USS Pennsylvania Historian James A. Kehl Recounts the Exploits of a World War II Battleship and Its Predecessors

By Kehl, James A | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), April 27, 2014 | Go to article overview

USS Pennsylvania Historian James A. Kehl Recounts the Exploits of a World War II Battleship and Its Predecessors


Kehl, James A, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


Seventy-one years ago this week, the USS Pennsylvania began a record-setting blitz of engagements in the Pacific Theater of World War II. The battleship, initially damaged at Pearl Harbor, was hit a final time off Okinawa as it finished its service at war's end. I'm interested in the Pennsylvania's history because I was on a nearby ship during the final attack and played a minor role in efforts to protect it from Japanese aircraft.

In all, four naval ships have borne the name Pennsylvania. The first was authorized by Congress in 1816, but financial constraints delayed the launch for years. In 1841, an excited 100,000 spectators stood on the banks of the Delaware River and applauded as the largest American sailing warship ever built slid into the water.

It never sailed on a major cruise and served primarily as a training ship at Norfolk, Virginia, until 1861, when the Civil War put an abrupt end to it. When Virginia seceded from the Union, the Pennsylvania suddenly was federal property in enemy territory. Navy Secretary Gideon Welles ordered U.S. ships and other property along the Confederate coastline to be destroyed or scuttled.

The 120 cannons aboard the Pennsylvania assumed a valuable life of their own. If dismantled and converted to artillery pieces, they could become formidable weapons. Thus, the Pennsylvania was ordered to be burned to the waterline.

To replace ships lost through this scorched-earth policy on the sea, the Navy hurriedly purchased, modified and built others. The frigate Kewaydin was among those purchased and commissioned by the Navy in 1861 for wartime service. It was renamed the Pennsylvania in 1869, then "broken up" -- and sold for scrap -- in 1884.

At the turn of the 20th century, Congress authorized six capital ships to be known as the "Pennsylvania Class." Construction on the first, an armored cruiser, began in March 1901. Two years later, it was christened the Pennsylvania.

In January 1911, the Pennsylvania was the scene of aviation and naval history. Glenn Curtiss of the fledgling Curtiss Aeroplane Co. was convinced that an airplane could land on a ship.

His pilot, Eugene Ely, already had achieved the takeoff feat from the USS Birmingham. Curtiss persuaded naval authorities to attempt a shipboard landing. San Francisco Bay was the chosen location for that trial, and the Pennsylvania was the landing target.

Preparations for the experiment were minimal. A 133-foot wooden runway was constructed on the ship's stern. As a safeguard, hooks were hung from the plane's axle to snag ropes that were strung across the improvised runway and held in place by sandbags. The hooks, ropes and sandbags were to slow the plane once it reached the deck and before it collided with the steel mast.

That set the stage for the historic Jan. 18, 1911, flight from an airfield 14 miles away to the deck of the cruiser. Ely successfully maneuvered his 1,000-pound, wood-and-fabric biplane onto his target, with 15 feet to spare at the end of the runway.

The landing of a so-called "box kite with an engine" on a ship was perceived not as an experiment but as a publicity stunt. The significance of this milestone was not apparent until aircraft carriers became a reality years later.

In 1912, the ship's name was changed to the USS Pittsburgh in order to free "Pennsylvania" for assignment to a newly authorized dreadnought (BB-38). Commissioned June 12, 1916, this Pennsylvania had a quiet beginning but an illustrious career.

Known as the "Pennsy" and "Mighty Penn," it was named the flagship of the Atlantic Fleet. But it was too modern for World War I because the Navy had no tankers capable of transporting enough fuel to Europe to replenish its oil burners. This problem was compounded by the absence of European oil depots. Thus, the "Pennsy" spent the war in U.S. Atlantic ports.

After WWI, the Pennsylvania moved through the Panama Canal to become the flagship of the Pacific Fleet, commanded by Adm. …

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