Constructed by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation in Camden, New Jersey, the Tennessee was the lead ship of her class and bore the name of America’s 16th state.

This behemoth was the fifth ship to carry the Tennessee moniker, launched on April 30, 1919, and commissioned into active service on June 3, 1920.


Design And Construction

The design of the USS Tennessee marked a significant departure from earlier battleship models.

The ship was a product of the ‘super-dreadnought’ era, characterized by larger battleships with greater firepower and improved armor protection.

The Tennessee had a length of about 624 feet (190 m) overall, with a beam (width at the widest point) of approximately 97.3 feet (29.7 m). Its draft (vertical distance between the waterline and the bottom of the hull) was about 30.5 feet (9.3 m).

The displacement of the ship, which refers to the weight of the water that the ship displaces when it’s floating, was about 33,190 long tons (33,723 metric tons) in its standard configuration. This displacement increased to around 37,500 long tons (38,100 metric tons) when fully loaded.

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The Tennessee and her sister ships were pioneers in the utilization of an all-or-nothing armor scheme. This approach focused on heavily fortifying the ship’s most vital areas, including the engines, ammunition stores, and command centers, while providing minimal protection for less crucial sections.

USS Tennessee at Brooklyn Navy Yard in 1921.

The logic behind this approach was that if the ship sustained a hit in a non-essential area, the resulting damage would be less likely to affect its combat capabilities. Conversely, a hit in a vital area would be potentially catastrophic.

Thus, the designers concentrated the armor in these crucial areas, sacrificing coverage elsewhere to save weight and enhance the ship’s speed and maneuverability.

One of the ship’s most notable features was its main battery of twelve 14-inch guns mounted in four triple turrets. This arrangement was a step up from the previous designs, which typically featured double turrets.

The increased firepower offered by this design provided the USS Tennessee with an impressive offensive capability, making her one of the most formidable battleships of her time.

The Tennessee’s impressive design also extended to its propulsion system. The ship was equipped with turbo-electric drive – a cutting-edge technology at the time.

The turbo-electric drive offered many advantages over conventional steam propulsion, including greater efficiency, ease of control, and a reduction in vibrations.

The designed top speed of the USS Tennessee was around 21 knots, equivalent to approximately 24 miles per hour or 39 kilometers per hour.

As for the range, she could travel approximately 8,000 nautical miles (or around 9,200 miles / 14,800 kilometers) at a cruising speed of 10 knots (about 11.5 miles per hour or 18.5 kilometers per hour).

The Calm Before The Storm

In the years preceding World War II, the USS Tennessee served as a vital component of America’s Pacific Fleet. Stationed mainly in the Pacific, the battleship was extensively involved in peacekeeping missions and training exercises.

The Tennessee’s initial assignments were characterized by a sense of routine and stability. Regular maneuvers, gunnery practice, and fleet exercises were all part of her duties. Her tasks extended to diplomatic ones as well; in 1925, she carried Secretary of State Frank B. Kellogg to South America for the Pan-American Conference.

During these years, the Tennessee cruised the peaceful waters of the Pacific, from the sun-drenched coasts of California and Hawaii to the far reaches of the Panama Canal.

USS Tennessee on the move in the 30s.

But as the 1930s progressed, global tensions began to escalate.

The rise of fascism in Europe and militarism in Asia indicated a looming threat. In response to these growing concerns, the Tennessee and the rest of the Pacific Fleet began to focus more on combat training exercises. Naval war games, tactical drills, and gunnery practices became more frequent, preparing the ship and her crew for possible conflict.

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Even as the shadow of war grew, life on the Tennessee remained characterized by discipline and camaraderie. Crew members honed their skills, maintained the ship, and took part in recreational activities during off-hours. Yet beneath this veneer of routine, there was a growing sense of anticipation and preparedness.

As the 1940s dawned, the Tennessee’s mission began to evolve significantly. The ship, once a symbol of America’s peacetime naval power, was about to play a much different role on the world stage. The tranquil years of pre-war duty were indeed the calm before a storm, a period of preparation that would culminate in the Tennessee’s transformative involvement in World War II.

Pearl Harbor

December 7, 1941, marked a turning point in the USS Tennessee’s history and indeed, that of the entire United States.

The infamous attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese Empire plunged America directly into the throes of World War II, and the Tennessee was right at the center of it.

The morning of the attack found the Tennessee moored inboard of the USS West Virginia on Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor.

USS West Virginia (left) and USS Tennessee following the attack on Pearl Harbor.

As the Japanese attack commenced, the Tennessee was hemmed in, with the West Virginia on her port side and the pier on her starboard. This predicament made it impossible for the ship to maneuver and escape from the fiery chaos that ensued.

The onslaught was devastating. Torpedoes aimed at the Tennessee instead struck the West Virginia due to the latter’s outboard position. Soon after, the West Virginia started to list heavily, pushing the Tennessee against the mooring quays, which caused significant damage to her hull.

The Arizona, moored aft of the Tennessee, took a mortal blow, and its ensuing explosion caused additional damage to the Tennessee, notably to its stern structure and anti-aircraft gun crews.

Despite being in this precarious situation, the crew of the Tennessee demonstrated extraordinary courage and determination. They fired back with whatever weapons were available, including the ship’s 5-inch anti-aircraft batteries and even rifles and machine guns.

Damage control teams worked tirelessly to contain the fires and flooding that threatened the ship.

The Tennessee (left) and West Virginia (right) three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Miraculously, the Tennessee remained afloat despite the damage sustained. The crew’s quick thinking and actions, coupled with the ship’s robust design, were key to her survival. In particular, the all-or-nothing armor scheme contributed to her resilience. The heavy armor around the ship’s vitals protected them from the catastrophic damage that other battleships at Pearl Harbor suffered.

The aftermath of the attack found the Tennessee trapped between two sunken ships, the West Virginia and the Arizona. Despite being immobilized, the Tennessee continued to perform her duty in the following days, with her anti-aircraft guns remaining ready for action in case of another attack.

Rebuilding and Modernization

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Tennessee underwent an extensive rebuilding and modernization program at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington.

The objective of this overhaul was not only to repair the damage sustained during the attack but also to upgrade the ship’s capabilities to meet the changing demands of naval warfare.

The ship entered the navy yard in late December 1941. The most immediate concern was to repair the damage to the hull and the stern structure caused by the explosions of neighboring ships during the Pearl Harbor attack.

In addition to these reparations, the Tennessee underwent significant modifications intended to increase her fighting efficiency in the evolving naval battlefield.

One of the most notable changes was the replacement of the ship’s distinctive cage masts with a single, more streamlined tower structure. This new design reduced the top-heavy weight of the ship, thereby increasing stability, and also provided better fire control for the main and secondary armaments.

The modernization also saw the expansion of the Tennessee’s anti-aircraft arsenal. This change was a direct response to the increasing threat of aerial attacks demonstrated at Pearl Harbor.

The ship received numerous 20mm and 40mm anti-aircraft guns, greatly increasing her ability to defend against enemy aircraft. Additionally, the Tennessee’s original 5-inch/51 caliber secondary battery was replaced with 5-inch/38 caliber dual-purpose guns that could be used against both surface and air targets.

Internally, the Tennessee received upgrades to her fire control systems. The addition of radar and improved fire directors significantly enhanced the ship’s ability to engage enemy targets with precision.

USS Tennessee in 1943 after her refit.

These advancements were critical for both the ship’s main battery and its anti-aircraft defenses, allowing for more effective engagement of enemy ships and aircraft.

Furthermore, the ship’s deck armor was thickened to better protect against plunging fire and aerial bombs, and torpedo defense systems were improved, giving the Tennessee better survivability in the face of submarine and torpedo bomber attacks.

By May 1943, the rebuilding and modernization process was complete. The newly transformed USS Tennessee was vastly different from the ship that had been trapped at Pearl Harbor. She was now a cutting-edge battleship, equipped with the latest weaponry and technology, ready to take the fight back to the enemy in the Pacific theater.

The Tennessee’s War Contributions

Emerging from her extensive refit, the USS Tennessee was ready to return to the Pacific theater, joining the fight in earnest.

The vessel played a massive role in many campaigns, her firepower providing crucial support to Allied forces and underlining her status as a key asset in the US Navy.

One of the first operations in which the Tennessee participated after her refit was the Aleutians campaign in 1943. The ship was part of the naval force tasked with recapturing the Aleutian Islands from Japanese forces. Here, the Tennessee’s firepower was essential in softening enemy defenses and providing cover for the landing forces.

The Tennessee’s strength was further demonstrated during the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign in late 1943 and early 1944. Her 14-inch guns pounded Japanese fortifications in preparation for amphibious assaults. The ship was instrumental in the success of these operations, earning a Navy Unit Commendation for her contributions.

The Tennessee in the background, bombarding Okinawa.

In 1944, the Tennessee took part in the pivotal Battle of Surigao Strait, part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf. During this engagement, she and other American battleships crossed the T of the Japanese force, a classic naval tactic that allowed the American ships to bring all their guns to bear while the Japanese could only respond with their forward-facing guns.

This battle was one of the last battleship versus battleship engagements in history and a decisive victory for the US Navy.

Perhaps the Tennessee’s most significant contributions came in 1945, during the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The ship’s main and secondary guns provided crucial fire support to the Marines landing on the beaches, demolishing Japanese defenses and providing covering fire.

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In these fierce battles, the Tennessee faced significant resistance, including numerous Kamikaze attacks, but she endured and continued to play a crucial role in the success of these operations.

The Tennessee’s contributions to the war effort were not without cost. She sustained damage on several occasions, particularly from Kamikaze attacks during the Okinawa campaign, which necessitated repairs. Nonetheless, the ship and her crew demonstrated exceptional courage and resilience throughout these trials.

Post-War Period and Decommissioning

Following the conclusion of World War II, the USS Tennessee entered a new phase of her storied career.

With the cessation of hostilities, the Tennessee was no longer required in her role as a frontline battleship, and her activities transitioned into roles associated with a peacetime navy.

Immediately after the war, the Tennessee played a crucial role in Operation Magic Carpet, a large-scale operation aimed at repatriating U.S. servicemen from the Pacific theater.

The ship, like many of her sister ships, was refitted to accommodate troops rather than support combat. This operation showcased a different facet of the Tennessee’s versatility, transitioning from a vessel of destruction to one of healing and homecoming.

It was during this time that the ship earned the affectionate nickname “the Grey Ghost from the East Coast,” referring to her frequent and speedy crossings of the Pacific.

After Operation Magic Carpet, the Tennessee participated in various training exercises and naval maneuvers in the Atlantic and the Caribbean. These activities, though far from the frenetic pace of wartime, kept the ship and her crew active and ready for potential future conflicts.

During this period, the Tennessee also served as a training ship, helping to prepare a new generation of sailors and officers for their roles in the U.S. Navy.

However, by the late 1940s, the Tennessee’s age and the rapid pace of technological advancement in naval warfare began to render her obsolete. Newer ships boasted advancements in radar technology, missile systems, and propulsion that the Tennessee couldn’t match. As a result, the decision was made to decommission the Tennessee, marking the end of her active service.

On February 14, 1947, the Tennessee was officially decommissioned at the New York Naval Shipyard. Following decommissioning, she was initially placed in the Atlantic Reserve Fleet before being transferred to the Pacific Reserve Fleet in Bremerton, Washington.

The Tennessee’s fate was sealed in 1959 when she was sold for scrap, bringing a final end to a career that spanned over three decades.

The USS Tennessee is a powerful symbol of America’s naval past. Her story encapsulates the evolution of maritime warfare during the early 20th century and represents the transition from peacekeeping missions to active involvement in significant battles.

More importantly, her journey pays tribute to the spirit of the men who served aboard her, a testament to their courage and resilience. The Tennessee serves as a potent reminder of the sacrifices of World War II and the enduring spirit of those who fight for their nation.