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USS Pennsylvania BB-38 & WW2

USS Pennsylvania BB-38 & WW2

Pennsylvania in Pearl Harbor in 1932, with tripod masts and her enlarged bridge

The overlooked sister of the famous USS Arizona, first American super dreadnought the USS Pennsylvania and the story of her wartime career.

Laid down at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in October 1913 and launched in March 1915. Her commissioning would follow in June 1916. Equipped with an oil-burning propulsion system, this design was unlike other US battleships at the time.

The Pennsylvania’s were part of the standard-type battleship series, however had a marked and massive improvement over the preceding Nevada class battleships.

Carrying an extra pair of 14-inch guns for a total of twelve guns she was the most powerful US Battleship class at the time.

On the morning of the 7th of December 1941, Pennsylvania was in Dry Dock No. 1 in Pearl Harbor undergoing a refit where three of her four screws were removed. The destroyers USS Cassin and Downes were also in the dock with her. When the port was under air attack from the Japanese fleet, Pennsylvania’s crew rushed to their battle stations, and her anti-aircraft gunners began engaging the hostile aircraft.

Japanese torpedo bombers unsuccessfully attempted to torpedo the side of the drydock to flood it; having failed, several aircraft then strafed Pennsylvania. At 08:30, several high-altitude bombers began a series of attacks on the ship; over the course of the following fifteen minutes, five aircraft attempted to hit her from different directions.

One of the Japanese bombers hit Downes and one scored a hit on Pennsylvania that passed through the boat deck and exploded in casemate No. 9.

Pennsylvania’s anti-aircraft gunners did managed to shoot down a low-flying aircraft that attempted to strafe the ship; they claimed to have shot down another five aircraft, but afterwards it was confirmed that only two aircraft were likely hit by Pennsylvania’s guns.

By 09:20, both destroyers were on fire from bomb hits and the fire had spread to Pennsylvania, so the drydock was flooded. Nevertheless, ten minutes later, the destroyers began to explode as the fires spread to ammunition magazines, and at 09:41, Downes was shattered by an explosion that scattered parts of the ship around the area.

One of Downes’ torpedo tubes, weighing 500 to 1,000 pounds was launched into the air, striking Pennsylvania’s forecastle.

As part of her crew battled the fire in her bow, other men used the ship’s boats to ferry anti-aircraft ammunition from stores in the West Loch of Pearl Harbor.

Beginning at 14:00, the crew began preparatory work to repair the bomb damage, a 5-inch, 25 gun and a 5-inch 51 casemate gun were taken from the damaged battleship West Virginia to replace weapons damaged aboard Pennsylvania. In the course of the attack, Pennsylvania had 15 men killed 14 missing, and 38 wounded.

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

On the 12th of December, Pennsylvania was refloated and taken out of the drydock; having been only lightly damaged in the attack, she was ready to go to sea to receive improvements to engage in the Pacific war. She departed Pearl Harbor on the 20th of December and arrived in San Francisco nine days later. There, she went into drydock at Hunter’s Point on the 1st of January 1942 for repairs that were completed by the 12th of January.

The ship left San Francisco on the 20th of February and began gunnery training before returning to San Francisco the next day. Further training followed in March, and from the 14th of April to 1st of August, she took part in extensive maneuvers off the coast of California, during this period, she underwent an massive overhaul at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in San Francisco.

The Mare Island work involved considerably strengthening the ship’s anti-aircraft capabilities, with ten Bofors 40 mm quad mounts and fifty-one Oerlikon 20 mm single mounts. The tripod mainmast was removed, with the stump replaced by a deckhouse above which the aft main battery director cupola was housed. One of the new CXAM-1 radars was installed above the cupola. The older 5-inch /51 cal anti-ship guns in casemates and 5-inch /25 cal anti-aircraft guns were replaced with rapid fire 5-inch /38 cal guns in eight twin turret mounts. The new 5″/38 cal dual purpose guns could elevate to 85 degrees and fire at a very high rate of one round every four seconds.

The ship was able to briefly go to sea for the Battle of Midway as part of Task Force 1, commanded by Vice Admiral William S. Pye, but Task Force 1 did not see any real action during the decisive operation.

On the 1st of August, Pennsylvania left San Francisco, bound for Pearl Harbor. She arrived there on the 14th of August and took part in further training, including guard tactics for the aircraft carrier task forces. Another overhaul followed in San Francisco from the 3rd to 10th of January 1943. After further training and tests at San Francisco and Long Beach that lasted into April, she left to join the Aleutian Islands Campaign on the 23rd of April.

She bombarded Holtz Bay and Chichagof Harbor on 11–12 May to support the forces that went ashore on the island of Attu.

Map showing the recapture of Attu in 1943

While she was leaving the area on the 12th, the Japanese submarine I-31 launched a torpedo at the ship, which was caught by a patrolling PBY Catalina flying boat. The Catalina quickly radioed Pennsylvania, which took evasive maneuvers and escaped unharmed in a great manoeuvre, a pair of destroyers then spent the next ten hours hunting the submarine before severely damaging her and forcing her to surface. The I-31 was later sunk by another destroyer the next day due to damage sustained.

Battleship Pennsylvania bombards Attu during landing operations on 11 May 1943.

Pennsylvania returned to Holtz Bay on the 14th of May to conduct another bombardment in support of an infantry attack on the western side of the bay.

A U.S. Navy reconnaissance photo of four Japanese Mitsubishi A6M-2N Rufe seaplane fighters at Holtz Bay, Attu on 7 November 1942.

She continued operations in the area until the 19th of May, when she steamed to Adak Island for another amphibious assault. While en route, one of her gasoline stowage compartments exploded, which caused structural damage, luckily though, no one was injured in the accident. She was forced to leave Adak on the 21st of May for repairs at Puget Sound that lasted from 31 May to 15 June.

During the overhaul, another accidental explosion killed one man and injured a second. She left port on the 1st of August, bound for Adak, which she reached on the 7th of August. There, she became the flagship of Admiral Francis W. Rockwell, commander of the task force that was to attack Kiska.

The invasion fleet for Kiska in August 1943

The troops went ashore on the 15th of August but met no resistance, the Japanese had secretly evacuated without US forces in the area aware of it. Pennsylvania then patrolled off Kiska for several days before returning to Adak on the 23rd of August.

Two days later, the battleship departed Adak for Pearl Harbor, arriving there on the 1st of September. She embarked on board a further 790 passengers before steaming on the 19th of September for San Francisco. She arrived there six days later and debarked all her passengers before returning to Pearl Harbor on the 6th of October to take part in bombardment training from the 20th to 23rd of October and the 31st of October – 4th of November.

Now the flagship of Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, the commander of the Fifth Amphibious Force, itself part of the Northern Attack Force, Pennsylvania left Pearl Harbor on 10 November to lead the assault on the Makin Atoll, part of the Gilbert Islands. She was joined by three other battleships, four cruisers, three escort carriers, and numerous transports and destroyers for the attack, they arrived off Makin on the 20th of November, and Pennsylvania opened fire on Butaritari Island that morning at a range of 14,200 yards that began the Battle of Makin.

Early on the morning of the 24th of November, the ship was rocked by an explosion off her starboard bow, lookouts on board reported that the escort carrier Liscome Bay had been torpedoed and had exploded.

USS Liscome Bay CVE56

Japanese torpedo bombers conducted continuous hard nighttime attacks on the 25th and 26th of November, but they failed to score any hits on the American fleet. Pennsylvania left the area on the 30th of November to return to Pearl Harbor.

Burial at sea aboard troopship Leonard Wood of two Liscome Bay sailors, victims of the submarine attack by I-175. In the foreground facing the ceremony are survivors of Liscome Bay.

At the start of 1944, Pennsylvania was at Pearl Harbor and over the course of the first two weeks of January, she took part in maneuvers in preparation for landings on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands. She departed Pearl Harbor on the 22nd of January in company with the invasion fleet, and on the 31st of January she began her preparatory bombardment of the atoll to start the Battle of Kwajalein. Troops went ashore the next day, and Pennsylvania remained offshore and provided artillery support to the marines as they fought to secure the island.

By the evening of the 3rd of February, the Japanese defenders had been defeated and the battle won, allowing the ship to depart to Majuro Atoll to replenish her low ammunition supply. She left shortly thereafter, on the 12th of February, to support the next major attack on Eniwetok in the Marshalls, five days later she arrived off the island with the Battle of Eniwetok already underway, and over the course of the 20th and 21st of February, she shelled the island heavily to support the men fighting ashore. On the 22nd of February, she supported the landing on Parry Island that was part of the Eniwetok atoll.

On the 1st of March, Pennsylvania steamed back to Majuro before proceeding south to Havannah Harbor on Efate Island in the New Hebrides. She remained there until the 24th of April, when she left for a short visit to Sydney, Australia from the 29th of April to the 11th of May, when she returned to Efate.

She then steamed to Port Purvis on Florida Island, in the Solomons, to participate in further amphibious assault exercises. After replenishing ammunition and supplies at Efate, she left on the 2nd of June, bound for Roi, arriving there six days later. On the 10th of June, she joined a force of battleships, cruisers, escort carriers, and destroyers that had assembled for the Marianas campaign.

USS Pennsylvania BB-38 & WW2

While en route that night, one of the escorting destroyers reported a sonar contact of a Japanese submarine and the ships of the fleet took evasive maneuvers and in the darkness the Pennsylvania accidentally collided with the troop transport Talbot. Pennsylvania incurred only minor damage and was able to continue with the fleet, but Talbot had to return to Eniwetok for emergency repairs to save the ship.

Pennsylvania began her bombardment of Saipan on the 14th of June to prepare the island for the assault that came the next day. She continued shelling the island while cruising off Tinian on the 15 June supporting the assault craft that went ashore. On the 16th of June, she attacked Japanese positions at Orote Point on Guam before returning back to Saipan. She left the area on the 25th of June to replenish at Eniwetok, returning to join the preparatory bombardment of Guam on the 12th of July.

The shelling continued for two days, and late on the 14th of July, she steamed to Saipan to again replenish her ammunition. Back on patrol three days later, she continued to blast the island through till the 20th of July. This work also included successfully suppressing guns that were firing on demolition parties that went ashore to destroy landing obstacles. On the morning of 21 July, Pennsylvania took up her bombardment position off Orote Point as the assault craft prepared to launch their attack.

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.
The ship operated off Guam supporting the men fighting there for the next two weeks.

Pennsylvania left Guam on the 3rd of August to replenish at Eniwetok, arriving there on the 19th of August. From there, she steamed to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides before joining in on some landing training off Guadalcanal. The ship left on the 6th of September as part of the Bombardment and Fire Support Group for the invasion of Peleliu. She bombarded the island from the 12th to the 14th of September and supported the landings on the next day.

She shelled Anguar Island on the 17th of September and remained there for three days, departing on the 20th of September.

She then steamed to Seeadler Harbor on Manus which was one of the Admiralty Islands for repairs. On the 28 September, she arrived there and entered a floating dry dock on the 1st of October for a week’s repair. Pennsylvania left on the 12th of October in company with the battleships USS Mississippi, Tennessee, California, Maryland, and West Virginia, under the command of Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf. These ships were designated Task Group 77.2 and formed the Fire Support Group for the upcoming operations in the Philippines.

They arrived off Leyte on the 18th of October and took up bombardment positions over the next four days, they covered Underwater Demolition Teams, beach reconnaissance operations, and minesweepers that were clearing the way for the landing force.

On the 24th of October, reports of Japanese naval forces approaching the area led Oldendorf’s ships to prepare for action at the exit of the Surigao Strait.

Vice Admiral Shōji Nishimura’s Southern Force steamed through the Surigao Strait to attack the invasion fleet in Leyte Gulf with his force comprising of the Battleship Division 2, the battleships Yamashiro and Fusō, the heavy cruiser Mogami, and four destroyers, along with Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima’s Second Striking Force with the heavy cruisers Nachi and Ashigara, the light cruiser Abukuma, and four more destroyers. As Nishimura’s flotilla passed through the strait on the night of 24 October, they came under attack from American PT boats, followed by destroyers, initiating the Battle of Surigao Strait. One of these destroyers torpedoed Fusō and disabled her, though Nishimura continued on toward his objective.

Yamashiro testing her torpedo nets at Yokosuka in 1917

In the early hours of 25 October, the Southern Force came into contact with Oldendorf’s battleships, which had positioned themselves to cross Nishimura’s T. At 03:53, West Virginia opened fire, followed by some of the other battleships, though Pennsylvania had trouble locating a target in the darkness with her search radar.

Pennsylvania’s older Mark 3 radar was not as effective as the more modern sets on West Virginia and some of the other battleships.

Task Group 77.2’s battleships effectively annihilated Battleship Division 2; Shima’s Second Striking Force had fallen behind and had not yet entered the fray. Yamashiro was set on fire and then exploded, she turned to flee, covered by a salvo of torpedoes from the burning Mogami, but the American battleships were able to evade them without damage. Despite having disengaged from Oldendorf’s battleships, Yamashiro was hit by more torpedoes and capsized and sank around 04:20.

Shima’s ships passed the still floating Fusō and realized that Nishimura had entered a trap, so he reversed course to flee, in the confusion, his flagship Nachi collided with Mogami, damaging her and slowing her to be attacked by American light forces.

She was later sunk, as were three of the four destroyers. Later on the 25th of October, Pennsylvania’s anti-aircraft gunners helped to shoot down four aircraft that attacked a nearby destroyer.

Japanese cruiser Nachi

Late on 28 October, Pennsylvania would then shot down a torpedo bomber. The ship remained on station off Leyte until the 25th of November, when she departed for Manus, she then steamed to Kossol Roads off Palau on the 15 December to refill her depleted magazines. She then conducted gunnery training on the 22nd of December for a few day’s , and on the 1st of January 1945, Pennsylvania re-joined Oldendorf’s Fire Support Group on the way to Lingayen Gulf for the next major operation in the Philippines.

Pennsylvania leading ColoradoLouisvillePortland and Columbia into Lingayen Gulf, Philippines, January 1945

On the 4th to 5th of January, Japanese aircraft repeatedly attacked the ships including Pennsylvania. This included mass kamikazes attack that destroyed the escort carrier USS Ommaney Bay. Pennsylvania began bombarding Japanese positions on Santiago Island at the entrance to Lingayen Gulf and on the 6th of January before entering the gulf that night to suppress Japanese guns while minesweepers cleared the area. The next morning, the rest of Oldendorf’s ships joined her in the gulf to begin the main bombardment which would last through to the 8th. On the 9th of January, the amphibious assault began with troops from the Sixth United States Army going ashore.

Japanese aircraft struck the invasion fleet on the 10th of January, and four bombs landed close to Pennsylvania remained relatively undamaged. Later that day, a fire control party directed Pennsylvania to shell a group of Japanese tanks that were massing to launch a counterattack on the beachhead with Pennsylvania successfully destroying them.

The ship patrolled outside the gulf from the 10th to 17th of January, when she returned to the gulf she saw no further action and she departed on the 10th of February for maintenance at Manus. From there, she left on 22 February for San Francisco, stopping in the Marshalls and at Pearl Harbor on the way. After arriving on 13 March, she underwent a thorough overhaul, including the replacement of her worn-out main battery and secondary guns. She also received more modern radar and fire control equipment and additional close-range anti-aircraft guns. With the work done, she went on sea trials off San Francisco, followed by training at San Diego. She left San Francisco on the 12th of July and arrived in Pearl Harbor on the 18th, where she engaged in further training from the 20th to 23rd of July. The next day, she departed to join the invasion fleet off Okinawa.

While transiting the Pacific, she stopped to heavily bombard Wake Island on the 1st of August.

For further reading on Wake Island, see our piece: Wake Island : Worst Christmas in U.S. Naval History

In the artillery duel with Japanese coastal guns, one of their shells detonated close enough that fragments disabled one of the ship’s fire control directors for her 5-inch guns. One of her Curtiss SC Seahawks was damaged in the heavy seas, and the destroyer USS Ordronaux successfully recovered the pilot. Pennsylvania loaded ammunition at Saipan before continuing on to Okinawa, arriving there on the 12th of August where she became flagship of Task Force 95.

That night, while moored next to Tennessee in Buckner Bay, a Japanese torpedo bomber managed to penetrate the Allied defensive screen undetected; the aircraft launched its torpedo at Pennsylvania and hit her aft, causing the ship serious damage.

The torpedo opened a hole approximately 30 ft in diameter, causing the ship to take on a considerable amount of water and begin to settle by the stern.

Damage control teams were able to contain the flooding. Twenty men were killed and another ten were injured in the attack, including Oldendorf, who was aboard at the time and suffered several broken ribs. Pennsylvania was the last major US warship to be damaged in the war. The next day, salvage tugs towed her to shallow water where temporary repairs could be affected.

On the 15th of August, the Japanese surrendered, ending the war and Pennsylvania’s career.

And on the 16 January 1946, Pennsylvania was designated to be expended as a target ship for the Operation Crossroads atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll to be carried out later that year. Repairs were completed enough to allow her to sail to the Marshall Islands, and she left Puget Sound on the 24th of February. After stopping in Pearl Harbor, she arrived in Bikini Atoll on 31st of May where she was anchored along with another eighty-three warships.

The first explosion, Test Able, took place on the 1st of July, and was an air burst. After tests determined that the ship had not been contaminated with radiation, the crew returned to the ship from the 3rd to 24th of July.

The second blast, Test Baker, was done the next day. This was an underwater detonation, and Pennsylvania was moored just 1,100 yards from ground zero but she was only lightly damaged from the blast, but the surge of water caused significant radioactive contamination of the ship, work parties came aboard the ship from 17 to 21 August to prepare the ship to be towed, and on the 21st she was taken under tow by the transport Niagara, which took her to Kwajalein, where she was decommissioned on 29 August. Various radiological and structural studies were completed over the next year and a half until she was scuttled off Kwajalein on the 10th of February 1948.

Pennsylvania sinking off Kwajalein Atoll, 10 February 1948

In conclusion, she was officially stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on the 19th of February ending a long and distinguished career.

USS Pennsylvania BB-38 & WW2

Historian Harry Gillespie : Collected Works

Harry Gillespie is a writer who resides in the UK with his family. His work focuses on Naval & British history with a specific look at 20th century warfare and ships. From World War 1 to The Falkland Islands Campaign.

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