The USS Pennsylvania: the exploits of a World War II battleship and its predecessors

Historian James A. Kehl, who served in the Navy in WWII, recounts the illustrious role of the USS Pennsylvania, stretching back to 1816

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Seventy-one years ago this week, the USS Pennsylvania began a record-setting blitz of engagements in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The battleship, initially damaged at Pearl Harbor, was hit a final time off Okinawa as it finished its service at war's end. I'm interested in the Pennsylvania's history because I was on a nearby ship during the final attack and played a minor role in efforts to protect it from Japanese aircraft.

In all, four naval ships have borne the name Pennsylvania. The first was authorized by Congress in 1816, but financial constraints delayed the launch for years. In 1841, an excited 100,000 spectators stood on the banks of the Delaware River and applauded as the largest American sailing warship ever built slid into the water.

It never sailed on a major cruise and served primarily as a training ship at Norfolk, Virginia, until 1861, when the Civil War put an abrupt end to it. When Virginia seceded from the Union, the Pennsylvania suddenly was federal property in enemy territory. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles ordered U.S. ships and other property along the Confederate coastline to be destroyed or scuttled.

The 120 cannons aboard the Pennsylvania assumed a valuable life of their own. If dismantled and converted to artillery pieces, they could become formidable weapons. Thus, the Pennsylvania was ordered to be burned to the waterline.

To replace ships lost through this scorched-earth policy on the sea, the Navy hurriedly purchased, modified and built others. The frigate Kewaydin was among those purchased and commissioned by the Navy in 1861 for wartime service. It was renamed the Pennsylvania in 1869, then "broken up" -- and sold for scrap -- in 1884.

At the turn of the 20th century, Congress authorized six capital ships to be known as the "Pennsylvania Class." Construction on the first, an armored cruiser, began in March 1901. Two years later, it was christened the Pennsylvania.

In January 1911, the Pennsylvania was the scene of aviation and naval history. Glenn Curtiss of the fledgling Curtiss Aeroplane Co. was convinced that an airplane could land on a ship.

His pilot, Eugene Ely, already had achieved the takeoff feat from the USS Birmingham. Curtiss persuaded naval authorities to attempt a shipboard landing. San Francisco Bay was the chosen location for that trial, and the Pennsylvania was the landing target.

Preparations for the experiment were minimal. A 133-foot wooden runway was constructed on the ship's stern. As a safeguard, hooks were hung from the plane's axle to snag ropes that were strung across the improvised runway and held in place by sandbags. The hooks, ropes and sandbags were to slow the plane once it reached the deck and before it collided with the steel mast.

That set the stage for the historic Jan. 18, 1911, flight from an airfield 14 miles away to the deck of the cruiser. Ely successfully maneuvered his 1,000-pound, wood-and-fabric biplane onto his target, with 15 feet to spare at the end of the runway.

The landing of a so-called "box kite with an engine" on a ship was perceived not as an experiment but as a publicity stunt. The significance of this milestone was not apparent until aircraft carriers became a reality years later.

In 1912, the ship's name was changed to the USS Pittsburgh in order to free "Pennsylvania" for assignment to a newly authorized dreadnought (BB-38). Commissioned June 12, 1916, this Pennsylvania had a quiet beginning but an illustrious career.

Known as the "Pennsy" and "Mighty Penn," it was named the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet. But it was too modern for World War I because the Navy had no tankers capable of transporting enough fuel to Europe to replenish its oil burners. This problem was compounded by the absence of European oil depots. Thus, the "Pennsy" spent the war in U.S. Atlantic ports.

After WWI, the Pennsylvania moved through the Panama Canal to become the flagship of the Pacific Fleet, commanded by Adm. Husband E. Kimmel. In 1941, Kimmel moved the flag ashore at Pearl Harbor, so he and the ship were in the harbor on the day of infamy. One of the eight battleships present that day, the Pennsylvania was in dry dock and fortunately sustained limited damage.

After temporary repairs at Pearl, the "Mighty Penn" steamed to San Francisco for more intensive repairs, which took longer than anticipated. The Pennsylvania added new radars for search and gun fire-control, along with anti-aircraft guns. This redesigned the ship for a special type of duty-- artillery cover for amphibious invasions.

With this new offensive capability, the ship was most effective when anchored off-shore, beyond the range of land guns, with targets identified by spotter planes. This new approach prepared the Pennsylvania to enter the war in earnest. After a preliminary venture into the northern Pacific on April 30, 1943, where it aided in recapturing the two westernmost Aleutian Islands, the ship initiated an assault across the enemy-held central Pacific.

From that point until Feb. 10, 1945, the Pennsylvania was the only battleship to participate in every amphibious combat operation in the Pacific. The ship methodically moved through various occupied island groups (Gilberts, Marshalls, Carolines and Marianas) enroute to the Philippines. After engaging the enemy there at both Leyte and Lingayen Gulf, its conquests were over.

Awarded the Navy Unit Commendation, it went through extensive repairs and was returned to Okinawa in preparation for the invasion of Japan. But the emergence of the Atomic Age brought an abrupt halt to that plan. Only a few days in August 1945 were needed to change the world.

The day after the joyous outpouring passed with no hint that merrymaking was premature. That evening, reality set in. All ships in the Okinawa area were alerted to the approach of enemy aircraft. As the executive officer aboard an amphibious ship at Okinawa, I had celebrated the war's end the night before and falsely accepted its finality.

As was the common practice under such a warning, all ships with smoke generators were ordered to create smoke, attempting to cover the area in one huge blanket to prevent any individual ship from being exposed to the enemy from the air.

The Pennsylvania was not prepared to cover itself, and our ship was one of two detailed to hide it under the smoke cover. Our generator responded flawlessly to this smoke-making task, but the winds would not cooperate. We slowly circled the Pennsylvania twice and even threw smoke pots into the water. The elements defied our best effort, blew the smoke away from the ship and kept it exposed.

When the assignment proved impossible to complete, our ship was ordered back to its anchorage inside the smoke screen. Being the only ship visible, the Pennsylvania was the logical target for incoming aircraft. A Japanese plane struck the battleship with a torpedo on the starboard side aft, inflicting extensive damage.

Towed by two tugs, the "Mighty Penn," mighty no more, steamed slowly to Guam. After major repairs, it proceeded under its own power to Puget Sound, Washington. Not salvageable as a fighting ship, it joined the armada of old ships designated for "Operation Crossroads," the atomic bomb tests scheduled for the Bikini Atoll in 1946.

Situated on the perimeter of the detonation, the "Pennsy" experienced minimal damage and was deployed a second time in the same area in an underwater nuclear experiment. Later taken to Kwajalein Atoll and used in radiological and structural studies, the Pennsylvania, still leaking from the 1945 torpedo hit, was towed into deep waters off the lagoon and sunk in February 1948.

The battleship era gave way to that of nuclear submarines. One of those subs is the 25-year-old USS Pennsylvania.

James A. Kehl of Sewickley ( is a retired history professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a veteran Next Page writer. His book "The University Remembered: Personal Reflections on Pitt and a Few of Its People" is available from Word Association Publishers (, 800-827-7903).


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