Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.
The remains of the destroyers Downes and Cassin in front of the battleship Pennsylvania in Dry Dock #1 at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The smoke in the background is from the burning battleship Arizona across the harbor.

The remains of the destroyers Downes and Cassin in front of the battleship Pennsylvania in Dry Dock #1 at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The smoke in the background is from the burning battleship Arizona across the harbor.
U.S. Navy

“Air raid on Pearl Harbor. This is not drill.”

The message went out from the headquarters of the United States Pacific Fleet in Hawaii on December 7, 1941. Its brevity belied the gravity of the event it reported. The White House released the information shortly before 2:30 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, and many people learned the news throughout the afternoon as radio programs were interrupted with bulletins. Details were sketchy and inaccurate at first as an anxious public tuned in to learn the fate of the nation’s largest fleet and its flagship, the USS Pennsylvania.


Commissioning and World War I Service

The attack at Pearl Harbor was the first battle that the Pennsylvania had participated in, although it had been in naval service for 25 years. That quarter century had seen changes that in many ways had turned the ship from the queen of the seas to the dowager empress of the American Navy. Authorized by Congress on August 12, 1912, the design for battleship number 38 was the embodiment of economic and political trends of the previous 50 years. Industrialization during the 19th century transformed naval ships from wooden sailing vessels into steam-powered machines with armored steel hulls and electrical operating systems. The technological advances in combination with politcal competition produced an arms race between the world’s major powers, with battleships being the determining measure of a country’s standing.

In Europe it was still the age of empires with Great Britain’s navy dominating both numerically and technologically. In fact, Britain’s capacity and reputation was such that Japan chose to contract for British-built ships. The Japanese demonstrated the superior quality of their British ships during the battles of their war with Russia in 1905. The British analyzed Japan’s victories to make the next advance in battleship design with HMS Dreadnought, the ship whose name would be applied as a classification to advanced 20th-century battleships. Britain’s principle rival, a politically consolidated and industrially advancing German Empire, continued its own naval development and expansion to challenge Britain’s dominance.

The headline of the Chicago Sunday Tribune, March 19, 1916, announces the arrival of the Pennsylvania with a call to build the U.S. fleet with more like it.

The headline of the Chicago Sunday Tribune, March 19, 1916, announces the arrival of the Pennsylvania with a call to build the U.S. fleet with more like it.
The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Across the Atlantic Ocean the United States had expanded over the North American continent while also becoming a major industrial power. The American naval victories over Spain in 1898 marked the country’s entrance onto the world political stage and provided Caribbean and Pacific territories for economic resources and military support bases. Faced with extensive coastlines and distant interests in both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the United States continued to expand its Navy with new ships that incorporated improved technology and designs.

The most noticeable design improvement made to battleship number 38 was to place its expanded main battery of twelve 14-inch guns into four triple-gun turrets, two mounted forward and two mounted aft, with each gun capable of firing a 1,400-pound shell. This configuration gave the ship considerable firepower in any direction, particularly a wide angle of fire for its full 16,800-pound broadside. Publications of the day boasted of the ship’s massed firepower in a favorable comparison to the battleships of other navies.

Built by the Newport News Shipbuilding Company in Virginia, the hull was the third ship to be named for Pennsylvania when it was launched and christened by young seminary student Elizabeth Kolb of Germantown on March 16, 1915. The builders continued the fitting-out process over the next year, and on June 12, 1916, the vessel was commissioned as a ship of the United States Navy. Roughly two weeks prior to this date Germany and Britain had fought the largest naval battle in history off the Danish peninsula at Jutland.

The Battle of Jutland had not changed anything strategically in World War I. Britain’s fleet was still dominant and maintained a traditional blockade of Germany. With its battle fleet intact, but bottled up by the superior British, Germany turned to submarines to cut off Britain’s trade. Although Germany issued warnings declaring British waters to be a war zone and advising against travel on British vessels, the losses of ships and citizens of neutral nations to German submarines continued to increase the strain on German-American relations. Agitating the public’s attention was the presidential election of 1916. Woodrow Wilson was running for reelection based on a platform of having kept the country neutral and out of the war, while at the same time recognizing the deteriorating relations with Germany and preparing for war should it become unavoidable. In this atmosphere, the arrival of a new battleship was welcome news. The Chicago Sunday Tribune of March 19, 1916, declared, “We need more of these,” along with a large photograph of the Pennsylvania on its sea trials.


The crew of the Pennsylvania in 1918. The State Museum of Pennsylvania

The crew of the Pennsylvania in 1918. The State Museum of Pennsylvania

The newest addition to the fleet, Pennsylvania was designated the flagship – the ship of the commanding admiral – in October 1916. The following month Wilson won reelection. The Atlantic fleet held training maneuvers in early 1917 and returned to Norfolk on April 6, the same day of the congressional declaration of war against Germany. For the crew of the Pennsylvania, the war brought less change than they may have expected. The new battleships were powered by fuel oil rather than coal, and tanker and logistical support was insufficient to allow the newer ships to operate with the British fleet. Instead, the newer ships guarded the East Coast, and as flagship, the Pennsylvania began its duty of entertaining important visitors. In August of that year it received its first presidential visit from Wilson.

With the armistice that ended the fighting in November 1918 came the necessity for President Wilson to travel to France for the peace conference. As flagship, Pennsylvania led the naval escort and the president’s ship, the liner George Washington, to the French port of Brest. The following July, Pennsylvania brought the president’s cabinet officials out to greet his return from France to the port of New York.


Between Wars

At the end of World War I there was still hope that the massive slaughter could be justified if the conflict was “the war that will end war” as British author H.G. Wells had termed it in 1914. The empires of Germany and its allies, Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey, were broken up and divided into smaller nations based on the ethnicity of their inhabitants. The German navy, long the thorn in the side of the British, was initially interned at Scapa Flow in Scotland. Rather than formally surrender to their longtime adversary, the German crews scuttled their ships in June 1919.


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With the German threat eliminated, and to curtail further competition, the United States and the other major naval powers negotiated the Washington Naval Treaty, which limited the size of their respective fleets. Old ships as well as unfinished new ones were scrapped to meet the limitations. As a fairly new ship, the Pennsylvania was unaffected by the treaty. The U.S. Navy settled into a peacetime routine of gunnery practice, maintenance, fleet exercises and patrols to “show the flag” in foreign ports and sporting competitions to promote crew morale and physical fitness. As flagship, the Pennsylvania served as the venue for special ceremonies such as changing of fleet commanders or presidential visits. On such occasions the ship’s silver service would be brought out to provide an appropriate reception for the important guests.

Made by J. E. Caldwell Co. of Philadelphia with 750 pounds of silver that cost $25,000, the set featured a large electrically lighted centerpiece, a punchbowl of similar scale and countless smaller pieces ranging from claret and sherry sets to tea and coffee pots. Opulently decorated with nautical imagery, the set also contains numerous representations from Pennsylvania’s history, ranging from cast figures of William Penn and the Liberty Bell to a Pennsylvania Railroad tunnel, complete with train, serving as the base of the loving cup–styled flower vase. The silver service had been a gift to the Navy by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in 1905 for use on armored cruiser 4, the USS Pennsylvania. This was the Navy’s second Pennsylvania, the first having been a massive, wooden ship of the line. Armored cruiser Pennsylvania served with the Great White Fleet until 1912, when it was renamed the USS Pittsburgh so that the name “Pennsylvania” could be used for battleship 38.


Pennsylvania after its modernization in 1929-31. The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania after its modernization in 1929-31. The State Museum of Pennsylvania

Although the Washington Naval Treaty had prohibited new battleship construction, it did permit the modernization of existing ships. For Pennsylvania, this process began on June 1, 1929, in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Over the next two years the ship was given improved boilers, engines and electric generators. Defensive armor was increased above and below the waterline. The secondary and antiaircraft guns were improved and relocated, and the main gun battery elevation was increased to nearly double its range, slightly over 19 miles. The most significant change in the ship’s appearance was the addition of superstructure, with expanded accommodations for an admiral and accompanying staff members, as well as tripods topped with the fire controls for the guns replacing the circular cage masts. An aircraft catapult was added to the top of C turret and another placed on the fantail. The revitalized ship resumed its duties with the fleet in the summer of 1931, and over the next 10 years served in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets.


Pearl Harbor

The entry of the United States into World War II and the devastation of its principal naval force in the Pacific Ocean was the culmination of a growing rift between Japan and the United States. Japan had begun its policy of expansion in 1931 by invading Manchuria. Tension with the United States began after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937 and the attack by the Japanese on the USS Panay, an American gunboat on the Yangtze River. By the early 1940s the Japanese turned their attention to Southeast Asia as events in the war in Europe made the French and Dutch colonies in the area vulnerable. In close proximity to the European colonies was the United States territorial Commonwealth of the Philippines.

Concerned about Japanese intentions in the area, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration began diplomatic efforts backed by economic sanctions to convince Japan to change its policy. The United States also strengthened its military position in the Pacific, particularly by moving the Pacific fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. By mid-1941, as negotiations stalled, the United States placed an embargo on shipments of oil, forcing the Japanese to either accept American terms or to invade the oil-rich Dutch East Indies (Indonesia) and risk war. In Japan, preparations were already underway to improve the chance of success for the second option by coupling it with preemptive strikes against American military installations, particularly the Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor.

By late autumn, American military intelligence reports indicated that Japanese military action was imminent. Intercepts of Japanese diplomatic communications provided partial verification of this, although no specific targets were mentioned. In mid-November, a message from Tokyo to the diplomats in Washington warned that if no resolution to the situation could be found by November 29, “things are automatically going to happen.”

In this climate of uncertainty, American military commanders took precautions that seemed appropriate at the time, placing forces on alert, holding practice drills, and in the case of the Navy, sending tactical aircraft to the outpost islands of Wake and Midway during the first week of December. This meant dispatching the aircraft carriers Enterprise and Lexington because there were no other means of transporting operational short-range planes over the long distances of the Pacific. In order to allow for faster delivery of the planes, the ponderous battleships remained behind while the faster cruisers and destroyers escorted the carriers. On Sunday morning, December 7, all eight of the battleships assigned to the Pacific fleet, the pride and backbone of the Navy according to the military philosophy of the time, were in Pearl Harbor.


Fire damage from the Pearl Harbor attack. U.S. Navy

Fire damage from the Pearl Harbor attack. U.S. Navy

For the Japanese, the Hawaiian island of Oahu was a target-rich location. Aside from the naval base, the United States Army had numerous installations, including several airfields, all of which would have to be dealt with simultaneously. The Army fighters were expected to be the primary aerial defense of the island and the most obvious threat to the attacking aircraft. The long-range bombers posed an immediate threat to the attacking naval task force, and in the long term also could be deployed farther west to counter other Japanese advances if they survived the attack. In order to deal with this wide variety of targets, the Japanese strike force consisted of fighter planes, dive bombers, torpedo planes carrying either torpedoes or bombs, and five midget submarines each with two torpedoes.

Unlike the other battleships that were moored at “Battleship Row” along the south side of Ford Island in the middle of the harbor, the USS Pennsylvania was in dry dock for maintenance on its propulsion system. The ship was dependent on the maintenance yard for electrical power, and in this recessed location, only the machine guns in the foremast were manned at the start of the attack. In his report of action, Capt. Charles M. Cooke noted that no orders of alert were received prior to the explosions resulting from the attack of the first wave of Japanese planes shortly before 8 a.m. Cooke ordered the crew to their air defense stations, and rather than wait for the keys to the ammunition storage, the men simply broke the locks. The crew was in action a few minutes later and reported that their ship was the first to return fire.

For the Pennsylvania’s antiaircraft gunners, the dry dock was a source of both protection and frustration. Strafing fighter planes and dive bombers had little success in hitting the ship, but in turn, many of the ship’s gunners had a very limited field of fire for defense. An unusual form of cooperative air defense developed between the gunners and George Walters, the civilian operator of the large crane that traveled on rails alongside the dock. Walters would roll the crane and turn the boom into the path of low-level attackers, giving the pilots an unexpected and mobile obstacle to contend with. At first, the gunners saw the crane as a hindrance, but they eventually figured out that its movement was an indication of the direction of an attacking plane.

Only the larger antiaircraft artillery provided any defense against the high-altitude torpedo planes that had been converted to bombers, most flying in five-plane V formations at or above 10,000 feet. It was a direct hit from one of these planes that ignited the forward magazine of the Pennsylvania’s sister ship USS Arizona, resulting in a tremendous explosion that sank it in a matter of minutes. Shortly after 9 a.m. Pennsylvania was hit on the starboard side by a bomb from one of these attacks that killed the crew of 5-inch gun number 9 and destroyed some of the adjoining galley. Also hit was the USS Downes, one of two destroyers in the dry dock in front of the Pennsylvania. A third bomb from this formation hit the dock and cut the power to the Pennsylvania, forcing the ship to rely on emergency batteries until one of the boilers had sufficient steam pressure to run the generators.

Shortly after this attack, the valves were opened to begin flooding the dry dock. This was done as a precaution against a bomb or torpedo strike blasting open the caisson doors and causing a surge of water to raise and carry the Pennsylvania forward into the destroyers Cassin and Downes. Both destroyers were burning at this point, and the explosion of a warhead sent a torpedo tube from the Downes crashing onto the forecastle of the Pennsylvania. The attacks subsided as the Japanese planes returned to their carriers. For the crew of the Pennsylvania, the rest of the day was spent first extinguishing the fires associated with the burning destroyers in the dry dock and then replenishing ammunition supplies and repairing damage. Casualties among the crew were 24 killed and 29 wounded.


Pennsylvania bombards Leyte in the Philippines on October 20, 1944. U.S. Navy

World War II and After

The Pennsylvania sustained only light damage during the Pearl Harbor attack, and after repairs in San Francisco it was flagship for patrols along the West Coast for the remainder of 1942. Returning to San Francisco in early 1943, the ship underwent another major overhaul. The early battles of the Pacific war – Pearl Harbor, Coral Sea and Midway – had demonstrated that the planes from aircraft carriers would be the primary offensive striking force in this conflict. Clearly, battleships could survive in this environment only if they mounted heavy antiaircraft defenses. Pennsylvania left the West Coast in April 1943, bristling with new antiaircraft guns and ready for a new mission as the nemesis of the enemy’s land rather than naval forces.

After the initial numerical superiority of the Japanese navy was reduced at the Battle of Midway, American forces began moving across the Pacific, invading strategic islands in a process known as “island hopping.” Before the soldiers or marines would land on the beach, enemy installations would be obliterated with a naval bombardment. The massive guns of battleships were particularly effective at removing fortified gun emplacements and cratering airfields. After the landings began, the ships continued in the role of fire support using their heavy artillery against targets that may have been missed or not recognized during the initial bombardment. Pennsylvania performed this vital duty from the Aleutian Islands in mid-1943 through the Gilberts, Marshalls, Marianas, Carolines and Philippines in 1944 and into early 1945. By this time, the ship required extensive repair work and returned to San Francisco.


The torpedoed Pennsylvania's stern sits low in the water as the crew uses the gun barrels as pump hose conduits. U.S. Navy

The torpedoed Pennsylvania‘s stern sits low in the water as the crew uses the gun barrels as pump hose conduits. U.S. Navy

The 14-inch guns of the ship’s main battery had fired 6,714 shells during the fire support missions, and one of the operations was to replace the worn guns with others from naval inventories. The radar and fire control systems were upgraded as well. With the ship returned to fighting trim and the crew refreshed from 27 days of leave, Pennsylvania headed west to join the fleet at Okinawa. Along the way, it shelled the Japanese that remained on Wake Island, which had been sidestepped during the Central Pacific Campaign.

Pennsylvania arrived at Buckner Bay, the fleet anchorage at Okinawa, on the morning of August 12, 1945. Later that day, the ship was hit by a single torpedo dropped from a Japanese airplane. The torpedo blew a massive hole in the stern, killed 20 crewmen and injured another 10. With help from two salvage tugs, the crew improvised a pumping system that kept the ship afloat. Japan surrendered two days later, making Pennsylvania the last major ship damaged during the war.

After temporary repairs, Pennsylvania was slowly towed to Guam for further work in dry dock. The ship crossed the Pacific under its own power, using only the portside propellers, arriving in Bremerton, Washington, on October 24, 1945.

On November 3, the Pennsylvania was awarded a Navy Unit Commendation as the only battleship to take part in every combat amphibious operation during the period from May 4, 1943, to February 10, 1945.

Despite overhauls and modernizations over its nearly 30 years of service, Pennsylvania was now obsolete. Once the measure of national prestige, the battleships of the early 20th century would either be consigned to the scrapyard or used as test targets for the new object of national power, the atomic bomb. The Pennsylvania survived the two atomic tests of Operation Crossroads but retained too much radiation to be scrapped. The ship was scuttled near Kwajalein on February 10, 1948.


The Pennsylvania undergoing repairs in a floating dry dock, c. 1944-45. U.S. Navy

The Pennsylvania undergoing repairs in a floating dry dock, c. 1944-45. U.S. Navy


This article underscores Pennsylvania at War, a multiyear initiative of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War I and the 75th anniversary of World War II. As part of this program, the exhibition Pennsylvania at War: The Saga of the USS Pennsylvania will open on December 4, 2016, at The State Museum of Pennsylvania, featuring documents, photographs and artifacts, including pieces from the ship’s silver service. PHMC also honors the legacy of the state’s namesake battleship and the heroism of its crew at the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg, Centre County, where two of the 14-inch guns that were on board the Pennsylvania during the Pearl Harbor attack are mounted outside (see “The Pennsy Guns at the Pennsylvania Military Museum“).


Robert D. Hill joined PHMC in 1998 as a curator in the Military and Industrial History section of The State Museum of Pennsylvania.