Monday, May 6, 2013

The Overlooked Sister - USS Pennsylvania

The untimely end of the battleship Arizona solidified her place in American naval history. Countless generations of visitors still make the pilgrimage to her final resting place at Pearl Harbor. But while Arizona was destroyed in the first battle for the US in World War Two  her overlooked sister, USS Pennsylvania, was not only at Pearl Harbor as well, but was the last major American ship to be damaged in that conflict. 

Pennsylvania managed to escape the dubious honor of having been on Battleship Row during the attack on Pearl Harbor, but this fortunate set of circumstances also did not give her as much visibility in the public eye. For the older battleships present during the attack, Oklahoma and Arizona were destroyed and Nevada gained fame attempting to escape out of the harbor. And the newer "Big Five" battleships would be resurrected and some would be completely transformed to the point they were almost unrecognizable. But Pennsylvania, stuck in drydock, became best known for being in the background. In this case, the background for the wrecks of the destroyers Cassin and Downes.

Pennsylvania at Pearl Harbor. The marked guns would later be used in a memorial.

was the older of the two Pennsylvania-class battleships, laid down at Newport News on 27 October 1913. She escorted President Wilson to France just after World War One and then operated primarily in the Atlantic until 1931 when she was transferred to the Pacific.

She sustained relatively minor damage during the Pearl Harbor attack, then spent much of 1942 training and conducting patrols of the United States west coast. In early 1943 she was sent to the Aleutians to help force out the Japanese forces on Attu and Kiska. A crater from one of her 14" main guns can still be seen on Kiska.

Pennsylvania then went on to slug her way through numerous landings throughout the South and Central Pacific. Her closest opportunity to fame (excluding perhaps, her presence at Pearl Harbor) came at Surigao Strait in the early morning of 26 October 1944, when the Japanese attempted to force their way through into Leyte Gulf. In the last engagement between battleships, Pennsylvania was unable to get a fix on the Japanese fleet due to her older older fire control systems and her geometric position vis-a-vis the Japanese battle line. Her moment of glory had come and gone.

But like always, Pennsylvania continued to plug along, providing naval gunfire support for countless amphibious operations. In March 1945 Pennsylvania returned to Hunters Point Navy Yard for an overhaul. Her main guns which had been installed in the mid-1930s, were worn out. Replacement guns salvaged from USS Oklahoma were installed and Pennsylvania then returned to the war front. In early August Pennsylvania dropped anchor in Nakagusku Bay (renamed Buckner Bay by the victorious Americans) on the east coast of Okinawa. 
New 14" inch guns salvaged from Oklahoma, being installed on Pennsylvania.

A few days later a lone plane dropped one bomb on the city of Hiroshima, completely obliterating it. When Japan did not respond to demands for surrender, a second bomb was dropped on 9 August. The United States reiterated the request for surrender and then awaited a response. Three days later, a solo Japanese plane flew in low over Buckner Bay and dropped a torpedo into the water. The torpedo struck the very stern of Pennsylvania, killed 20 men and ripped a massive 30 foot hole (9.1 meters) in her. Flooding was so severe that she nearly sank, but damage control parties managed to save the battleship. Japan would announce her surrender just three days later.

Pennsylvania after her near fatal torpedo hit. Note main deck nearly awash.

While the main US fleet headed to Tokyo bay for the official surrender ceremonies, Pennsylvania limped to Guam for repairs; her hard earned victory celebration stolen. A patch was placed over the torpedo hole and other basic repairs were made. But the war was over and Pennsylvania was worn out. The navy had no interest in making any sort of substantial repairs to her. On her way back to the United States, her Number 3 shaft failed due in part to the damage she sustained from the torpedo. While wallowing in the middle of the ocean, a diver went over the side and cut away the broken shaft and propeller, which vanished into depths. Subsequently, her propulsion began to fail and she managed to reach Puget Sound Navy Yard with only one functioning screw.

Pennsylvania's ultimate fate was sealed when she was selected to be used as a target for Operation Crossroads, the nuclear bomb tests at Bikini. She was repaired just enough to make one last trip to the South Pacific. When she left the States, she still shipped water in compartments that had been damaged from the torpedo strike. 

Pennsylvania as a target ship at Bikini.

Pennsylvania was positioned nearly due south of target area and was the farthest away of the four battleships present. As such she managed to escape some of the damage inflicted by the bomb, but she was heavily irradiated. The navy's radioactive management plan for Crossroads turned out to be a failure. After Test Baker the waters in Bikini lagoon became heavily contaminated. Radioactive seawater not only contaminated the target ships, but also began to get into the piping of the support ships. Surviving target ships were then towed to Kwajalein Lagoon where they could be studied in uncontaminated water. Although she survived the blasts, Pennsylvania was so radioactive that she was kept at Kwajalein to undergo radiological studies. She would never return to American soil.

The location of her old torpedo wound constantly leaked as it had never been fully repaired. When the radiological testing was complete, Pennsylvania was finally allowed to go to her grave. Flooding from the unrepaired damage pulled her down, stern first, into the sea on 10 February 1948. But even that was sort of a half-measure. The two other surviving target battleships, New York and Nevada, were allowed to return to Hawaii before they were expended as targets in surface attacks in July 1948.

Pennsylvania sinking at Kwajalein.

Pennsylvania never quite seemed to get the respect or fame she deserved. Yet several significant artifacts exist. One of her ship's bells was permanently loaned to Penn State by the navy. Another is at the Erie Maritime Museum, in Erie, Pennsylvania.
Guns from Pennsylvania at Dahlgren, Virginia.

In the 1990s, an inventory conducted at the Naval Support Facility, in Dahlgren, Virgina, revealed several of Pennsylvania's main guns still existed at the base. The guns, removed during Pennsylvania's refit in early 1945, were moved to Virginia where they sat largely forgotten. The navy then decided to scrap the barrels, but the Pennsylvania Military Museum stepped forward and asked for the guns. In 2009 two of the guns were moved to the museum near State College, Pennsylvania. At last Pennsylvania, long overlooked, finally received the recognition she deserved.


  1. I wonder where PA was anchored at pearl when she was not in dry dock and where she would have been if she had not been in said dry dock?

    1. I believe she would have been along side the Arizona?

  2. Thank u for this important rememerance!

  3. My father was on the Pennsylvania. Radioman. It still chokes me up to read his old letters.