The fifth California (BB-44) was launched 20 November 1919 by Mare Island Navy Yard; sponsored by Mrs. R. T. Zane; and commissioned 10 August 1921, Captain H. J. Ziegemeier in command; and reported to the Pacific Fleet as flagship.
For 20 years from 1921 until 1941, California served first as flagship of the Pacific Fleet, then as flagship of the Battle Fleet (Battle Force), U.S. Fleet. Her annual activities included joint Army-Navy exercises, tactical and organizational development problems, and fleet concentrations for various purposes. Intensive training and superior performance won her the Battle Efficiency Pennant for 1921-22, and the Gunnery "E" for 1925-26.
In the summer of 1925 California led the Battle Fleet and a division of cruisers from the Scouting Fleet on a very successful goodwill cruise to Australia and New Zealand. She took part in the Presidential reviews of 1927, 1930, and 1934. She was modernized in late 1929 and early 1930 and equipped with an improved antiaircraft battery.
In 1940 California switched her base to Pearl Harbor.
At approximately 0755 hours on the morning of 7 December 1941, a fleet of Japanese aircraft carriers launched an air strike against the U.S. Pacific Fleet based at Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu, Territory of Hawaii (see Figure 1). The surprise attack inflicted serious damage on the ships anchored at “Battleship Row” and thrust the United States into World War II. On Sunday morning, December 7, the battleship USS California (BB44) occupied berth F-3, somewhat removed and isolated from the other capital ships moored at “Battleship Row” off Ford Island.
In the first attack by enemy planes, two torpedoes struck the port side of the California and caused damage that was later judged as “far-reaching and disastrous.” Underwater protection against such attacks failed and water poured into the lower compartments of the battleship causing an immediate list to port. The crew of the California promptly reported to their battle stations and opened fire with 50-caliber machine guns and 5- inch anti-aircraft guns. The topside gunners, however, soon encountered an acute shortage of ammunition as the hoists that carried shells from below deck were without power after the first explosions.
Officers ordered counterflooding to combat the list, but at 0845 hours, California was attacked by a second wave of Japanese planes. Several bombs landed near the ship and buckled underwater compartments, causing additional flooding. One bomb penetrated the main deck amidships and exploded inside the battleship, starting a fire that burned out of control due to a loss of water pressure anda lack of fire extinguishers. The crew were forced to abandon California when burning oil from “Battleship Row” threatened to further engulf the ship, but they retrieved firefighting equipment from Ford Island and returned to save the ship, now listing to 8 degrees. The USS California eventually settled in shallow water. Initial casualty figures from the attack on Pearl Harbor included 5 officers and 48 enlisted men killed. 45 crewmen were missing.
The recovery and burial of the dead— some tentatively identified and many that remained unidentified—began almost immediately. Within days of the attack, naval personnel had interred 51 sets of remains associated with California in one of two cemeteries on the island of Oahu: Nu'uanu Cemetery, a municipal cemetery with a section for deceased Sailors, and Halawa Naval Cemetery, which was hastily established in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack. A second spate of recoveries and burials took place in March 1942 during the mammoth effort to refloat and salvage the ship. As workers pumped water and fuel from the second and third decks, they encountered a numbered of bodies. According to the officer in charge of salvage operations at Pearl Harbor, recovered bodies were floated and secured in bags when the decks of sunken ships were pumped free of water. The remains were then transported to the Naval Hospital at Aiea for correct identification and burial.
On 25 March 1942 California was refloated and dry-docked at Pearl Harbor for repairs. On 7 June she departed under her own power for Puget Sound Navy Yard where a major reconstruction job was accomplished, including improved protection, stability, AA battery, and fire control system.
California departed Bremerton 31 January 1944 for shakedown at San Pedro, and sailed from San Francisco 5 May for the invasion of the Marianas. Off Saipan in June, she conducted effective shore bombardment and call fire missions. On 14 June she was hit by a shell from an enemy shore battery which killed one man and wounded nine. Following Saipan, her heavy guns helped blast the way for our assault force in the Guam and Tinian operations (18 July-9 August). On 24 August she arrived at Espiritu Santo for repairs to her port bow damaged in a collision with USS Tennessee (BB-43).
On 17 September 1944 California sailed to Manus to ready for the invasion of the Philippines. From 17 October to 20 November she played a key role in the Leyte operation, including the destruction of the Japanese fleet in the Battle of Surigao Strait (25 October). On 1 January 1945 she departed the Palaus for the Luzon landings. Her powerful batteries were an important factor in the success of these dangerous operations driven home into the heart of enemy-held territory under heavy air attack. On 6 January while providing shore bombardment at Lingayen Gulf she was hit by a kamikaze plane; 44 of her crew were killed and 155 were wounded. Undeterred she made temporary repairs on the spot and remained carrying out her critical mission of shore bombardment until the job was done. She departed 23 January for Puget Sound Navy Yard, arriving 15 February, for permanent repairs.
California returned to action at Okinawa 15 June 1945 and remained in that embattled area until 21 July. Two days later she joined TF 95 to cover the East China Sea minesweeping operations. After a short voyage to San Pedro Bay, P.I., in August, the ship departed Okinawa 20 September to cover the landing of the 6th Army occupation force at Wakanoura Wan, Honshu. She remained supporting the occupation until 15 October, then sailed via Singapore, Colombo, and Capetown, to Philadelphia, arriving 7 December. She was placed in commission in reserve there 7 August 1946; out of commission in reserve 14 February 1947; and sold 10 July 1959.
California received seven battle stars for World War II service.
After World War II ended, the War Department assigned the American Graves Registration Service (AGRS), U.S. Army Quartermaster Corps, the responsibility of recovering and identifying the remains of deceased U.S. personnel in the Pacific Theater. In August and September of 1947, AGRS personnel exhumed the remains from the Halawa and Nu'uanu cemeteries and transferred them to the Schofield Barracks Central Identification Laboratory (CIL), also located on Oahu. The laboratory staff worked to confirm the identities of those buried with name associations and to make additional identifications from those who had been initially interred as unknowns. This involved separating commingled remains into specific individuals. Ultimately, officials approved the identifications of 82 crewmen from USS California, and classified the remains of 20 Sailors as “non-recoverable.”
After analyzing and processing the remains of the California casualties, officials failed to make positive identifications on 25 sets of remains potentially associated with the battleship. Several factors may be responsible for the discrepancy between the number of missing crewmen and the number of unknowns. Laboratory officials may not have segregated the unknowns correctly or the remains of a single individual may have been divided into two or more unknowns when army personnel casketed the 25 unknowns and interred them in individual graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP), in March 1949.
In 2015, the Deputy Secretary of Defense issued a policy memorandum directing the disinterment of unknowns associated with the USS Oklahoma. This memorandum established standards to be met in pursuit of other disinterment efforts for unknowns from World War II and the Korean War who are currently buried in our national memorial cemeteries, including the unknowns associated with the USS California. The memorandum established that all available medical and historical records and DNA reference samples must be collected for a disinterment to be approved. It also imposed a threshold for cases of commingled remains, for which research must indicate that at least 60 percent of the Service members associated with the group can be individually identified.
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