USS Tennessee (BB-43)
The USS Tennessee BB-43 battleship was an interwar product, survived all of World War 2 and was sold for scrapping in 1959.
Authored By: Dan Alex | Last Edited:
USS Tennessee (BB-43) formed the lead ship of the Tennessee-class battleships in service to the United States Navy (USN). The class proved quantitatively small, just two strong, and encompassed USS Tennessee and her sister, USS California (BB-44). The ships succeeded the New Mexico-class of 1917 and preceded the Colorado-class of 1921. USS Tennessee was ordered on December 28th, 1915 - prior to the U.S. entry into World War 1 (1914-1918) - saw her keel laid down on May 14th, 1917 at the New York Naval Shipyard, and was launched to sea on April 30th, 1919 - though this after hostilities in Europe had ended. She was formally commissioned on June 3rd, 1920.
Design of the Tennessee was broadly consistent with battleships of the period utilizing a centralized superstructure with all main armament concentrated across three-gunned primary turrets - two located fore and two aft of the superstructure. A full broadside could bring all twelve guns to bear while aided by batteries of smaller-caliber guns to boot. Unlike previous USN warships prior to this point, Tennessee benefitted from the results of the Battle of Jutland (the largest naval battle of the war) which - while tactically inconclusive - reduced German naval influence in and around the North Sea for the duration of the war. From this action, the Americans designed a new hull approach for Tennessee intended to improve inherent protection. Additionally, both her primary and secondary gun batteries were now aided by Fire Control Systems (FCSs) for increased accuracy at range and engagement ranges themselves were also increased - Tennessee's main guns were given a 30-degree elevation, a drastic increase from the 15-degree elevation limitation seen in prior American battleships. Her standard crew complement numbered 1,083 personnel which included 57 officers and, as completed, she displaced at 33,190 tons. Her structure showcased a length of 624 feet, a beam of 97 feet, and a draught of 31 feet. The onboard machinery included a turbo-electric transmission which drove four shafts at 26,800 horsepower. Maximum speed in ideal conditions was 21 knots.
Her original armament fitting consisted of 12 x 14" (360mm) /50 caliber main guns and this was backed by 14 x 5" (130mm) /51 caliber guns and 4 x 3" (76mm) /50 caliber guns. Tennessee also carried 2 x 21" (530mm) torpedo tubes - customary for surface warships of the time. Armor ranged from 13.5mm thickness at her belt to 13" at her barbettes. The main gun turret face took on 18" of protection while the conning tower was shrouded in 11.5" of armor. The decks held a 3.5" protection level. Consistent with other warships of the period, USS Tennessee carried two recoverable floatplane aircraft for reconnaissance / artillery spotting duty.
Missing out on World War 1 altogether, Tennessee began a trials period in October of 1920. That same month, a generator aboard the vessel exploded, injuring two, and was forced into repairs. She left New York waters in February 1921 to undergo more trials in the Caribbean (Cuba) and then calibrated her guns off Hampton Roads in March before arriving near Maine. A pair of her 5" guns were deleted from her design at this point, leaving twelve in operation.
As was the case with many USN vessels headed to the western waters of the Pacific, Tennessee was specifically designed (hull and weight-wise) to traverse the Panama Canal - the only route across the Americas heading west without having to round the Argentine coast or sail east around Africa. After traversing the Canal, Tennessee arrived at San Pedro, California In June of 1921. This station was to serve as her home port.
USS Tennessee was in regular training and maintenance regimens throughout the rather quiet interwar years. She was relocated to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii as a deterrent to future Japanese actions in the Pacific and this decision would right a good portion of her future career. Sent to Puget Sound Navy Yard, Tennessee was given an overhaul which took her into 1940.
Tennessee was one of the USN vessels berthed at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese surprise attack on December 7th, 1941 (which led to the American declaration of war). She lay tied to her moorings during the assault as part of "Battleship Row", penned in by the Ford Island coast on one side and USS West Virginia on the other. Tennessee could do little to help stem the tide of the assault but was able to bring her Anti-Aircraft (AA) guns to bear on the low-flying enemy. She took damage from a pair of armor-piercing bombs during the attack, one struck turret two and the other turret three. It was battle damage from the Tennessee that ended the life of Captain Mervyn S. Bennion in command of West Virginia that day. Burning oil from the crippled USS Arizona nearby further complicated Tennessee's status for a fire had spread to Tennessee's stern section. After the attack, Tennessee lay in place for over a week before being recovered and released to sea. She was sent to the American West Coast for the repairs she desperately needed.
While a tactical victory for Japan, the assault on Pearl did not reach the intended goal of knocking out the American carrier fleet. It further involved the United States into the war and its industrial capabilities and patriotism rose to unprecedented levels which only went on to threaten future Japanese expansion throughout the Pacific realm.
While undergoing repairs at Puget Sound Navy Yard, it was decided to install radar aboard Tennessee and her anti-aircraft gun network was strengthened. She then relocated to San Francisco for training and formed a portion of the force sent to support the landings at Guadalcanal. However, her thirty engines meant that she only went as far as Pearl - a common limitation of these older USN warships. Tennessee then underwent a period of drastic refit which brought her up to the standards of the powerful South Dakota-class. Modifications centered on survivability against torpedo attack, a reworking of the superstructure to help improve AA gun firing arcs, and a single smoke funnel replacing the earlier pair. The beam was widened to 114 feet from her original 108 feet design (which precluded her traversal of the Panama Canal if wanting to access the American East Coast). The funnel was now integrated into the superstructure as well. New FCSs were installed and armament consisted of 12 x 14" main guns, 16 x 5" /38 cal Mk 12 guns, 40 x 40mm Bofors anti-aircraft cannons, and 41 x 20mm Oerlikon anti-aircraft guns (the 21" torpedo tubes were noticeable absent in the rebuild, signaling a shift in battleship doctrine).
When Japanese forces landed on the U.S.-held Aleutian Island chain of Alaska, this forced an American response where Tennessee was able to use her guns against enemy land positions. Tennessee was committed to this campaign from May 1943 to August 1943 before undertaking another training cycle. From November 20th to 23rd, Tennessee used her guns against enemy positions on Tarawa and contributed to the sinking of I-35, an IJN submarine. In December, she trained crews in offshore bombardment at San Clemente Island in preparation for this same service during the Marshall Islands campaign to come.
Her guns were used in the assault on the Marshall Islands (June to November 1944) and rocked inland enemy positions as amphibious elements made their way from deadly beachheads to even deadlier positions further in. Her guns were then used to subdue the enemy at the Bismarck Archipelago as ground forces continued their pursuit. From there, Tennessee was called to serve in the Mariana Islands campaign by way of offshore bombardment of inland positions and as defensive escort for the accompanying fleet of ships. She sustained damage from three direct hits coming from onshore cannon fire during the assault which sparked a fire, killed eight and injured twenty-six. Tennessee survived the melee to continue the fight nonetheless. Tennessee's next call to action came at Peleiu where offshore bombardment was again the call of the day. She then bombarded the shores of Leyte Gulf (October 23-26, 1944) and later defended airspace with her AA gun network. An accidental collision, under smoke, with USS Warhawk ended Tennessee's mission.
The Battle of Surigao Strait (October 25, 1944), the Japanese counteroffensive to smash the U.S. push at Leyte, was Tennessee's next phase of participation. Her systems were put to good use in responding to the incoming enemy force and the more modern FCSs of the American ships gave the defenders the needed advantage to engage the enemy at range. Losses for the IJN proved disastrous in the operation. Tennessee then sailed for Puget Sound for refitting with better radar and gun directors and a new paint scheme was applied.
In early February 1945, Tennessee was back at work. She joined up with the fleet taking Iwo Jima and her guns were brought to bear on the heads of the fortified enemy. One sailor was killed and three wounded when Tennessee took a direct hit from a coastal cannon at one of her 5" gun turrets. She then sailed for Ulithi to prepare for the assault on Okinawa.
The Okinawa Campaign lasted from April 1 to June 22, 1945 and vessels like Tennessee committed all of their guns in support of ground forces and in defense of enemy attack planes and suicidal kamikaze strikes. The battle proved a bloody one for both sides but the ultimate victory fell to the Americans and British at the close (the Americans would occupy the island until 1972). One kamikaze managed a direct hit on Tennessee's signal bridge while a plethora of others were felled by the ship's AA guns. The aircraft carried with it a bomb which slipped below Tennessee's deck and detonated, killing twenty-two and injuring one hundred seven. Fires were brought under control, the wounded and killed were attended to, and emergency repairs were enacted after the fighting. Despite her damage, Tennessee remained on station and used her guns on enemy positions at Mount Yaetake prior to U.S. Marines moving in. Tennessee was then repaired at Ulithi from early/mid may to early June to which she then conducted additional strikes against Okinawa to weed out remaining Japanese elements.
During late June to early August, Tennessee rounded out her wartime career with various patrols and operations. When VJ Day (Victory Over Japan) rang out on August 14, 1945, Tennessee was off of the Chinese coast and the planned invasion of the Japanese mainland was cancelled with the unconditional surrender of the Empire of Japan. The period following the surrender saw USS Tennessee as part of the Allied "show of strength" as warships lay in the enemy's ports and airborne firepower passed overhead. From Japan, Tennessee rounded the South African coast to reach the American East and the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. She was mothballed in 1946 and decommissioned on February 14, 1947, set to inactive status. She remained in this state until March 1, 1959 when her name was struck from the Naval Register. On July 10th, USS Tennessee - recipient of 10 Service Stars for her wartime service - was unceremoniously sold for scrapping.
Despite her commitment to so many of the major American operations of World War 2, Tennessee's casualties were limited to 219 (these being killed, wounded or missing) during her service tenure. She and her crews were the recipient of a Navy Unit Citation - notable for only four total were given for wartime service in World War 2. Her offshore bombardment accuracy was repeatedly commended by land force commanders charged with overtaking well-defended enemy positions. In some battles, hundreds of enemies lay dead as friendlies moved in to take their place - victims of the big guns of the Tennessee. Tennessee was damaged on five separate occasions during her service tenure through eight individual direct hits (either by aviation bombs or coastal fire). He AA crews contributed to the downing of sixteen enemy aircraft and damaged at least three. Her deck guns sank eight enemy ships.