World War II: USS Pennsylvania (BB-38)

USS Pennsylvania (BB-38), 1934

US Naval History & Heritage Command

Commissioned in 1916, USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) proved to be a workhorse for the US Navy's surface fleet for over thirty years. Taking part in World War I (1917-1918), the battleship later survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and saw extensive service across the Pacific during World War II (1941-1945). With the end of the war, Pennsylvania provided a final service as a target ship during the 1946 Operation Crossroads atomic testing.

A New Design Approach

After designing and constructing five classes of dreadnought battleships, the US Navy concluded that future ships should make use of a set of standardized tactical and operational traits. This would allow these vessels to operate together in combat and would simplify logistics. Designated the Standard-type, the next five classes were propelled by oil-fired boilers rather than coal, saw the removal of amidships turrets, and utilized an “all or nothing” armor scheme. 

Among these alterations, the transition to oil was made with the goal of increasing the vessel’s range as the US Navy believed this would be critical in any future naval war with Japan. The new "all or nothing" armor arrangement called for critical areas of the vessel, such as magazines and engineering, to be heavily armored while less important spaces were left unprotected. Also, Standard-type battleships were to be capable of a minimum top speed of 21 knots and have a tactical turn radius of 700 yards. 


Incorporating these design characteristics, USS Pennsylvania (BB-28) was laid down at the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company on October 27, 1913. The lead ship of its class, its design came about following the US Navy's General Board ordering a new class of battleships in 1913 which mounted twelve 14" guns, twenty-two 5" guns, and an armor scheme similar to the earlier Nevada-class.

The Pennsylvania-class' main guns were to be mounted in four triple turrets while propulsion was to be provided by steam-driven geared turbines turning four propellers. Increasingly concerned about improvements in torpedo technology, the US Navy directed that the new ships utilize a four-layer system of armor. This employed multiple layers of thin plate, separated by air or oil, outboard of the main armor belt. The goal of this system was to dissipate the explosive force of a torpedo before it reached the ship's primary armor.

World War I

Launched on March 16, 1915, with Miss Elizabeth Kolb as its sponsor, Pennsylvania was commissioned the following year on June 16. Joining the US Atlantic Fleet, with Captain Henry B. Wilson in command, the new battleship became the command's flagship that October when Admiral Henry T. Mayo transferred his flag on board. Operating off the East Coast and in the Caribbean for the remainder of the year, Pennsylvania returned to Yorktown, VA in April 1917 just as the United States entered World War I.

As the US Navy began deploying forces to Britain, Pennsylvania remained in American waters as it used fuel oil rather than coal-like many of the Royal Navy's vessels. Since tankers could not be spared to transport fuel abroad, Pennsylvania and the US Navy's other oil-fired battleships conducted operations off the East Coast for the duration of the conflict. In December 1918, with the war ended, Pennsylvania escorted President Woodrow Wilson, aboard SS George Washington, to France for the Paris Peace Conference.

USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) Overview

  • Nation: United States
  • Type: Battleship
  • Shipyard: Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock Company
  • Laid Down: October 27, 1913
  • Launched: March 16, 1915
  • Commissioned: June 12, 1916
  • Fate: Scuttled February 10, 1948

Specifications (1941)

  • Displacement: 31,400 tons
  • Length: 608 ft.
  • Beam: 97.1 ft.
  • Draft: 28.9 ft.
  • Propulsion: 4 propellers driven by 1 × Bureau Express and 5 × White-Forster boilers
  • Speed: 21 knots
  • Range: 10,688 miles at 15 knots
  • Complement: 1,358 men



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


  • 2 x aircraft

Interwar Years

The remaining flagship of the US Atlantic Fleet, Pennsylvania operating in home waters in early 1919 and that July met the returning George Washington and escorted it into New York. The next two years saw the battleship conduct routine peacetime training until receiving orders to join the US Pacific Fleet in August 1922. For the next seven years, Pennsylvania operated on the West Coast and participated in training around Hawaii and the Panama Canal.

The routine of this period was punctuated in 1925 when the battleship conducted a goodwill tour to New Zealand and Australia. In early 1929, after training exercises off Panama and Cuba, Pennsylvania sailed north and entered the Philadelphia Navy Yard for an extensive modernization program. Remaining at Philadelphia for almost two years, the ship's secondary armament was modified and its cage masts replaced by new tripod masts. After conducting refresher training off Cuba in May 1931, ​Pennsylvania returned to the Pacific Fleet.

In the Pacific

For the next decade, Pennsylvania remained a stalwart of the Pacific Fleet and took part in annual exercises and routine training. Overhauled at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in late 1940, it sailed for Pearl Harbor on January 7, 1941. Later that year, Pennsylvania was one of fourteen ships to receive the new CXAM-1 radar system. In the fall of 1941, the battleship was dry-docked at Pearl Harbor. Though scheduled to leave on December 6, Pennsylvania's departure was delayed.

As a result, the battleship remained in dry dock when the Japanese attacked the next day. One of the first ships to respond with anti-aircraft fire, Pennsylvania took minor damage during the attack despite repeated Japanese attempts to destroy the dry dock's caisson. Positioned forward of the battleship in the drydock, the destroyers USS Cassin and USS Downes were both severely damaged.

World War II Begins

In the wake of the attack, Pennsylvania departed Pearl Harbor on December 20 and sailed for San Francisco. Arriving, it underwent repairs before joining a squadron led by Vice Admiral William S. Pye which operated off the West Coast to prevent a Japanese strike. Following the victories at Coral Sea and Midway, this force was disbanded and Pennsylvania briefly returned to Hawaiian waters. In October, with the situation in the Pacific stabilized, the battleship received orders to sail for Mare Island Naval Shipyard and a major overhaul.

While at Mare Island, Pennsylvania's tripod masts were removed and its anti-aircraft armament enhanced with the installation of ten Bofors 40 mm quad mounts and fifty-one Oerlikon 20 mm single mounts. In addition, the existing 5" guns were replaced with new rapid-fire 5" guns in eight twin mounts. Work on Pennsylvania was completed in February 1943 and following refresher training, the ship departed for service in the Aleutian Campaign in late April.

In the Aleutians

Reaching Cold Bay, AK on April 30, Pennsylvania joined Allied forces for the liberation of Attu. Bombarding enemy shore positions on May 11-12, the battleship supported Allied forces as they went ashore. Later on May 12, Pennsylvania evaded a torpedo attack and its escorting destroyers succeeded in sinking the perpetrator, the submarine I-31, the next day. Aiding in operations around the island for the remainder of the month, Pennsylvania then retired to Adak. Sailing in August, the battleship served as Rear Admiral Francis Rockwell's flagship during the campaign against Kiska. With the successful recapture of the island, the battleship became the flagship of Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner, Commander Fifth Amphibious Force, that fall. Sailing in November, Turner re-captured Makin Atoll later that month.

Island Hopping

On January 31, 1944, Pennsylvania took part in the bombardment prior to the invasion of Kwajalein. Remaining on station, the battleship continued to provide fire support once the landings began the next day. In February, Pennsylvania fulfilled a similar role during the invasion of Eniwetok. After conducting training exercises and a voyage to Australia, the battleship joined Allied forces for the Marianas Campaign in June. On June 14, Pennsylvania's guns pounded enemy positions on Saipan in preparation for landings the next day.

Remaining in the area, the vessel struck targets on Tinian and Guam as well as provided direct fire support to troops ashore on Saipan. The following month, Pennsylvania aided in the liberation of Guam. With the end of operations in the Marianas, it joined the Palau Bombardment and Fire Support Group for the invasion of Peleliu in September. Remaining off the beach, Pennsylvania's main battery pummeled Japanese positions and greatly aided Allied forces ashore.

Surigao Strait

Following repairs in the Admiralty Islands in early October, Pennsylvania sailed as part of Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf's Bombardment and Fire Support Group which in turn was part of Vice Admiral Thomas C. Kinkaid's Central Philippine Attack Force. Moving against Leyte, Pennsylvania reached its fire support station on October 18 and began covering General Douglas MacArthur's troops as they went ashore two days later. With the Battle of Leyte Gulf underway, Oldendorf's battleships moved south on October 24 and blocked the mouth of the Surigao Strait.

Attacked by Japanese forces that night, his vessels sank the battleships Yamashiro and Fuso. In the course of the fighting, Pennsylvania's guns remained quiet as its older fire control radar could not distinguish the enemy vessels in the confined waters of the strait. Retiring to the Admiralty Islands in November, Pennsylvania returned to action in January 1945 as part of Oldendorf's Lingayen Bombardment and Fire Support Group.


Driving off air attacks on January 4-5, 1945, Oldendorf's ships began striking targets around the mouth of Lingayen Gulf, Luzon the next day. Entering the gulf on the afternoon of January 6, Pennsylvania commenced reducing Japanese defenses in the area. As in the past, it continued to offer direct fire support once Allied troops began landing on January 9.

Commencing a patrol of the South China Sea a day later, Pennsylvania returned after a week and remained in the gulf until February. Withdrawn on February 22, it steamed for San Francisco and an overhaul. While at the Hunter's Point Shipyard, Pennsylvania's main guns received new barrels, the anti-aircraft defenses were enhanced, and new fire control radar was installed. Departing on July 12, the ship sailed for newly captured Okinawa with stops at Pearl Harbor and to bombard Wake Island.


Reaching Okinawa in early August, Pennsylvania anchored in Buckner Bay near USS Tennessee (BB-43). On August 12, a Japanese torpedo plane penetrated the Allied defenses and stuck the battleship in the stern. The torpedo strike opened a thirty-foot hole in Pennsylvania and badly damaged its propellers. Towed to Guam, the battleship was dry docked and received temporary repairs. Leaving in October, it transited the Pacific en route to Puget Sound. While at sea, the Number 3 propeller shaft broke necessitating divers to cut it and the propeller away. As a result, Pennsylvania limped into Puget Sound on October 24 with only one operable propeller.

Final Days

As World War II had ended, the US Navy did not intend to retain Pennsylvania. As a result, the battleship received only those repairs necessary for transit to the Marshall Islands. Taken to Bikini Atoll, the battleship was used as a target vessel during the Operation Crossroads atomic tests in July 1946. Surviving both blasts, Pennsylvania was towed to Kwajalein Lagoon where it was decommissioned on August 29. The ship remained in the lagoon until early 1948 where it was used for structural and radiological studies. On February 10, 1948, Pennsylvania was taken from the lagoon and sunk at sea.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: USS Pennsylvania (BB-38)." ThoughtCo, Jul. 31, 2021, Hickman, Kennedy. (2021, July 31). World War II: USS Pennsylvania (BB-38). Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: USS Pennsylvania (BB-38)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).