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USS California – The Prune Barge

The USS California (BB-44) was a Tennessee-class battleship launched in 1919 and served as a vital asset for the U.S. Navy during its active years.

During the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, she was damaged by torpedoes and bombs, leading to her sinking in the shallow waters, but she was later raised, repaired, and modernized.

After providing significant service during World War II, including operations in the Pacific theater, the USS California was decommissioned in 1947 and ultimately scrapped in 1959.

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Construction

The USS California (BB-44) was built at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California. Her keel was laid down on October 25, 1916.

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As a member of the Tennessee-class battleships, she boasted impressive specifications that underscored her role as a formidable force on the seas. She had a standard displacement of around 32,300 tons, and when fully loaded, it increased to approximately 33,190 tons.

Stretching 624 feet in overall length with a beam of 97.3 feet, the California offered a vast deck and structure. Propelled by a turbo-electric drive system, she could achieve speeds up to 21 knots.

Her main armament comprised twelve 14-inch/50 caliber guns, arranged in four triple turrets, offering a powerful broadside.

Launching ceremony for the USS California in 1919.
Launching ceremony for the USS California in 1919.

In addition to her primary weaponry, she was equipped with fourteen 5-inch/51 caliber guns for secondary defense and anti-aircraft protection. With her “all or nothing” armor scheme, her belt armor was up to 13.5 inches thick, ensuring her vital areas were well-protected against enemy fire.

Interwar Period

Upon her commissioning in 1921, the USS California was lauded as one of the most advanced battleships in the U.S. Navy. During the 1920s and 1930s, she played prominent roles in training exercises, fleet problems, and goodwill tours.

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These fleet problems were large-scale naval exercises that were used to test tactics, strategy, and coordination among different parts of the fleet.

By the end of the 1930s, as international tensions began to rise, the California underwent a series of modernizations to ensure her competitiveness on the global stage. Upgrades were made to her armor, anti-aircraft defense, and underwater protection.

Pearl Harbor

On the morning of December 7, 1941, a date which would “live in infamy” as described by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the USS California lay anchored at Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor. The serene waters of this Hawaiian naval base belied the cataclysmic events that were about to unfold.

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As dawn broke, the crew of the USS California, like many others across the harbor, were settling into their routines, unaware of the impending aerial assault. The Japanese had planned a surprise attack, aiming to cripple the Pacific Fleet and buy themselves the strategic advantage in the Pacific theater.

At approximately 7:55 AM, the first wave of Japanese planes swooped down on Pearl Harbor. Their primary targets were the battleships, the heart of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The USS California, being a significant naval asset, was among the primary targets.

Torpedo bombers launched their deadly payloads at Battleship Row, with the California taking two torpedo hits to her port side. These impacts tore gaping holes in her hull, allowing seawater to flood her compartments.

As the ship’s alarms blared and anti-aircraft guns roared into action, the crew raced against time. Despite their valiant efforts to counter-flood and stabilize the ship, the damage was too extensive. The California began to list, and as waters of the harbor rushed in, she slowly settled into the mud at the harbor’s bottom.

The sunken remains of USS California after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The sunken remains of USS California after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The USS California had sustained significant damage, and, more tragically, nearly 100 of her crew lost their lives that day.

USS California In World War II

The initial recovery phase was nothing short of monumental. By March 1942, salvage crews managed to raise the California from her watery grave. Flooded compartments were drained, and temporary patches were placed over the torpedo damage to make her seaworthy enough for the voyage to the U.S. mainland.

The ship then limped to the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington, where she would undergo comprehensive repairs and upgrades.

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At Puget Sound, the USS California underwent a radical transformation. The shipyard workers not only repaired the extensive damage inflicted during the Pearl Harbor attack but also modernized the battleship to meet the changing demands of naval warfare.

Her superstructure was redesigned to improve her anti-aircraft field of fire, while advanced radar systems were installed to enhance her combat capabilities. The upgrade also saw her anti-aircraft weaponry significantly bolstered, preparing her for the aerial threats she would encounter in the Pacific theater.

USS California underway in 1944, donning a camouflage paint job.
USS California underway in 1944, donning a camouflage paint job.

By January 1944, with the scars of Pearl Harbor healed and her capabilities vastly improved, the USS California steamed back into the Pacific War. Her entry was timely, as the Pacific theater was heating up with some of the most intense and decisive battles of World War II on the horizon.

Throughout 1944 and 1945, the California was actively engaged in amphibious campaigns. She provided invaluable naval gunfire support during the invasions of the Marianas Islands, especially Saipan and Tinian, raining heavy artillery on enemy fortifications and troop concentrations.

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Arguably, one of her most defining moments was during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, particularly in the Surigao Strait. Here, she participated in a historic naval engagement, as part of a larger force that decimated a segment of the Japanese fleet in what would be one of the last battleship-versus-battleship actions in history.

The California’s contribution continued, supporting landings at Lingayen Gulf in the Philippines, and subsequently, in the fierce battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa. In these operations, she faced kamikaze threats, enduring multiple suicide plane attacks but emerging with relatively minimal damage.

USS California After The War

Immediately after the war, the USS California participated in Operation Magic Carpet, the massive naval operation that aimed to bring home the hundreds of thousands of American troops stationed overseas. The ship, once an emblem of America’s combative might, now undertook the more serene, yet equally vital, mission of repatriating U.S. servicemen from the Pacific.

It was a poignant task, symbolic of the shift from active warfare to healing and reconstruction.

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After her role in Operation Magic Carpet, the USS California was no longer on the front lines of naval operations. The world was changing, and so was the nature of naval warfare. The emphasis was now on nuclear deterrence, with the submarine and aircraft carrier fleets taking center stage.

In 1947, reflecting this shift in priorities and the redundancy of many older vessels, the USS California was placed into the U.S. Pacific Reserve Fleet, essentially a ‘mothball fleet,’ where ships were kept in reserve, maintained in a state that would allow them to be reactivated if needed.

A view of the ships stern in 1924.
A view of the ships stern in 1924.

Anchored in Puget Sound, she entered a prolonged period of inactivity.

The 1950s witnessed the gradual retirement and scrapping of many World War II-era battleships. The age of battleships as the queens of the sea was waning, with aircraft carriers emerging as the principal assets of naval power projection. For the USS California, this meant an inevitable end to her storied career.

She was officially decommissioned on February 14, 1947, signaling the end of her active service.

However, it wasn’t until over a decade later, in 1959, that the decision was made to sell the once-majestic battleship for scrap. She was subsequently sold to the Bethlehem Steel Company and was broken up in 1960.