USS Tennessee at Pearl Harbor

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On December 7th, 1941, USS Tennessee (BB-43) was moored at the deep water berths along the southeast side of Ford Island. Tennessee’s moorings on Battleship Row put her starboard side to a pair of mooring quays, anchored right next to the USS West Virginia (BB-48). Anchored off the bow of the Tennessee was the USS Maryland (BB-46), and off of her stern was the USS Arizona (BB-39).

Like with other ships in the area, the crewmen of Tennessee fired her anti-aicraft guns at Japanese aircraft as they attempted to defend the Row. Tennessee’s gunners were responsible for knocking several Japanese fighters and dive bombers that morning.

During the attack, Tennessee was struck by two 1,700 lb Type 91 Model 5 armor-piercing bombs. The first bomb struck the center of turret two, the subsequent destruction of which rendered all three guns inoperable. Debris and shrapnel from this bomb landed on the bridge of the USS West Virginia, mortally wounding her commanding officer, Captain Mervyn S. Bennon. The second bomb tore through turret three, igniting a fire that burned out the left gun compartment of the turret. Thankfully for the Tennessee, however, both bombs missed the magazines of the turrets, preventing a detonation of the ammunition that would have surely sunk her.

At 8:06 am, the USS Arizona’s forward magazines detonated in a cataclysmic explosion that completely destroyed the battleship. Debris from the explosion showered the deck of the Tennessee, injuring several crewmembers. Much of her stern was engulfed in flames from the Arizona’s burning fuel oil. In the photo below you can see the (from left to right) West Virginia, Tennesee, and the burning Arizona. By the time the photo had been taken, Tennessee had extinguished her fires astern, whereas West Virginia can be seen still smoking.

By this time the USS West Virginia had also succumbed to the intense bombardment from Japanese 1,700 lb bombs and torpedoes. Several torpedo hits to her port side caused massive flooding, partially sinking the ship’s bow. Fires from Japanese bombs and the explosion of the Arizona engulfed her decks. Tennessee attempted to pass over fire hoses and crew to help fight the rapidly-spreading fires, but by 2:00 pm the ship was too far gone. West Virginia’s remaining crew was ordered to abandon ship soon after. The ship can be seen profusely burning in the photo below.

After the raid, Tennessee soon found herself trapped at her moorings. Arizona was completely destroyed off her stern and West Virginia was partially sunk, which effectively rendered Tennessee immobile (see photo below). Her position on the Row has been called both a blessing a curse by some – although after the attack Tennessee was trapped, her mooring closest to Ford Island saved her from the torpedoes that sunk the West Virginia. The Tennessee was trapped at her berth for ten days before being freed, and four days later left Hawaii for repairs on the West Coast.

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Out of the eight battleships on Battleship Row, only Tennessee and Maryland were not sunk. Six crewmembers – GM3 Jesse L. Adams, Cox. J. B. D. Miller, SQC Eugene O. Roe, BM1 Alfred W. Hudgell, S2 Robert L. Boyd, and SK1 Gerald O. Smith

– were killed during the raid. Sixteen sailors, one officer, and two Marines were injured. While fighting against Japanese aircraft, Tennessee expended 760 5″ (127 mm) shells, 180 3″ (76 mm) shells, and 4,000 rounds of .50 caliber machine gun ammunition.

On December 11th, 1941, Tennessee’s, commanding officer, Captain Reordan, drafted a report on the fighting at Pearl Harbor. In his report he commented:

“The conduct of the officers and crew of the Tennessee was uniformly in accordance with the highest traditions of the Service. not only did they fight the battle with calmness and deliberation but for the next twenty-four hours they fought the oil fires in the Arizona and West Virginia which threatened to destroy the Tennessee. The Arizona was eight feet to windward and her burning oil was a real menace to this ship; the West Virginia was alongside with her forward magazines in danger of explosion; nevertheless, the crew carried out their gunnery and damage control duties as if at drill. The Commanding Officer considers that the conduct of the following officers was especially distinguished:

1. Lieut-Comdr. John W. Adams, Jr., U.S. Navy:
As Gunnery Officer and temporary Commanding Officer he fought the ship with a calmness and precision that was an inspiration to the entire ship’s company.

2. Lieutenant Robert R. Moore, U.S. Navy:
As senior Damage Control Officer aboard he carried on all of his duties in an extremely calm and efficient manner.

3. Captain Chevey S. White, U.S. Marine Corps:
Acting as Air Defense Officer, he displayed outstanding coolness and courage during the engagement. While exposed to enemy bombing and strafing attack at his unprotected battle station he directed the fire of the A.A. battery in a calm and efficient manner.

4.

Ensign William S. Thomas, D-V(G), U.S.N.R.:
As A.A. Group Control Officer, while exposed to enemy bombing and strafing attack in an unprotected battle station, he carried out his duties in a calm and efficient manner.

5. Ensign Donald M. Kable, U.S. Navy:
As .50 caliber machine gun Control Officer he directed the fire of his guns while being strafed by enemy planes until he was so seriously wounded that he was carried below.

6. Chief Boatswain Lewis W. Adkins, U.S. Navy:
In charge of the after repair party, his leadership and heroic conduct while fighting the fires contributed much toward saving the ship from destruction. Throughout the attack he was in an exposed position and continued to fight the fires until they were brought under control. 

For her action during the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, “The Rebel Ship” was awarded a Battle Star and was commended by several high ranking officers in the navy. Tennessee soon after sailed to Puget Sound Navy Yard on December 21st for extensive repairs and modernization. When Tennessee emerged from repairs in May of 1943, she bore virtually no resemblance to her former self. She was modernized resemble the South Dakota-class battleships. with vastly improved armament, control facilities, propulsion, and armor. As part of her repairs, her beam was increased from 97 feet to 114 feet, exceeding the 108-foot limit of the Panama Canal and effectively limiting her use to the Pacific Theater. After her repairs Tennessee was assigned to Rear Admiral William Pye’s Task Force 1 and prepared for her part in bringing down the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Remember the Tennessee today, lads!