The USS Tennessee at Pearl Harbor

by Kenneth Fieth, Metropolitan Nashville Archivist (includes primary source transcription by the author).

“There were so many of them flying together that they looked like one. They came through the valley very close to the ground and I could clearly see the rising sun on the end of each wing. Not a few minutes later, the rumbling sounds of multiple explosions rolled through the pineapple field.” The missionary’s son whose jet-black hair is now gray waved his hand in a dive as he recalled the first time he ever saw a Japanese warplane . . . on Sunday morning, December 7th, 1941.

The men of the USS Tennessee, moored on Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor, had a far more harrowing experience. The following excerpt is from the official after-action report filed by the Commanding Officer of the Tennessee on December 11, 1941.

The USS Nashville (CL-43) in 1943 (U.S. Navy photo)

“On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the USS Tennessee was moored starboard side to quay Fox 6 [in Naval terms, that is a berth for the ship lettered as “F 6”] with two hausers and seven manila lines. The USS Virginia was moored alongside to port. Boiler #1 was steaming for auxilliary purposes . . .. This ship was the flagship of Commander Battleship Division Two . . .; the USS Arizona was moored about 75 yards ahead and astern of the Tennessee.

“At about 7:55, planes, observed to be Japanese by their markings, were seen dropping bombs on Ford Island. [Ford Island is in the center of Pearl Harbor and was used for mooring the ships of “Battleship Row”]. This ship [Tennessee] went to general quarters . . .. Immediately, after the bombing of Ford Island, planes began torpedoing and bombing the battleships and other ships in the Harbor. This ship opened fire with .50 caliber and 5″ caliber guns about five minutes after the attack.

“Orders for sortie were received [orders to get underway and steam out of the harbor] but later cancelled for battleships . . .. The Oklahoma listed over and in about 10 minutes capsized. The West Virginia listed heavily but was righted by counter-flooding. The Arizona received several large bomb hits, at least one of which apparently penetrated the magazines [ammunition storage areas]. There was a large explosion forward. [Other accounts of the destruction of the Arizona indicate that the ship, over 30,000 tons, was actually lifted out of the water by the force of the explosion.]

“The foremast fell forward and burning powder, oil, and debris was thrown on the quarterdeck of the Tennessee. The Arizona settled rapidly by the bow. The Nevada got underway but was struck by bombs and torpedoes and grounded in the channel. Large fires were raging around the Arizona and West Virginia. The Arizona was moored to quays about 75 feet astern of the Tennessee, and the West Virginia was moored to the Tennessee. The burning powder, oil, and debris from the Arizona explosion plus the intense heat from the fires started [fires] in the stern and port quarter of this ship.

“These fires and subsequent wetting caused considerable damage to the wardroom and officers quarters in this vicinity. The fires were brought under control about 1030. The captain returned aboard and resumed command about 1000. During the engagement the Tennessee received two bomb hits, one on turret III, and one on the catapult and penetrated the roof of the turret. The bomb broke into large pieces but did not explode. The explosive charge spilled into the turret and burned. Fragments of the bomb strongly indicate that it was a converted 15″ armor piercing shell and weighed about 1500 to 2000 pounds. The training gear and rammers were damaged. The range finder was completely wrecked. Several casualties occurred as a result of this hit . . .. The hit on turret II split the hoop on the center gun, rendering it inoperative. Fragments from this hit caused casualties on the machine gun stations. The active fighting was over by about 1000; although small numbers of planes were observed and fired at throughout the day, no more bombs or torpedoes were observed.

“When fires started in and around the West Virginia and Arizona this ship let out all fire hoses and fought fires in the former ships and the oil fires on the water that endangered this ship. This fire fighting continued throughout the day and night. About 1030 it was decided to try and move the ship away from the badly burning Arizona . . .; the West Virginia as a result of her torpedo hits, had wedged the Tennessee so close to the quays that she could not move.

“The engines were kept running at 5 to 10 knots all day and night in order that the screws would wash the burning oil away from the ship. When the fires started, magazines [ammunition storage areas] number 306, 310 and 312 were flooded . . ..

“The following ammunition was expended during the battle: 760 rounds of 5 inch caliber, 180 rounds of 3 inch caliber, and 4000 rounds of .50 caliber. [Caliber is a measurement of diameter of a projectile: 5 inch means 5 inches in diameter.]

“The ship had been fueled on December 3rd. Fuel on hand was 1,380,000 gallons, 94% of capacity . . .. The conduct of the officers and crew of the Tennessee was uniformly in accordance with the highest traditions of the Service. Not only did they fight the battle with calmness and deliberation but for the next 24 hours they fought oil fires on the Arizona and West Virginia . . .; the crew carried out their gunnery and damage control duties as if on drill.”

This is the official historical account of the actions of the USS Tennessee on that fateful day in 1941, sixty years ago this December. [This article was published in 2001] The USS Tennessee would go on to participate in the last battleship-to-battleship engagement the world would ever see in the Surigao Straight, helping to sink the Japanese Battleship Yamashiro and surviving Kamikaze attacks. Unfortunately, this Tennessee namesake was decommissioned in 1947 and sold as scrap in 1959. 

Memories of Cornelia Fort

A Reminiscence by Peggy Dickinson Fleming.

In the short lifespan of Cornelia Fort, this remarkable Nashvillian accomplished great things. She was a premier aviatrix and was privileged to play an important role in history. The first female flight instructor in Nashville, she was sent to Hawaii to teach military personnel to fly. On December 7, 1941, Fort was flying with a student pilot when their aircraft nearly collided with an invading Japanese plane. From the air she saw the smoke from the Pearl Harbor bombing.

In the fall of 1942 Cornelia Fort was selected as one of the first members of the Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Service (WAFs). She flew a number of missions in the service of her country before she was killed in March 1943 in a flying accident in Texas.

High school photograph of Cornelia Fort used with permission of the author.

I went to high school with Cornelia at Ward-Belmont in Nashville. She was an outstanding student, even then having the “look of eagles.” As I remember, Cornelia was responsible for the early downfall of my handwriting. Miss Major, our domineering Latin teacher, demanded rather long reports and test responses. Cornelia would sail through the reports and tests with her huge, looping handwriting, covering many pages with essays and answers. This greatly impressed Miss Major. I would be crawling along with my cramped version of handwriting, perhaps getting the job done, but not using up much test paper. Cornelia looked over my work with disgust and advised me to open up and stretch my efforts! This strategy produced the desired effect of creating large bunches of work, but, as you can imagine, it did nothing constructive for my handwriting. It is still rather illegible to this day.

Postcard photo of Ward-Belmont School from NHN collection.

Cornelia lived near Shelby Park in East Nashville. She was driven to and from school by a very amiable black employee by the name of Eperson. I loved being invited to accompany her, as we traveled in style in a large black town car.

Cornelia’s house was a lovely white antebellum home, set far from the road in a grove of walnut trees. Meals there were quite impressive, eaten under the watchful eye of Eperson, who saw to it that the young Forts minded their manners. You can imagine that I ate Very Carefully.

Cornelia had three older brothers who completely awed me. They were Rufus Fort Jr., Dudley, and Garth. Rufus and Dudley became well-known Nashville businessmen, while Garth followed in his father’s footsteps, becoming an MD. Garth married one of our neighbors here in Columbia, a woman with whom my husband Swope had grown up. Of course, this was many years after Cornelia’s tragic death.

I did not see Cornelia, or “Corns,” as I was wont to call her, after our graduation from high school; however, I have always valued the memories of our friendship.