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Sunday Battleship Blogging: USS California

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The first American battleship built on the West Coast was USS Oregon, commissioned in 1896. USS Virginia, USS Massachusetts, and USS New York were built in their nominal states. The first and only battleship built in its own state on the West Coast was USS California, second ship of the Tennessee class, and second of the “Big Five.” USS California, commissioned in 1921, displaced 33000 tons, carried 12 14″ guns in four triple turrets, and could make 21 knots. As a member of the Big Five, USS California carried the honor of being one of the most powerful battleships in the fleet, and suffered from the decision of the USN to delay the reconstruction of the Big Five as long as possible.

On December 7, 1941 USS California was sitting at anchor somewhat south of Battleship Row. Preparing for inspection,
California was not ready for underwater attack. Struck by two bombs and two torpoedos, California was abandoned prematurely in fear of a burning oil slick advancing off of the other damaged battleships. Upon their return, the crew could not control the flooding and she settled onto the harbor floor. She was refloated in March 1942 and sent, in June of the same year, to Puget Sound Naval Yard for reconstruction. Instead of returning USS California to service as soon as possible, which might have taken three months or so, the USN decided to rebuild California and two of her sisters (Tennessee and West Virginia) completely, such that they visually resembled the South Dakota class rather than their erstwhile sisters USS Maryland and USS Colorado. USS California emerged with a modern superstructure, an advanced anti-aircraft armament, new radar, and a wider beam (chubby enough that she could not advance through the Panama Canal). The time, cash, and material spent on the reconstruction of these three old battleships must be brought into question, as the expansion of their capabilities was relatively modest given the roles that the played in the Pacific War.

California reactivated in early 1944 and deployed to the Pacific in a shore bombardment capacity until October. She was present at the Battle of Surigao Strait, where she and the other two “Big Three” members (West Virgnia and Tennessee) detected and opened fire on Yamashiro well before their unmodified comrades. The purpose of the American task force was to seal off the area around Leyte from any Japanese naval forces coming from the south. The northern approaches were supposed to be covered by the fast battleships attached to Admiral Halsey’s carrier task forces. Admiral Oldendorf’s battleships and cruisers easily overwhelmed the squadrons of Admirals Nishurima and Shima. If, however, the larger force led by Admiral Kurita had taken the southern route, the situation might have become more interesting. American air and submarine attacks sank or turned away a battleship, three cruisers, and two destroyers, but Kurita still had a respectable force. Had Kurita’s force met Oldendorf’s, the balance would have been six battleships, twelve cruisers, and twenty-nine destroyers on the American side against four battleships, nine cruisers, and eleven destroyers on the Japanese. Assuming that the lighter ships cancelled each other out (although the American advantage would have weighed over time), the encounter would have come down to the confrontation of battle lines. The Japanese had the most powerful ship in either fleet (Yamato), but the next three most powerful were the Big Three. USS Maryland was probably roughly equivalent to Nagato, and Mississippi and Pennsylvania were clearly superior to the battlecruisers Kongo and Haruna. The American line had a substantial advantage in guns and armor, especially as the Japanese battlecruisers could not have expected to last long under accurate fire. However, the Japanese line had 5-6 knots on the Americans, which might have allowed them to pull off a replay of Tsushima, where a faster Japanese line twice crossed the Russian T. I suspect that, given local US air superiority and the need for the Japanese to escape before the return of Halsey’s battleships, that the encounter would have been fairly brief. The Japanese might well have lost one or both of the battlecruisers, but Nagato and Yamato probably would have escaped, although not before heavily damaging several of the American ships. Had Musashi survived the air attacks prior to the battle, the story might have been different.

California participated in several other shore bombardment operations before the end of the war, although a kamikaze attack delayed her arrival at Okinawa. After the end of the war, she supported occupation landings in Japan and elsewhere, before returning to the United States. Placed in reserve in 1946, California and the rest of the Big Five were retained for thirteen years in case of a need for shore bombardment ships. As the Korean War did not even justify the activation of the much newer North Carolina and South Dakota classes, the rationale for the retention seems questionable. California was sold for scrap in 1959.

Trivia: What was the last American battleship to be built with reciprocating machinery?

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  • John Halbert

    The Last US battleship with reciprocating machinery was the USS Oklahoma. Oklahoma’s sister-ship, Nevada, had turbine machinery.

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