s first roles, an uncredited bit part as a Navy corpsman.

Battleships / World War 2

USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) : Last Battleship Hit in World War 2

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USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) : Last Battleship Hit in World War 2

Written by US Navy Admiral Sam Cox