War History of the USS California BB-44

Submitted by Robert G. Schaffran S1/C
U.S.S. California 7th Div.
FPO San Francisco, CA

When the Japs struck the battleship, USS California, with two torpedoes and left her severely damaged and lying in the mud of Pearl Harbor, that black Sunday in December 1941, little did they expect she would rise again to do a man-o-war's full job in final American history. That is exactly what she did, as revealed by the Navy recently.

Between 7 December, 1941 and 9:17pm on the night of 10 August 1945, when word reached the California at sea off Luzon that Tokyo was ready to quit, the 24-year old veteran piled up an impressive total of 90,000 miles of war-time cruising during which she participated in six amphibious operations against the nips, took a leading part in the major surface action of the war at Surigao Straits and covered extensive and hazardous minesweeping operations off China.

Many months of Navy Yard work at Pearl Harbor and Bremerton, Washington, together with several weeks of intensive shakedown and training off Long Beach, California, prepared her for the great day in May, 1944 when Captain H.P. Burnett, USN, brought her back to Pearl Harbor and tied her up to berth F-3, the same one she occupied that Sunday morning when disaster came out of the sky. Modernized and rebuilt, manned by more than 2200 officers and men from every state in the Union, she was ready to give the Japs the surprise of their lives. Soon after she passed through the nets of the anchorage, a message of welcome was read to the crew from Admiral Nimitz who had a place in his future plans for the "Prune Barge" as she is affectionately know throughout the fleet.

Early in June she sortied from Pearl Harbor in company with an imposing fleet and headed for the Jap-infested areas of the Pacific. After a brief stop in the Marshall Islands, the various units formed up for the attack on the Marianas. During late June and July the California dealt heavy blows against the enemy on Saipan, Guam, and Tinian. On June 14, 1944, D-minus-one day, while shelling enemy coastal batteries off Saipan, a Jap shell struck the fire control tower, killing one enlisted man and wounding one officer and eight enlisted men.

After repairs and refitting, the California was ready in early October to take part in the offensive against the Philippines. Together with almost fifty warships she sortied from the Admiralty Islands and headed for Leyte. Bad weather and thick mine fields at the approaches of Leyte Gulf delayed the entrance for a day, but by 18 October the California was on station delivering heavy preparatory fire for the landings two days later. Thus began the gruelling "forty days of Leyte Gulf", during which she delivered fire against the beaches, fought through the first large scale attacks of the new Kamikaze suicide planes, and protected the beachhead again Jap counter-attack. It was this last job that lead to the great night surface battle of Surigao Straits in the early morning hours of 25 October, when Rear (now Vice) Admiral J.B. Oldendorf, USN, commanding Seventh Fleets units, including the California annihilated a Jap force of two battleships, two cruisers, and six destroyers which was attempting to smash our five-day old beachhead. In this night battle replete with the awesome spectacle of great guns booming at targets ten miles away in the darkness, the California contributed more than a quarter of all the firing delivered by the six battleships in the battle line. She is officially credited with the assisting in the sinking of one Jap battleship.

After the rigors of the "forty days of Leyte Gulf", there was time to refit in the Admiralty and Palau Islands, for the next assault against Luzon. During late November there was a change of command with Captain S.B. Brewer, USN, relieving Captain Burnett.

On New Years Day, 1945, the California in company with a large force under the command of Vice Admiral J.B. Oldendorf, sortied from Kossol Passage, Palau Islands, enroute to Lingayen Gulf. The course of the task force took the ship back through the familiar lower reaches of Leyte Gulf, over the historic battleground of Surigao Straits, through the perilous waters of the Sulu Sea and Mindoro Straits, and up the South China Sea to Lingayen Gulf. In Lingayen Gulf the veteran warship again helped in the job of preparing the beaches for the troops of the Sixth Army, but this time she paid a heavy price. A Jap suicide plane managed to sneak into the formation from the close-lying land mass and crashed into the mainmast structure. Casualties totaled 203 of whom 6 officers and 26 men were killed outright, 3 others were reported missing, 13 died later of injuries while 155 other officers and enlisted men were wounded. Heroic work by those remaining kept the severely damaged ship in the fight doing her job until she, together with the other units, retired as scheduled to the stormy waters of the South China Sea off Lingayen Gulf as a covering force against a possible enemy thrust at the beachhead.

After the tragedy of the suicide attack, orders came through taking the ship back to the United States for repairs at Bremerton, Washington. This meant leave for all hands and a respite from the harsh routine of life in enemy waters. Repaired and once more ready for action, the California arrived off Okinawa in June in time to aid in the reduction of the last pockets of the Jap resistance there. Then followed weeks of covering operations in the East China Sea which took a strong Task Force, commanded by Vice Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, USN, within a figurative stone's throw of Jap-held Shanghai.

When the dramatic news of Tokyo's willingness to capitulate was read of the ships public address system by the skipper, Capt. S.B. Brewer, the California was sailing in the waters off Northeast Luzon, looking for any trouble she might find.

After the jubilation subsided that night, there was a general feeling among all hands their ship had made the Jap pay dearly for the folly of his two torpedoes at Pearl Harbor three and half years before.

Transcribed by Brian Wool, Grandson of Seaman Schraffran