The Seven Seas (WHTM) – The U.S. Navy has a lot of ships, most of which have names. Ships get named after people (John Paul Jones), battles (Ticonderoga), cities (Pittsburgh), ships from history (Essex, Enterprise), military jobs (Sentry), fish (Seawolf), concepts (Freedom), and even important documents (Constitution).
The most important warships are named after states.
So, how many ships has the Navy named after Pennsylvania? The answer is four, each at the apex of naval armed might for their time. These four ships trace the evolution of sea power, from “wooden ships and iron men” to “war under the ocean.”
U.S.S. Pennsylvania Ship of the Line (1837-1861)
The term battleship derives from the behemoths of the age of fighting sail, the “line of battle” ship. The line of battle was the standard naval tactic from the 1500s into the 20th century. Two columns of ships would line up opposite each other, firing every cannon on one side of each ship (a broadside). The more cannons a ship could carry, the bigger the broadside, and the U.S.S. Pennsylvania was the largest sailing warship the Navy ever constructed.
Launched from the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1837, she weighed 3,105 tons, was 210′ long, and had a maximum beam (width) of 56′,9″. She carried a crew of 1,100 and was armed with 6 8-inch shell guns and 104 32-pounders on four gun decks, making her a match for the largest ships-of-the-line built in Europe.
But her great size proved to be her undoing. She was just too expensive for the young nation to operate. Her career was, to put it politely, less than distinguished. Pennsylvania’s only voyage was from Philadelphia to Norfolk, Virginia, where her crew was transferred to another ship. The Pennsylvania was laid up in ordinary, or as we would put it today, mothballed. She would become a receiving ship, housing new recruits before they received their assignments. She was still stuck in Norfolk when the Civil War broke out, and on April 20, 1861, she was burned to the waterline to keep her from being captured by Confederates.
U.S.S. Pennsylvania Cruiser ACR-4 ( 1905 – 1931)
Commissioned in 1905, the second U.S.S. Pennsylvania was a far cry from the line of battle ship of the previous century. Wooden ships and broadsides were a thing of the past; The new cruiser was built of metal, displaced 13, 400 tons, with a length of 503’11” and a beam of 69’7″. She was capable of making 22 knots, carried a crew of 829, and was armed with 4 8-inch guns, 14 6-inch guns, 18 3-inch guns, and 2 18-inch torpedo tubes.
But the Cruiser Pennsylvania’s greatest claim to fame did not come in war. On January 18, 1911, Pilot Eugene Burton Ely touched down on a temporary runway erected on the stern of the Pennsylvania, becoming the first person to land an airplane on a ship.
The Pennsylvania would continue to serve until 1931 – but not as the Pennsylvania. In 1912 she was renamed the U.S.S. Pittsburgh, to free up the name for a new battleship.
U.S.S. Pennsylvania, BB-38 (1916-1946)
Battleship Pennsylvania, commissioned in 1916, displaced 31,400 tons, measured 608′ long, had a beam of 97’1″, and carried a crew of 915. She carried 12 14-inch guns, 14 5-inch guns, 4 3-inch guns , 4 3-pounders, and 2 21-inch torpedo tubes. She saw little action during World War I, but more than made up for it in World War 2. She spent the years between the wars patrolling, engaging in fleet exercises, and shifting from the Atlantic to the Pacific several times through the Panama Canal.
December of 1941 found Pennsylvania in drydock – at Pearl Harbor. When the Japanese attacked on December 7, the drydock protected the ship from torpedos, but she was struck by a bomb which killed some crew members. Despite the damage, the ship was able to leave Pearl and sail to San Francisco on the 20th for major repairs. She served in multiple campaigns in the Pacific, and on August 12, 1945, had the dubious honor of being the last major U.S. warship damaged in the war, when she was hit in the stern by a Japanese torpedo. Pennsylvania received eight battle stars for her World War II service.
Her last mission was as a target. Pennsylvania was anchored at Bikini Atoll in 1946 for Operation Crossroads, as one of the 84 targets for atomic bomb tests. She survived two explosions but became so radioactive that she was decommissioned in 1946, and finally scuttled in 1948.
Two of the Pennsylvania’s 14-inch guns are on permanent display at the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg. To learn more about the museum, click here.
U.S.S. Pennsylvania SSBN-735
The latest ship to bear the name of the Keystone State, the Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine U.S.S. Pennsylvania was commissioned on September 9, 1989. SSBN denotes Ship, Submersible, Ballistic missile, Nuclear powered. Nicknamed “Boomers”, they carry as many as 24 Trident II D-5 nuclear ballistic missiles. At 560 feet long and 42 feet wide, they are the largest submarines in the U.S. Navy’s inventory.
The latest Pennsylvania is still in service today.