USS Pennsylvania (BB 38)

The USS Pennsylvania was the name ship of the Pennsylvania class of battleships. She was one of the least damaged battleships at Pearl Harbor, and remained in service during 1942 before undergoing a refit late in the year. On her return she took part in a series of island invasions, before being badly damaged by a Japanese torpedo in August 1945.

USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) at 1934 Naval Review
USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) at 1934 Naval Review

The Pennsylvania was laid down in 1913, launched in 1915 and commissioned in 1916. She was designed to serve as a flagship, and became Flagship of the Atlantic Fleet on 12 October 1916. Despite this she wasn't one of the ships chosen to work with the British Grand Fleet after the American entry into the First World War - she was an oil burner, and only coal burning ships were chosen, to easy the supply situation.

Both Pennsylvania class ships underwent a major refit during the 1920s. Their maximum gun elevation was raised to 30 degrees, increasing their maximum range. Anti-torpedo bulges were installed underwater. An aircraft launching catapult was fitted. New boilers were installed, using machinery ordered for the USS Washington, a newer battleship scrapped under the terms of the Washington Naval Treaty. The secondary guns were removed from the hull and moved up one level into a deckhouse arrangement that contained eight 5in anti-aircraft guns and two 5in single purpose guns. The cage masts were removed and replaced with tripod masts.

The Pennsylvania underwent a wartime refit at Mare Island late in 1942, after serving with the fleet for most of the year after Pearl Harbor. All of the remaining 5in guns were removed and were replaced with sixteen 5in/38 anti-aircraft guns in twin mountings. The rear tripod mast was replaced with a low tower. The two-tiered fire control tops from the cage masts were replaced with a single deck control top for the main guns while two Mk 37 directors were added to control the 5in guns. As with most Second World War aircraft a large number of smaller anti-aircraft guns were installed during the war, and Pennsylvania eventually carried ten quadruple 40mm mountings and twenty seven single and twenty two twin 20mm anti-aircraft guns.

Crew of USS Pennsylvania (BB-38), 1931
Crew of USS Pennsylvania (BB-38), 1931

On 7 December 1941 the Pennsylvania was in Drydock No.1 at Pearl Harbor, with the destroyers Cassin and Downes. The Japanese attempted to torpedo the dry dock gates, but failed, and the Pennsylvania was only lightly damaged. One 250kg bomb hit and destroyed a 5in gun, and the forecast was hit by part of the torpedo tube from the Downes. Fifteen men were killed, 14 missing in action and 38 wounded during the action. The missing gun was replaced by one taken from the West Virginia.

The dry dock was flooded on 11 December, and on the following day the Pennsylvania moved to the Navy Yard. Eight days later she sailed for San Francisco, arriving on 29 December. Repairs lasted until 30 March 1942, and from April until the end of July she provided a visual reassurance on the California coast, carrying out a mix of patrols and training exercises.

In July 1942 the Pennsylvania became part of Task Force 1, and on 1 August she left San Francisco for Pearl Harbor. After spending just under two months around Hawaii she returned to San Francisco once again, this time for the refit mentioned above.

After her refit the Pennsylvania was allocated to Task Group 51.1 (with the Nevada and the Idaho), and took part in the invasion of Attu in the Aleutian Islands. On 11-12 May she took part in the shore bombardment. On 12 May she was attacked by the Japanese submarine I-31, successfully avoiding a torpedo. The Japanese submarine was then harried by a number of American destroyers and sunk. The Pennsylvania bombarded Attu again on 14 May. In August she was part of Task Group 16.17 (with Idaho and Tennessee) and was the flagship of Admiral Rockwell, commander of the Kiska Attack Force. On 15 August she bombarded Kiska as part of Operation Cottage, but when the 34,000 American troops landed on the island they discovered that the Japanese had retreated two weeks earlier.

In November 1943 the Pennsylvania formed part of the Northern Attack Group (TG 52.2) under Rear Admiral Griffin (with New Mexico, Idaho and Mississippi) for the invasion of Makin Atoll in the Gilbert Islands (Operation Galvanic). She was also the flagship of Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, commander of the Fifth Amphibious Force. The Pennsylvania began her bombardment of Makin on 20 November.

Forward Guns, USS Pennsylvania (BB-38)
Forward Guns, USS Pennsylvania (BB-38)

In January-February 1943 the same four battleships formed part of the Southern Attack Force (FSG 52.8 under Rear Admiral Griffin) during Operation Flintlock, the invasion of the Marshall Islands. On 31 January 1944 the bombardment of Kawjalein Island began, and the invasion took place on 1 February. The operation was quickly brought to a successful conclusion, and from 17-22 February the Pennsylvania was involved in the invasion of Eniwetok, bombarding a number of Japanese positions from inside Eniwetok lagoon. 

The Pennsylvania was next allocated to the forces taking part in Operation Forager, the invasion of the Mariana Islands. She formed part of Task Force 52.10 (Rear Admiral Ainsworth) with the Idaho and New Mexico, and was used during the pre and post invasion bombardment of Saipan (14 June-9 July). Task Force 52.10 and Task Force 52.17 then merged to form Task Group 53.5. On 12-14 July and 17-20 July she took part in the pre-invasion bombardment of Guam, before on 21 July supporting the invasion of the island.

In September the Pennsylvania was allocated to Task Force 31 (Rear Admiral Oldendorf), along with Maryland, Tennessee, Mississippi and West Virginia. This force took part in Operation Stalemate II, the invasion of the Palau Islands. On 12-14 September she took part in the pre-invasion bombardment of Peleliu, and on 15 September she supported the invasion of that island. She also provided fire support for the invasion of Anguar.

The scale of the American war effort became clear during the invasion of the Philippines. Here the Pennsylvania was part of the Fire Support Group for the southern task force of Task Force 79 (Admiral Oldendorf), along with the California and Tennessee. Oldendorf had three more battleships in his task force, which was part of the Central Philippine Attack Force (Vice Admiral Thomas Cassin Kinkaid).

USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) in floating drydock
USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) in floating drydock

Navigating Bridge, USS Pennsylvania (BB-38)
Navigating Bridge, USS Pennsylvania (BB-38)

The Pennsylvania reached Leyte on 18 October, and began the bombardment of the invasion beaches on 20 October. She was thus present at the Battle of the Surigao Strait (25 October 1944), the last ever clash between battleships. This saw a Japanese force steaming down the Surigao Strait run straight into Oldendorf's battleships, exposing itself to heavy fire from the 'old' battleships. The Japanese lost two battleships and three destroyers in the battle, the Americans didn't lose a ship. Pennsylvaniawas masked by other American ships during the battle and wasn't called upon.

Early in 1945 the Pennsylvania formed part of TG.72.2 (Oldendorf), forming part of Unit 2 with the California and the Colorado. The task group helped support the invasion of Luzon via Lingayen Gulf (Operation Mike I), providing fire support from 6-10 January. The next week was spent patrolling the South China Sea, before she returned to Manus for some repairs. She then crossed the Pacific to San Francisco, where she was given an overhaul.

After her overhaul the Pennsylvania became part of Task Force 95 (Oldendorf), which was to operate in the East China Sea. The Pennsylvania never reached that area. On the way across the Pacific she formed TF 95.1 (with the Tennessee), and took part in a bombardment of Wake Island on 1 August. She then sailed on to Okinawa, where on 12 August she was hit by a torpedo from a single Japanese torpedo bomber. The torpedo hit towards the rear of the ship, killing twenty and wounding 10. She suffered heavy flooding, and settled at the stern, but her repair parties were able to keep her afloat. On 13 August she was towed into shallow water just in case she sank, but by 18 August she was ready to be towed to Guam where she was patched up.

After these initial repairs the Pennsylvania sailed for the United States under her own power, arriving at Puget Sound on 24 October.  She wasn't fully repaired, and instead was made sea-worthy enough to reach Bikini Atoll in time for the atomic bomb tests of July 1946. She survived the explosions, and after two years of tests was used as a target and sunk on 10 February 1948.

Displacement (standard)


Displacement (loaded)


Top Speed



8,000nm at 10kts

Armour – belt


 - deck


 - turret faces

18in or 16in

 - turret sides


 - turret top


 - turret rear


 - barbettes


 - coning tower


 - coning tower top





97ft 1in


Twelve 14in guns in four triple turrets
Twenty two 5in guns
Four 3in guns
Two 32in submerged beam torpedo tubes

Crew complement


Laid down

27 October 1913


16 March 1915


12 June 1916


Scuttled 10 February 1948

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 September 2011), USS Pennsylvania (BB 38) ,

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