Launched in 1919, USS California (BB-44) was a mighty vessel, the flagship of the US Pacific fleet – an honor she held for 20 years from 1921 until 1941.
The California was a Tennessee-class battleship, and like her classmate—which was also stationed at Pearl Harbor—she was capable of 21 knots and was armed with 12 14-inch guns.
The USS California was younger than the Arizona (BB-39), built in 1917, but not the youngest battleship at Pearl Harbor, which was the USS West Virginia (BB-48), launched in 1921. Along with these ships, the California deployed to Hawaii with the rest of the Pacific Fleet in 1940.
USS California During the Attack
On the morning of December 7th, 1941, the USS California was moored at the southernmost end of Ford Island’s Battleship Row. This was an exposed position, and adding to the danger, she was preparing for an inspection the next day, leaving her watertight integrity compromised.
Shortly after the first bombs fell at 0755, general quarters was sounded. The men immediately began closing hatches and bulkhead doors. The attack was happening so quickly that they were unable to get all hatches and doors closed before the first torpedo hit.
California didn’t have a ship moored next to her; therefore, like the Nevada, she retained the ability to fire back at the attacking force. Her machine guns began firing on the torpedo bombers at 0803.
At 0805, the first torpedo hit the California. The second came moments later. Although her crew initiated counter-flooding to prevent a capsize, a gaping hole in the ship caused her to start listing heavily to port. Soon, the compartment where the ammunition was stored was flooded and could not be accessed.
The California briefly lost power when saltwater rushing in the gaping holes got into the fuel tank. However, power was restored in time to fight fires that had broken out on board. Her crew was briefly ordered to abandon ship because the fires were becoming overpowering, but the order was rescinded as the fires were brought under control.
A number of explosives fell near the ship, causing little damage, but a 551-lb bomb landed on her starboard deck, killing 50 men. In total, 102 died aboard the USS California, and 62 more were wounded.
After the Attack
After the explosion, the California settled into the mud off Ford Island. In March of 1942, she was re-floated and dry-docked for preliminary repairs. By June, she was able to cross the Pacific to the larger Puget Sound Navy Yard on her own power.
In January of 1944, repairs were complete and the California was ready for battle again. By May of that year, she was fighting in the Marianas.
On March 1, 1959, the USS California was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register, and later that year, the once-mighty battleship was sold for scrap.