World War I/II: USS Arizona (BB-39)

View of crowds gathered at the 96th Street Pier to watch the USS Arizona

Paul Thompson / Interim Archives / Getty Images

Approved by Congress on March 4, 1913, USS Arizona was designed as a "super-dreadnought" battleship. The second and final ship of the Pennsylvania-class, Arizona was laid down at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on March 16, 1914. With World War I raging overseas, work continued on the ship and it was ready for launching the following June. Slipping down the ways on June 19, 1915, Arizona was sponsored by Miss Esther Ross of Prescott, AZ. Over the next year, work progressed as the ship's new Parson turbine engines were installed and the rest of its machinery brought on board.

Design and Construction

An improvement on the earlier Nevada-class, the Pennsylvania-class featured a heavier main armament of twelve 14" guns mounted in four triple turrets as well as a slightly higher speed. The class also saw the US Navy's abandonment of vertical triple expansion steam engines in favor of steam turbine technology. More economical, this propulsion system used less fuel oil than its predecessor. In addition, the Pennsylvania's introduced the four-engine, four propeller layout that would become standard on all future American battleships.

For protection, the two ships of the Pennsylvania-class possessed an advanced four-layer system of armor. This consisted of thin plating, air space, thin plate, oil space, thin plate, air space, followed with a thicker layer of armor nearly ten feet inboard. The theory behind this layout was that the air and oil space would aid in dissipating shell or torpedo explosions. In testing, this arrangement withstood an explosion of 300 lbs. of dynamite. Work on Arizona was completed in late 1916 and the ship was commissioned on October 17 with Captain John D. McDonald in command.

Operations During World War I

Departing New York the following month, Arizona conducted its shakedown cruise off the Virginia Capes and Newport, RI before proceeding south to Guantánamo Bay. Returning to the Chesapeake in December, it conducted torpedo and firing exercises in Tangier Sound. These complete, Arizona sailed for Brooklyn where post-shakedown alterations were made to the ship. With these issues addressed, the new battleship was assigned to Battleship Division 8 (BatDiv 8) at Norfolk. It arrived there on April 4, 1917, only days before the U.S. entered World War I.

During the war, Arizona, along with the other oil-fired battleships of the US Navy, remained assigned to the East Coast due to a shortage of fuel oil in Britain. Patrolling the waters between Norfolk and New York, Arizona also served as a gunnery training ship. With the war's conclusion on November 11, 1918, Arizona and BatDiv 8 sailed for Britain. Arriving on November 30, it sortied on December 12 to aid in escorting President Woodrow Wilson, aboard the liner George Washington, into Brest, France for the Paris Peace Conference. This done, it embarked American troops for the voyage home two days later.

The Interwar Years

Arriving off New York on Christmas Eve, Arizona led a naval review into the harbor the next day. After participating in maneuvers in the Caribbean during the spring of 1919, the battleship crossed the Atlantic and reached Brest on May 3. Sailing into the Mediterranean, it arrived off Smyrna (Izmir) on May 11 where it provided protection to American citizens during the Greek occupation of the port. Going ashore, Arizona's Marine detachment aided in guarding the American consulate. Returning to New York in late June, the ship underwent alterations at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

For much of the 1920s, Arizona served in a variety of peacetime roles and moved through assignments with BatDivs 7, 2, 3, and 4. Having been operating in the Pacific, the ship transited the Panama Canal on February 7, 1929, en route to Norfolk for modernization. Entering the yard, it was placed in reduced commission on July 15 as work began. As part of the modernization, Arizona's cage masts were placed with tripod masts topped by three-level fire control tops, alterations were made to its 5 in. guns and additional armor was added. While in the yard, the ship also received new boilers and turbines.

Returning to full commission on March 1, 1931, the ship embarked President Herbert Hoover on the 19th for a cruise to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Following this assignment, post-modernization trials were conducted off the coast of Maine. With this completed, it was assigned to BatDiv 3 at San Pedro, CA. For much of the next decade, the ship operated with the Battle Fleet in the Pacific. On September 17, 1938, it became the flagship of Rear Admiral Chester Nimitz's BatDiv 1. Nimitz remained on board until passing command to Rear Admiral Russell Willson the following year.

Pearl Harbor

Following Fleet Problem XXI in April 1940, the US Pacific Fleet was retained at Pearl Harbor due to increasing tensions with Japan. The ship operated around Hawaii until late summer when it sailed for Long Beach, CA en route to an overhaul at the Puget Sound Navy Yard. Among the work completed were improvements to Arizona's anti-aircraft battery. On January 23, 1941, Willson was relieved by Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd. Returning to Pearl Harbor, the battleship took part in a series of training exercises during 1941 before undergoing a brief overhaul in October. Arizona sailed for the final time on December 4 to take part in firing exercises. Returning the next day, it took the repair ship USS Vestal alongside on December 6.

The next morning, the Japanese commenced their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor shortly before 8:00 AM. Sounding general quarters at 7:55, Kidd and Captain Franklin van Valkenburgh raced to the bridge. Shortly after 8:00, a bomb dropped by a Nakajima B5N "Kate" glanced off #4 turret starting a small fire. This was followed by another bomb hit at 8:06. Striking between and to the port of #1 and #2 turrets, this hit ignited a fire that detonated Arizona's forward magazine. This resulted in a massive explosion that destroyed the forward part of the ship and started fires that burned for two days.

The explosion killed Kidd and van Valkenburgh, both of whom received the Medal of Honor for their actions. The ship's damage control officer, Lieutenant Commander Samuel G. Fuqua, also was awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in fighting the fires and attempting to rescue survivors. As a result of the explosion, fires, and sinking, 1,177 of Arizona's 1,400-man crew were killed. As salvage work began after the attack, it was determined that the ship was a total loss. While the majority of its surviving guns were removed for future use, its superstructure was largely cut down to the waterline. A powerful symbol of the attack, the ship's remains were bridged by the USS Arizona Memorial which was dedicated in 1962. The remains of Arizona, which still bleed oil, were designated a National Historic Landmark on May 5, 1989.


  • Nation: United States
  • Type: Battleship
  • Shipyard: Brooklyn Navy Yard
  • Laid Down: March 16, 1914
  • Launched: June 19, 1915
  • Commissioned: October 17, 1916
  • Fate: Sunk December 7, 1941


  • Displacement: 31,400 tons
  • Length: 608 ft.
  • Beam: 106 ft.
  • Draft: 30 ft.
  • Propulsion: 4 propellers driven by Parson steam turbines
  • Speed: 21 knots
  • Range: 9,200 miles at 12 knots
  • Complement: 1,385 men

Armament (September 1940)


  • 12 × 14 in. (360 mm)/45 cal guns (4 triple turrets)
  • 12 × 5 in./51 cal. guns
  • 12 × 5 in./25 cal. anti-aircraft guns


  • 2 x aircraft


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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I/II: USS Arizona (BB-39)." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War I/II: USS Arizona (BB-39). Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War I/II: USS Arizona (BB-39)." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 22, 2023).