USS Tennessee (BB-43)

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USS Tennessee (BB-43), the lead ship of her class of battleship, was the third ship of the United States Navy named in honor of the 16th US state. During World War II in the Pacific Theater, she was damaged during the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 but was repaired and modernized. She participated in shore bombardments at the Aleutian Islands, Tarawa, the Marshall Islands, the Marianas, the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, etc. She was also involved in the Battle of Surigao Strait, the final battleship vs. battleship conflict ever.

The California class (California and Tennessee) were laid down in 1916 and 1917. The succeeding Colorados generally resembled the New Mexicos except for their eight 16-inch main guns. Both classes’ turbines could turn out a speed of 21 knots. The eight units of the New Mexico/Tennessee/Maryland class may be considered as among the most graceful warships of the dreadnought era. With their nearly unique clipper bows and trim lines, particularly after their cumbersome lattice (or wastepaper basket) masts were finally removed by the late 1930s, they made their predecessors look positively lumbering. The first three units of this class were the last U. S. Navy battleships to carry secondary guns in the hull; these positions were soon plated over in the interests of watertight integrity. The remaining units carried no such problematic weapons.

Idaho and Mississippi retained direct turbine drive, but the remaining units expressed the U. S. enthusiasm at the time for electric propulsion (which was also applied to motorbuses in a few U. S. cities). Electric drive had been pioneered on a lowly collier, USS Jupiter (later converted to the U. S. Navy’s first carrier, Langley). In this type of marine propulsion, two turbines were directly connected to two 4,242-volt, two-phase generators, which in turn fed four 5,200-kilowatt, slow-turning motors directly coupled to the propeller shafts in place of gearing. With electric drive, warships could dispense with the separate reverse turbine, would enjoy greater watertight subdivision (the turbogenerator did not have to be directly connected to the drive shafts), and all screws could be operated even if one generator failed. But the electric drive’s disadvantages were serious: greater expense, dangerous high-voltage cables throughout the hull, vulnerability to moisture and battle damage, and heavier weight and lower efficiency than direct-turbine plants of comparable power. After the New Mexicos/ Tennessees/ Marylands, no other battleships of any nation used this propulsion method. 10 Still, it should be noted that the electric propulsion system in this class gave little trouble throughout the warships’ long service lives.

New Mexico, Mississippi, Idaho, Tennessee, and California mounted 12 14-inch, caliber .50 heavy guns in four turrets (three guns to each turret). But Colorado, Maryland, Washington, and West Virginia carried the new 16-inch, caliber .45 heavy guns pioneered by the Japanese. The main battery of eight guns was carried in four turrets, two guns per turret. The class had the same armor arrangement and thickness as the preceding Nevada class. Construction on Washington was halted under the terms of the Washington Treaty of 1922, when the unit was more than 75 percent completed; it was expended as a target vessel in 1924. The first four units of the class carried a single trunked funnel; the remainder could be distinguished by their two separate funnels.

The first three units of the class received new engines and boilers in the mid-1930s, and the remainder underwent extensive reconstruction in the wake of Pearl Harbor. California and West Virginia were sunk at Pearl Harbor (California probably more through poor damage control than because of Japanese ordnance), and both were raised. Tennessee was hit by two bombs and suffered moderate damage. All battleships of this class were extensively modernized for World War II service, and their new compact upperworks bore a strong resemblance to those of later U. S. battleship classes and the Royal Navy re-built King George class. The class was used, like its predecessors, for coastal bombardment and convoy duties, although California, Maryland, and West Virginia also fought at Surigao Strait. Run almost to exhaustion during World War II, the class may be considered the finest example of the battleships completed before the Washington Treaty.

Dreadnought battleships were extremely expensive and typically consumed years in construction. With only two exceptions (Japan’s Ise and Hyuga), no dreadnought under construction during World War I was completed in time for that conflict. USS Tennessee, for example, was laid down in May 1917 but was not completed until June 1920.

From 1937 on, the naval powers prepared for the construction of new battleships-and for war. If nothing else, all the diplomacy demonstrated that, for naval powers, the battleship remained the single-most powerful weapon for modern warfare. A contemporary U. S. Navy committee, charged with determining whether the warplane had rendered the battleship obsolete, concluded that the battleship was the ultimate warship in the fleet and that all other fleet units existed to assist the battleship in its mission. This was not a particularly inspired peek into the near future, but in light of the state of aircraft technology of the time, perhaps it was understandable. As late as 1940, the most influential military strategist in the United States, Bernard Brodie, gave pride of place in the new world war to the battleship.

A more defensible move saw Britain, Italy, and the United States extensively modernize the best of their World War I-era dreadnaughts between the late 1920s and the 1930s. Because of the restrictions imposed by the Washington Treaty, battleship development was confined to reconstruction and modernization of current units. As noted, only Great Britain was permitted two new battleship units. Most of the reconstructed capital ships were so extensively rebuilt that in many cases only the heavy guns and the hull remained original. The Royal Navy rebuilt three battleships, all of the valued Queen Elizabeth class (Warspite, Queen Elizabeth, and Valiant), with smaller but more powerful engines and boilers, completely rebuilt superstructures, as well as extensive antiaircraft protection (perhaps this last calculation was prescient, as all three survived World War II).

The U. S. Navy extensively rebuilt only the New Mexicos, with new engines and boilers and antitorpedo bulges. The follow-on Tennessees, New Mexicos, and Marylands received more limited reconstruction after the Pearl Harbor attack.


Construction: New Mexico Class (New Mexico, Mississippi, Idaho): New Mexico: New York Navy Yard (1915-1918); Mississippi: Newport News Shipbuilding (April 1915-December 1917); Idaho: New York Shipbuilding (January 1915-March 1919) Tennessee Class (Tennessee, California, Colorado, Maryland): Tennessee: New York Navy Yard (1917-1920); California: Mare Island Navy Yard (1916-1921) Colorado Class (Colorado, Maryland, Washington, West Virginia): various builders (1917-1923)

Displacement: 32,000-33,00 tons

Dimensions: 600′ x 624′ x 97’5″ x 30’2″

Armament: 12 x 14″, 4 x 3 (New Mexico, Tennessee classes); 8 x 16″ (Colorado class), 4 x 2

Armor: much reduced from preceding Nevada class, mainly to protect machinery, guns, and buoyancy: 13.5″ belt; 18″ turrets; 2″-3.5″ decks; 16″ conning tower

Machinery: 4 x shaft Curtis (Idaho Parsons; Tennessee Westinghouse; California General Electric) turbines, 8-9 Babcox & Wilcox boilers = 27,000-32,000 shp = 21 knots.

Complement: 1,080

Fates: New Mexico, Idaho: stricken, 1947. Tennessee, California, Colorado, Maryland, West Virginia: stricken, 1959. Washington: construction halted when 75.9 percent complete; expended as target 1924.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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