USS Tennessee (BB 43)

USS Tennessee (BB 43) was the name-ship of the Tennessee class of battleships. She survived Pearl Harbor with only minor damage and was present at many of the battles during the American advance across the Pacific towards Japan, from the Aleutians to Okinawa.

The Tennessee was laid down in May 1917, but wasn't launched until April 1919, five months after the end of the First World War. She was the first of five American battleships launched between the end of the fighting and the Washington Naval Treaty of 1922, which greatly restricted battleship construction. The 'Big Five' were built with heavy cage masts supporting fire-control tops and could elevate their main guns up to 30 degrees, increasing maximum range by 10,000 yards.

The Tennessee joined the US Pacific Fleet in 1921, and was part of that fleet throughout the interwar years (the Pacific Fleet became the Battle Fleet in 1922 and the Battle Force in 1931). In 1929-30 she underwent a refit in which she was given heavier anti-aircraft defences and catapults to launch her own spotter plans. A major modernization was planned for 1939 but this was cancelled as war approached in Europe.

USS Tennessee (BB-43) in the Panama Canal, 1930s
USS Tennessee (BB-43) in the Panama Canal, 1930s

The Tennessee was moored at position F-6 on battleship row on 7 December 1941 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The West Virginia was moored alongside her and protected the Tennessee from torpedo damage. However the West Virginia was hit, and settled on the bottom, pinned Tennessee in place against the quay. The Tennessee was directly hit by two bombs at around 8.30am, which did minor damage (although splinters from one of these hits killed Captain Meryyn S. Bennion, the commanding officer of West Virginia. The damage to the West Virginia and the nearby Arizona caused massive oil fires, which engulfed the stern of the Tennessee, doing far more damage than the bomb hits. The rear of the ship was gutted, the stern plates were warped and the hull plating about the water-line was warped by the intense heat of the fire. Even so the Tennessee was one of the less damaged battleships. Once she had been rescued from her position (a complex procedure that required one of her two mooring quays being demolished and that took until 16 December to complete), the Tennessee was made water tight before on 20 December she set sail for Puget Sound Navy Yard. She arrived on 29 December and proper repairs began.

The repairs were completed by 25 February 1942 when Tennessee (along with Maryland and Colorado) sailed for San Francisco for training. On 1 May she joined Task Force 1 (Rear Admiral William S. Pye), making her the first of the battleships damaged at Pearl Harbor to return to active duty. Task Force 1's main role was to reassure the inhabitants of the US West Coast that the navy was still out there. By the autumn of 1942 it was clear that there was no longer a real threat to the west coast. The Tennessee's sister-ship California, sunk at Pearl Harbor, had now been raised, made watertight and sailed to Puget Sound for repairs and the delayed modernization. It was decided to include Tennessee in this process, and she was withdrawn from Task Force 1 for a refit that lasted until May 1943.

The Tennessee was massively modified during this modernization. Her superstructure was almost entirely replaced. The cage masts had already gone, but they were now followed by much of the remaining superstructure. The twin stacks were replaced with a single combined funnel. The main-battery director was mounted on a low tower foremast just in front of the funnel. Under water large anti-torpedo blisters were added, increasing her width by 16ft 6in. The main guns were unchanged but the older 5in guns were removed (the 3in guns had gone in the earlier repairs) and eight twin mounts carrying 5"/38 guns were added. These turrets were controlled by eight directors on the superstructure and were dual-purpose guns. The anti-aircraft defences also included ten quad 40mm mountings and forty-three single 20mm guns by the end of the war.

After the work was completed the Tennessee joined Task Force 16 in the North Pacific. The Japanese had captured the islands of Attu and Kiska during the Midway campaign. Attu had been retaken in May, and the Japanese evacuated Kiska at the end of June, without the Americans noticing. Accordingly they planned a major assault, which was to take place in August. Tennessee was to operate alongside Pennsylvania and Idaho in Task Group 16.17. This group bombarded Kiska on 1 August and again on 15 August, this time in support of the 34,000 troops taking part in Operation Cottage, the occupation of the undefended islands.

Next for the Tennessee was Operation Galvanic, the invasion of the Gilbert Islands. She formed part of the Southern Attack Group (TG 53.4) under Admiral Kingman, and took part in the bombardment of Tarawa and Abemama atolls from 20-28 November. She then returned to Hawaii to prepare for the invasion of the Marshalls.

The Tennessee formed part of the Northern Attack Force (FSG 53.5) under Rear Admiral Oldendorf for Operation Flintlock, the first part of the invasion (along with Pennsylvania and Idaho). From 31 January until 2 February the battleships took part in the bombardment of Japanese positions on Roi and Namur.  

Radar on USS Tennessee (BB-43), 1943
Radar on USS Tennessee (BB-43), 1943

Tennessee, Colorado and Pennsylvania formed part of the Fleet Support Group (TF 51) under Oldendorf for Operation Catchpole, the invasion of Eniwetok (17-23 February 1943).

The Tennessee's next action was in support of MacArthur, providing a diversion while the army invaded Emirau Island in the St. Matthais Group of the Bismarck Archipelago, part of the operations to isolate the Japanese base at Rabaul. Tennessee, New Mexico, Mississippi and Idaho, under the command of Rear Admiral Griffin, bombarded Kavieng Island on 20 March 1944 while the army made an unopposed landing on Emirau.

The Tennessee's next mission was Operation Forager, the invasion of the Mariana Islands. By now American material superiority was beginning to show, and eight older battleships were available. Tennessee, California, Maryland and Colorado formed TG 52.17, again under Rear-Admiral Oldendorf. This formed part of the Northern Attack Group (Vice Admiral Richmond K. Turner), which was to operate against Saipan and Tinian (while Task Force 53 took part in the attack on Guam).

The Tennessee took part in the pre- and post- invasion bombardment of Saipan (14 June-9 July 1944). She suffered minor damage on D-Day (15 June) but was able to remain in action.

USS Tennessee (BB-43) bombarding Guam
USS Tennessee (BB-43) bombarding Guam

On 19 July Tennessee and California joined the Southern Fire Support Group (TG 53.5, Rear Admiral Ainsworth) and on 20 July she joined the bombardment of Guam. After a brief return to Saipan she then took part in the bombardment of Tinian (23 July-31 July), before returning to provide more fire support on Guam (2-8 August).

USS Tennessee (BB-43) at Puget Sound, 1943
USS Tennessee (BB-43) at Puget Sound, 1943

The Tennessee next took part in Operation Stalemate II, the invasion of the Palaus Islands of September 1944. Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Mississippi and West Virginia formed the Fire Support Group for Task Force 31 (Oldendorf). On 12 September she began a bombardment of Anguar Island. She was also involved in the pre-invasion bombardment of Peleliu. The army landed on Angaur on 17 September and the Tennessee provided fire support until the morning of 20 September, by which time organised Japanese resistance was over.

Next was the liberation of the Philippines. Tennessee, Pennsylvania and California formed the Fire Support Group for Task Force 79, the southern attack force. Their role was to support the landings at Dulag, on the eastern coast of Leyte. The bombardment began early on 19 October and the landings took place on 20 October.

The Tennessee was thus in the right position to take part in the battle of the Surigao Strait, the last direct clash between battleships. The Japanese Imperial General Headquarters decided to try and fight a decisive battle in the Philippines, hoping to catch and destroy the massive American support fleets in Leyte Gulf. Their complex plan used four separate forces approaching from four separate directions, and required their once mighty carrier force to be used as a decoy to pull the strongest American units away from the gulf. In this at least the Japanese succeeded and Admiral Halsey let his fast carriers north to deal with the apparently most serious threat, the Japanese carriers. This left Admiral Kinkaid, with his six old battleships, eight cruisers and 28 destroyers to deal with any Japanese forces that attempted to get through the Surigao Strait into Leyte Gulf.

The Japanese force that attacked them on 25 October was Admiral Nishimura's Force C, which began the battle with two battleships (Yamashiro and Fuso), one heavy cruiser and four destroyers. Some way to its rear was Admiral Shima's Second Striking Force, with two heavy cruisers, one light cruiser and four destroyers. The Japanese were thus badly outnumbered, and their chances were greatly reduced when the Fuso sank after being hit by a torpedo from a US destroyer before the two fleets were in gunfire range. The Japanese also lost three of their destroyers in this early clash.

When the gun battle did begin West Virginia, Tennessee and California, with modern radar fire control, were able to open fire at 22,800 yards. Tennessee fired 69 14in shells during the battle, California fired 63 shells and West Virginia fired 93 16in shells. Of their three targets the battleship Yamashiro was sunk, the cruiser Mogami almost escaped but collided with one of Shima's ships, fell behind and was sunk on the next day and the one surviving destroyer escaped. When Shima found the wreckage of the Fuso he realised the battle was lost and retired. 

Soon after this battle the Tennessee returned to the US for a refit. She was given better radar, including height finding radar for use against aircraft.

The Tennessee returned to the fighting in time to take part in the invasion of Iwo Jima where she formed part of Task Force 54 (Admiral Rodgers), along with Idaho, Nevada, Texas, New York and Arkansas. The bombardment began on 16 February 1945, and the invasion began on 19 February. The Tennessee took part in the battle from 16 February to 7 March, firing 1,370 rounds of 14in shells, 6,380 5-inch shells and 11,481 40mm shells.

USS Tennessee (BB-43) bombarding Okinawa
USS Tennessee (BB-43) bombarding Okinawa

The ten active 'old' battleships come together as TF 54 (Rear Adm Deyo) for the invasion of Okinawa. The battleships were formed into five groups of two with Tennessee and Nevada forming Group 3). The naval bombardment began on 26 March 1945. The main threat off Okinawa came from kamikaze attack. One aircraft struck the water just to the port of the Tennessee early in the bombardment. The Tennessee was hit by an Aichi D3A 'Val' on 12 April, while serving as an anti-aircraft ship. The aircraft hit the signal bridge and ended up close to turret three. Twenty-two men were killed and 107 were injured, but the ship was back in action on 14 April. She remained in action until 1 May when Admiral Deyo, who had been using her as his flagship, moved to a cruiser. She then went to Ulithi for repairs before returning to Okinawa on 8 June, just in time to take part in the last two weeks of the battle.

On 16 July Tennessee, Pennsylvania, California, Nevada, Arkansas and Texas plus the battlecruisers Alaska and Guam became part of Task Force 95 (Oldendorf), with responsibility for the Ryukyus and the East China Sea. The Tennessee was used to support mine sweepers operating in the East China Sea and to protect escort carriers being used against Japanese positions in China. She also took part in a raid on the Yangtse on 26-28 July and a bombardment of Wake Island on 1 August.

After the Japanese surrender the Tennessee was used to cover the landing of troops at Wakayama, part of the occupation of Japan (23 September). She then visited Singapore, before returning to the US. The Tennessee was allocated to the 'mothball fleet', a group of older but modernised ships that were to be preserved in case they were needed later. This process lasted from 1946 until 14 February 1947. The Tennessee remained in mothballs for twelve years before being sold for scrap in July 1959.

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 5in


Twelve 14in guns in four triple turrets
Fourteen 5in guns
Four 3in guns
Two 21in submerged beam torpedo tubes

Crew complement


Laid down

14 May 1917


30 April 1919


3 June 1920


Stricken 1959

US Standard Type Battleships 1941-45 (2): Tennessee, Colorado and Unbuilt Classes, Mark Stille. Looks at the 'Big Five', the last standard-type battleships built for the US Navy, and the most powerful ships in the US Navy for much of the interwar period. Covers their design, original purpose and actual Second World War service, where their limited speed meant they could no longer serve with the battle fleet. Despite that limit they played a major part in the Pacific War, and four fought in the last battleship action of the war. [read full review]
cover cover cover


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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (19 April 2012), USS Tennessee (BB 43) ,

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