The “Old” Battleship

Falling through the univer4se at the speed of life

By David Glenn Cox

My father-in-law George Ostrander would never take his wife on a ocean cruise. You see, he had been on a cruise before and didn’t care for it much. Lots of fresh air and sunshine. Good food meet people and go to exotic destinations. Only his cruise ship was the gray kind where you couldn’t get off, and people were always shooting at you, and everyone had to dress alike. His cruise ship was the USS Tennessee, the BB-43. She was what America called one of the “Old Battleships” during WW Two. It was a name hung on dreadnoughts laid down during and after WW-One. I don’t think the term was originally meant to be derogatory, only descriptive.

She was laid down in 1918 and took two years to complete by which time there wasn’t much business around for a battleship. She was moored inside of the West Virginia and ahead of the USS Arizona. On December 7th. She was struck by two bombs, one hitting a forward 14” gun turret. The shrapnel from this explosion killed the Captain of the West Virginia standing on the bridge next-door. We are talking about what seemed like a large explosion until the explosion on the USS Arizona dwarfed BB-43.  Debris and fuel rained down setting her stern on fire. Amid the fire and smoke the panic and pandemonium the crew of the Tennessee stayed at their battle stations and shot down five Japanese aircraft.

Her next destination was Puget Sound for repairs. Anti-aircraft guns were added, and her superstructure was modified for the latest radar system along with a state-of-the-art fire control radar. New barrels on all her big guns. So, while the press referred to her as one of the “old battleships” the Navy thought more definitively about her. The BB-43 would have been involved in the Guadalcanal campaign only she was a fuel hog and the Navy only had seven fleet oilers at the time. She was sent to the Aleutians chasing the Japanese and getting wartime experience without anyone shooting back, but they did not know they wouldn’t shoot back.

Back to San Francisco for supplies, food for 2,000 men and 1,800-pound shells. Days of hard labor filling this huge vessel with all she needed to go to war. November 20-23, 1943, the Battle of Tarawa as BB-43 shells the Island she also participates in sinking the submarine I-35. Back to California for more modifications and then it is off for the Marshall Islands Campaign. She blows up an ammunition dump on Namur and is firing star shells into the night. She comes so close to the shore her 40 MM anti-aircraft guns are firing on the beach.

Then to the Bismark Sea near Rabaul, where she shelled a Japanese navy base until it was obliterated. Then Saipan and then Guam. Its starting to get interesting. On Tinian, she came under fire by artillery hidden in caves, scoring three hits. One knocked out a twin 5” battery another struck her hull. The third tore a hole in her deck killing eight men and wounding twenty-six. She stayed at her battle station until it was safe to withdraw. She participated in the last battleship to battleship action and is credited with taking an active part in the largest naval battle in world history.

At Leyte Gulf, the Japanese hoped to destroy our invasion force and win a negotiated peace. She sent three fleets through the waters of the Philippines. The BB-43 was doing her job pounding the shores making way for the invasion. The word was sent that the Japanese would try to navigate the Surigao Straight with two battleships, one heavy cruiser and four destroyers. At three AM observers report gun flashes by two minutes later, they can hear them.  At eighteen miles the Tennessee opens fire hitting the Japanese battleship Yamashiro twice. At the same time BB-43 is sending firing coordinates to other battleships without her fire control radar.

She was sent to Puget Sound for more upgrades and yet the latest radar system. She was a twenty-year-old battleship with a lot of new parts.

Originally, she had been painted a dazzle scheme to confuse submarines, but it had the opposite effect on the Kamikaze pilots at Iwo Jima, making her an obvious target. The Tennessee was firing directly on Mount Suribachi. And when the Marines hoisted the flag on Suribachi the Tennessee could see it and played as much a part in the victory as any Marine holding that flag. Imagine, being close enough to watch that flag go up. Like being at Gettysburg or Valley Forge, a front row participant in world history. The cave system on Iwo Jima had made life hell for the Marines. The direct fire of the Tennessee’s 14” guns made life hell for the Japanese coming to within three thousand yards of shore. The BB-43 took incoming fire killing one sailor and wounding four others.

From there to Ulithi to resupply and head for Okinawa. The Tennessee had an “A” ticket for this war and didn’t miss much of it. The BB-43 had fired 1,370 rounds of main battery fire and 6,300 rounds of 5” shells at Iwo Jima. Imagine that booming sound for days on end. Every time one of those big guns went off every sailor on the ship, felt it. Day in, day out without a clock or the number of hours counted. And just think, you get to do this forever or until they give up or they kill you.  

So, after Iwo Jima, how much worse could it get? On her second day off Okinawa, she was attacked by four Kamikaze planes. The first plane shot down at 5,000 yards. Two minutes later another shot down at 5,500 hundred yards. Then the third plane and a fourth plane. If it sounds boring, it went on like this for thirty days. She was attacked again on April 1st and 3rd and on the 6th she fought off six Kamikaze aircraft. On April 12, 1944, four planes dive on BB-43 and three are shot down less than a thousand yards off. The fourth flying low is spotted 2,500 yards away. She gets through striking the signal bridge and then skidding down the side of the ship. Taking out a line of anti-aircraft guns before the 250-pound bomb she carries explodes killing 22 and wounding 107. The dead were buried at sea the rest transferred to hospital ships, but the BB-43 stayed on her post and was still ready to fight. Holding her position in the line for another two weeks.

And there is more and more, she shot down 16 aircraft and participated in sinking eight enemy ships including a battleship. She was everywhere, she hardly missed a campaign. She had ten battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation. Calling her an old battleship is like calling Audie Murphy just another soldier. She began the first day of World War Two fighting in Pearl Harbor and spent the last day of the war in Tokyo Bay. My father-in-law George Ostrander would never take his wife on a ocean cruise.

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