World War II: USS California (BB-44)

USS California, 1921
USS California (BB-44) steaming at high speed, circa 1921.

Naval History and Heritage Command

Entering service in 1921, USS California (BB-44) served the US Navy for over a quarter-century and saw combat operations during World War II (1939-1945). Dubbed "The Prune Barge" due to the large volume of the fruit exported by California in the early part of the 20th century, the battleship was the second vessel of the Tennessee-class and was severely damaged during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Raised from the harbor's mud, it was repaired and heavily modernized.

Rejoining the fleet in 1944, California took part in the Allies' island-hopping campaign across the Pacific and played a central role in the Battle of the Surigao Strait. Though hit by a kamikaze in early 1945, the battleship was quickly repaired and returned to action that summer. Remaining in the Pacific through the end of the war, California later helped transport occupation troops to Japan.


USS California (BB-44) was the second ship of the Tennessee-class of battleship. The ninth type of dreadnought battleship (South Carolina, Delaware, FloridaWyomingNew YorkNevadaPennsylvaniaand New Mexico) built for the US Navy, the Tennessee-class was intended to be an enhanced variant of the preceding New Mexico-class. The fourth class to follow the Standard-type approach, which required ships to possess similar operational and tactical attributes, the Tennessee-class was propelled by oil-fired boilers rather than coal and employed an “all or nothing” armor arrangement.

This armor scheme called for critical areas of the ship, such as magazines and engineering, to be heavily protected while less important spaces were left unarmored. Also, Standard-type battleships were required to have a minimum top speed of 21 knots and a tactical turn radius of 700 yards or less. Designed after the Battle of Jutland, the Tennessee-class class was the first to utilize the lessons learned in the engagement. These included enhanced armor below the waterline as well as fire control systems for both the main and secondary batteries which were placed on top of two large cage masts.

As with the New Mexico-class, the new ships carried twelve 14" guns in four triple turrets and fourteen 5" guns. In an improvement over its predecessors, the main battery on the Tennessee-class could elevate its guns to 30 degrees which increased the weapons' range by 10,000 yards. Ordered on December 28, 1915, the new class comprised two ships: USS Tennessee (BB-43) and USS California (BB-44).


Laid down at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard on October 25, 1916, construction of California advanced through the winter and following spring when the US entered World War I. The last battleship built on the West Coast, it slid down the ways on November 20, 1919, with Barbara Zane, daughter of California Governor William D. Stephens, serving as sponsor. Completing construction, California entered commission on August 10, 1921, with Captain Henry J. Ziegemeier in command. Ordered to join the Pacific Fleet, it immediately became this force's flagship.

USS California (BB-44), 1921
USS California (BB-44) shortly after completion in 1921. US Naval History and Heritage Command

USS California (BB-44) - Overview

  • Nation: United States
  • Type: Battleship
  • Shipyard: Mare Island Naval Shipyard
  • Laid Down: October 25, 1917
  • Launched: November 20, 1919
  • Commissioned: August 10, 1921
  • Fate: Sold for scrap

Specifications (as built)

  • Displacement: 32,300 tons
  • Length: 624.5 ft.
  • Beam: 97.3 ft.
  • Draft: 30.3 ft.
  • Propulsion: Turbo-electric transmission turning 4 propellers
  • Speed: 21 knots
  • Complement: 1,083 men

Armament (as built)

  • 12 × 14 in. gun (4 × 3)
  • 14 × 5 in. guns
  • 2 × 21 in. torpedo tubes

Interwar Years

Over the next several years, California participated in a routine cycle of peacetime training, fleet maneuvers, and war games. A high-performing ship, it won the Battle Efficiency Pennant in 1921 and 1922 as well as Gunnery "E" awards for 1925 and 1926. In the former year, California led elements of the fleet on a goodwill cruise to Australia and New Zealand. Returning to its usual operations in 1926, it underwent a brief modernization program in the winter of 1929/30 which saw enhancements to its anti-aircraft defenses and additional elevation added to its main battery.

Though largely operating out of San Pedro, CA during the 1930s, California transited the Panama Canal in 1939 to visit the World's Fair in New York City. Returning to the Pacific, the battleship took part in Fleet Problem XXI in April 1940 which simulated the defense of the Hawaiian Islands. Due to increasing tensions with Japan, the fleet remained in Hawaiian waters after the exercise and shifted its base to Pearl Harbor. That year also saw California selected as one of the first six ships to receive the new RCA CXAM radar system.

World War II Begins

On December 7, 1941, California was moored at the southernmost berth on Pearl Harbor's Battleship Row. When the Japanese attacked that morning, the ship quickly sustained two torpedo hits which caused extensive flooding. This was worsened by the fact that many watertight doors had been left open in preparation for an impending inspection. The torpedoes were followed by a bomb hit that detonated an anti-aircraft ammunition magazine.

A second bomb, which just missed, exploded and ruptured several hull plates near the bow. With the flooding out of control, California slowly sunk over the next three days before settling upright in the mud with just its superstructure above the waves. In the attack, 100 of the crew were killed and 62 wounded. Two of California's crew, Robert R. Scott and Thomas Reeves, posthumously received the Medal of Honor for the actions during the attack.

The U.S. Navy battleship USS California (BB-44) sinking after being torpedoed at Pearl Harbor
USS California (BB-44) sinking after being torpedoed at Pearl Harbor. National Archives and Records Administration

Salvage work commenced a short time later and on March 25, 1942, California was re-floated and moved to dry dock for temporary repairs. On June 7, it departed under its own power for Puget Sound Navy Yard where it would begin a major modernization program. Entering the yard, this plan saw significant alterations to the ship's superstructure, the trunking of the two funnels into one, improved watertight compartmentalization, expansion of the anti-aircraft defenses, alterations to the secondary armament, and a widening of the hull to increase stability and torpedo protection. This last change pushed California past the beam limitations for the Panama Canal essentially limiting it to wartime service in the Pacific.

Rejoining the Fight

Departing Puget Sound on January 31, 1944, California conducted shakedown cruises off San Pedro before steaming west to aid in the invasion of the Marianas. That June, the battleship joined combat operations when it provided fire support during the Battle of Saipan. On June 14, California sustained a hit from a shore battery which inflicted minor damage and caused 10 casualties (1 killed, 9 wounded). In July and August, the battleship aided in the landings on Guam and Tinian. On August 24, California arrived at Espiritu Santo for repairs after a minor collision with Tennessee. Completed, it then departed for Manus on September 17 to join forces massing for the invasion of the Philippines.

USS California (BB-44) underway in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, Washington, on 25 January 1944.
National Museum of the US Navy / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Covering the landings on Leyte between October 17 and 20, California, part of Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf's 7th Fleet Support Force, then shifted south to the Surigao Strait. On the night of October 25, Oldendorf inflicted a decisive defeat on Japanese forces at the Battle of Surigao Strait. Part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf, the engagement saw several Pearl Harbor veterans exact revenge on the enemy. Returning to action in early January 1945, California provided fire support for the Lingayen Gulf landings on Luzon. Remaining offshore, it was struck by a kamikaze on January 6 which killed 44 and wounded 155. Completing operations in the Philippines, the battleship then departed for repairs at Puget Sound.

Final Actions

In the yard from February through late spring, California rejoined the fleet on June 15 when it arrived off Okinawa. Aiding troops ashore during the final days of the Battle of Okinawa, it then covered minesweeping operations in the East China Sea. With the end of the war in August, California escorted occupation troops to Wakayama, Japan and remained in Japanese waters until mid-October.

Receiving orders to return to the United States, the battleship shaped a course through the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope as it was too wide for the Panama Canal. Touching at Singapore, Colombo, and Cape Town, it arrived at Philadelphia on December 7. Moved into reserve on August 7, 1946, California was decommissioned on February 14, 1947. Retained for twelve years, it was then sold for scrap on March 1, 1959.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: USS California (BB-44)." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War II: USS California (BB-44). Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: USS California (BB-44)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).