Her keel was laid down on 14 May 1917 at the New York Navy Yard. She was launched on 30 April 1919 sponsored by Miss Helen Lenore Roberts, daughter of Albert H. Roberts, the governor of Tennessee and commissioned on 3 June 1920 with Captain Richard H. Leigh in command.
Tennessee and her sister ship, California (BB-44), were the first American battleships built to a "post-Jutland" hull design. As a result of extensive experimentation and testing, her underwater hull protection was much greater than that of previous battleships; and both her main and secondary batteries had fire-control systems. The Tennessee class, and the three ships of the Colorado class which followed, were identified by two heavy cage masts supporting large fire-control tops. This feature was to distinguish the "Big Five" from the rest of the battleship force until World War II. Since Tennessee's turret guns could be elevated to 30 degrees rather than only to the 15 degrees of earlier battleships her heavy guns could reach out an additional 10,000 yards (9,100 m). Because battleships were then beginning to carry airplanes to spot long-range gunfire, Tennessee's ability to shoot "over the horizon" had a practical value.
After fitting out, Tennessee conducted trials in Long Island Sound from 15 October to 23 October 1920. While Tennessee was at New York City, one of her 300-kilowatt ship's-service generators blew up on 30 October, completely destroying the turbine end of the machine and injuring two men. Undaunted, the ship's force, navy yard craftsmen, and manufacturers' representatives labored to eliminate the "teething troubles" in Tennessee's engineering system and enabled the battleship to depart New York on 26 February 1921 for standardization trials at Guantanamo Bay. She next steamed north for the Virginia Capes and arrived at Hampton Roads on 19 March. Tennessee carried out gunnery calibration firing at Dahlgren, Virginia, and was drydocked at Boston before full-power trials off Rockland, Maine. Two of the original fourteen 5"/51 caliber guns were removed. After touching at New York, she steamed south; transited the Panama Canal; and, on 17 June, arrived at San Pedro, California, her home port for the next 19 years.
Here, she joined the Battleship Force, Pacific Fleet. In 1922, the Pacific Fleet was redesignated the Battle Fleet (renamed the Battle Force in 1931), United States Fleet. For the next two decades, the battleship divisions of the Battle Fleet were to include the preponderance of the Navy's surface warship strength; and Tennessee was to serve here until World War II.
Peacetime service with the battleship divisions involved an annual cycle of training, maintenance, and readiness exercises. Her yearly schedule included competitions in gunnery and engineering performance and an annual fleet problem, a large-scale war game in which most or all of the United States Fleet was organized into opposing forces and presented with a variety of strategic and tactical situations to resolve. Beginning with Fleet Problem I in 1923 and continuing through Fleet Problem XXI in April 1940, Tennessee had a prominent share in these battle exercises. Yet her individual proficiency was not neglected. During the competitive year 1922 and 1923, she made the highest aggregate score in the list of record practices fired by her guns of various caliber and won the "E" for excellence in gunnery. In 1923 and 1924, she again won the gunnery "E" as well as the prized Battle Efficiency Pennant for the highest combined total score in gunnery and engineering competition. During 1925, she took part in joint Army-Navy maneuvers to test the defenses of Hawaii before visiting Australia and New Zealand. Subsequent fleet problems and tactical exercises took Tennessee from Hawaii to the Caribbean and Atlantic and from Alaskan waters to Panama. The original 3-inch anti-aircraft battery was replaced by eight 5"/25 caliber guns in 1929–1930.
Fleet Problem XXI was conducted in Hawaiian waters during the spring of 1940. At the end of this problem, the battleship force did not return to San Pedro; but, at President Franklin D. Roosevelt's direction, its base of operations was shifted to Pearl Harbor in the hope that this move might deter Japanese expansion in the Far East. Following an overhaul at the Puget Sound Navy Yard after the conclusion of Fleet Problem XXI, Tennessee arrived at her new base on 12 August 1940. Due to the increasing deterioration of the world situation, Fleet Problem XXII, scheduled for the spring of 1941, was canceled; and Tennessee's activities during these final months of peace were confined to smaller scale operations.
On the morning of 7 December 1941, Tennessee was moored starboard side to a pair of masonry "mooring quays" on Battleship Row, the name given to a line of deep water berths located along the southeast side of Ford Island, Pearl Harbor.
During the Attack on Pearl Harbor, Tennessee manned her antiaircraft guns and attempted to defend the harbor as well as she could. Tennessee was struck by two armor-piercing bombs which detonated low-order. The first hit the center gun of turret 2 and made all three guns inoperable. The second went through the roof of turret 3 and damaged the left gun. Tennessee was showered with debris when Arizonas magazine exploded and the stern was engulfed in flame from Arizonas burning fuel oil. After preliminary repairs at Pearl Harbor, Tennessee headed for Puget Sound Navy Yard for permanent repairs.
In addition to repairing her, crews upgraded her antiaircraft abilities and installed search and fire control radars. Other modifications improved the battleship's habitability.
On 26 February 1942, Tennessee departed Puget Sound with the work complete. Upon arriving at San Francisco, California, she began a period of intensive training operations with Rear Admiral William S. Pye's Task Force 1, made up of the Pacific Fleet's available battleships and a screen of destroyers.
With the change of naval battles from conventional surface-ship actions to long-range duels between fast carrier striking forces, the older battleships —Tennessee and her kin— were simply too slow to keep up with the carriers.
Tennessee spent some time with Task Force 1, which streamed areas of the Pacific in the expectation that part of the Japanese fleet might attempt an "end run" raid on the US Pacific coast.
On 1 August 1942, Tennessee again sailed from San Francisco with Task Force 1. After a week of exercises the battleships joined Hornet (CV-8)—on her way to the South Pacific to support the Guadalcanal operation—and escorted the carrier as far as Hawaii.
Arriving at Pearl Harbor on 14 August, Tennessee returned to Puget Sound on the 27th for modernization.
By the time Tennessee emerged from Puget Sound Navy Yard on 7 May 1943, she bore virtually no resemblance to her former self. The work increased protection against torpedoes, internal compartmentation was rearranged and improved, a new compact superstructure designed to provide control facilities while offering less interference to anti-aircraft guns was installed and upgraded anti-aircraft guns and fire-control radars were installed. The original secondary battery of 5"/51 caliber guns and the anti-aircraft battery of 5"/25 caliber guns was replaced by sixteen 5"/38 caliber guns in new twin mounts.
On 31 May 1943, she headed to Alaska and a fight in the Aleutian Islands. While providing sea protection to the landing forces was a job of major importance, the Japanese Navy did not challenge the American forces. Instead, Tennessee found her duty was to use her formidable guns to support the ground troops by bombarding enemy land positions. It was a task she would perform throughout the war.
The Aleutian Islands back in American hands, she headed back home reaching San Francisco on 31 August. Tennessee then began an intensive period of training.
Tennessee 's next mission was to support the attack of Betio in the Battle of Tarawa. From 20 November to 23, 1943 the main fighting went on, supported by Tennessee 's guns. Tennessee also joined other ships in the sinking of Japanese submarine I-35.
At dusk on 3 December, Tennessee departed the area for Pearl Harbor and then San Francisco. There she was quickly repainted in a "dazzle" camouflage scheme.
In the early morning of 13 January 1944, Tennessee set her course for Hawaii with Task Unit 58.5.1 and anchored in Lahaina Roads off Maui on 21 January. That day, the ship was inspected by a group headed by Undersecretary of the Navy James Forrestal. On 29 January, Tennessee, with Forrestal on board, headed for the Marshalls.
Arriving 31 January 1944, Tennessee bombarded the islands, helping the ground forces and destroying numerous shore batteries and detonating a Japanese ammunition dump on Namur.
During nighttimes, Army troops called several times for illumination. Destroyers played their searchlights over Japanese-held areas, while Tennessee 's five inch (127 mm) guns fired large numbers of star shells.
At times Tennessee was firing at so short a range that, during the afternoon of 20 February, she was able to take on beach defenses with her 40 mm guns.
On 23 February 1944, Tennessee sailed for Majuro. Here, she joined New Mexico (BB-40), Mississippi (BB-41), and Idaho (BB-42). Under the command of Rear Admiral Robert M. Griffin, the battleships sortied from Majuro on 15 March with two escort carriers and a screen of 15 destroyers.
Their objective was the Japanese air and naval base at Kavieng, at the northern end of New Ireland. The Bismarck Archipelago, the two large islands of New Britain and New Ireland, lie just to the east of New Guinea. Rabaul, the by-now legendary Japanese operating base, is at the eastern end of New Britain, just across a narrow channel from New Ireland. About 240 miles (386 km) northwest of Rabaul, across the Bismarck Sea, is the small Admiralty Islands group.
Once again Tennessee 's big guns pounded away at Japanese positions, destroying shore batteries and helping the ground forces rout the enemy as well as shelling the Japanese airfield and shore facilities.
Operation Forager, the assault on the Mariana Islands, was planned as a two-pronged thrust. Vice Admiral Richmond K. Turner's Task Force 51 was organized into a Northern Attack Force (TF 52), under his command, and a Southern Attack Force (TF 53) under Rear Admiral Richard Conolly.
The Northern Attack Force assembled at Hawaii in mid-May 1944. After rehearsals off Maui and Kahoolawe, Fire Support Group One sailed for Kwajalein while the transports staged at Eniwetok. On 10 June 1944, Tennessee and her task group departed Kwajalein, bound for Saipan. At Saipan, in addition to providing protection for the fleet, the Tennessee began a methodical bombardment of the selected landing area, the southern portion of Saipan's west coast, in support of minesweepers carrying out an assault sweep on the landing zone.
Underwater demolition teams (UDT) approached the beach in small craft to reconnoiter the landing beaches and to plant radar beacons which would provide reference points to the next day's landing. Tennessee closed to 3,000 yards of Agingan Point and opened up with 14 inch, five-inch, and 40 millimeter batteries. Some smoldering powder grains from the five-inch guns fell on the port side of the battleship's quarterdeck and burst into flame, but were quickly extinguished.
Japanese guns dropped shells near the UDTs as mortars and machine guns joined in and projectile splashes began to appear near the supporting ships as batteries on nearby Tinian opened fire. Cleveland (CL-55) was straddled, and California and Braine (DD-630) took hits. Tennessee aimed counterbattery fire at the defenders who were opposing the UDTs, and her turret guns fired at Tinian. Shortly before noon, she moved to the northwest to bombard Japanese fortifications on Afetna Point, near the center of the landing zone.
Tennessee's assault station was off the southern end of the landing beach. During the first wave's approach, her guns enfiladed that end of the objective to prepare the way for the right-hand elements of the 4th Division. She checked fire as the troops neared the beach, resuming it a few minutes later as the Marines fought to establish themselves ashore. Japanese field guns, emplaced in a cave on Tinian, opened on Tennessee. The battleship commenced counterbattery fire, but the third enemy salvo scored three hits, all of which burst on impact. One projectile knocked out a five-inch twin gun mount; the second struck the ship's side, while the third tore a hole in the after portion of main deck and sprayed fragments into the wardroom below. An intense fire inside the disabled gun mount was subdued in two minutes by repair parties and men from nearby gun crews; the hit to the hull damaged external blister plating, but was prevented from inflicting further damage by the battleship's heavy belt armor. Eight men were killed by projectile fragments, while 26 more were wounded by fragments and flash burns. Tennessee's damages did not prevent her from delivering call fire to help break up a developing Japanese counterattack near Agingan Point before leaving the firing line to make emergency repairs. During the afternoon and night, she took station to screen assembled transports. Four Japanese dive bombers attacked nearby ships at 1846, and Tennessee's five-inch guns briefly engaged them but claimed no hits. That evening, Tennessee buried her dead. Tokyo radio claimed victory in the battle for Saipan, stating that they had sunk a battleship which they identified as "probably the New Jersey."
The "sunken" Tennessee returned to Saipan Channel early the next day. Several Japanese counterattacks had been stopped during the night, and Tennessee's supporting fire assisted the marines in organizing and consolidating their beachhead.
On 20 July she joined in a systematic bombardment begun on 8 July, which was carefully planned to soften up the enemy's defenses while avoiding harm to the island's friendly Chamorro population. Once again Tennessee delivered supporting fire by day and star shell by night for the troops battling to take the island.
The battle for Peleliu was to be one of the most bitter of the Pacific war, and organized resistance was not eliminated until November, at a heavy cost in lives. Tennessee's target was the smaller island of Angaur, a few miles south of Peleliu. On the morning of 12 September, Tennessee and Pennsylvania, with four light cruisers and five destroyers, began a prolonged bombardment as carrier aircraft did their share.
A prominent masonry lighthouse on the west coast of Angaur was ordered destroyed to keep the Japanese from using it as a gunfire observation point. Twelve rounds were aimed at it, scarring the area and scoring three hits, but the tower remained standing. Other targets absorbed Tennessee's attention for the next three days. Tennessee stood by off Peleliu during the morning of 15 September in case her guns should be needed to assist the assault landing. When this work was completed, she returned on the evening of 16 September to finish off the stubborn tower before the next morning's scheduled landings.
Tennessee weighed anchor on 12 October and set her course for Leyte Gulf, Under the supreme command of General MacArthur, Vice Admiral Thomas Kinkaid's Seventh Fleet carried two Army corps toward the invasion area.
At 0609 on the morning of 18 October, Tennessee, with her fire-support unit, entered the channel between Homonhon and Dinagat islands. Paravanes streamed from her bows, and Marines were stationed in her upperworks to sink or explode floating mines. The minesweepers continued their work as the heavy ships moved slowly up Leyte Gulf.
The landings were scheduled for 20 October, and at 0600 Tennessee opened neutralization fire on the beaches. Tennessee continued her work off the beachhead until her fire support was no longer required and the increasing tempo of Japanese air activity in the area required her to place herself where her antiaircraft guns could assist in the defense of the assembled transports and cargo ships.
In the evening of 21 October, while lying dead in the water in a smoke screen laid to protect the shipping from attacking planes, Tennessee was rammed near the stern by the transport USS War Hawk (AP-168). No one was injured, and the battleship's tough hull was little harmed, but her orders for a night fire-support mission were canceled.
While Tennessee had been working Leyte, the Japanese Imperial General Headquarters had noted the scale of the operation being mounted and had decided to make that island the focus of a decisive naval counterstroke – the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Under the Japanese plan, dictated by a combination of geography, logistics, and the lack of adequate carrier aviation, four widely separated forces were to converge on the area of Leyte Gulf in an effort to destroy, at whatever cost, the American invasion force.
A relatively small force, commanded by Vice-Admiral Shoji Nishimura, turned to the south of Palawan and crossed the Sulu Sea to pass between Mindanao and Leyte. Nishimura's force would meet a number of assorted American ships, the Tennessee among them, in the Battle of Surigao Strait.
As they passed the cape of Panaon Island on the evening of 24 October and morning of the 25th, the Japanese forces ran into a deadly trap set for them by the American 7th Fleet Support Force. Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf had six battleships (Mississippi, Maryland, West Virginia, Tennessee, California, and Pennsylvania, all but the Mississippi having been resurrected from Pearl Harbor), eight cruisers (heavy cruisers USS Louisville (Flagship), Portland, Minneapolis and HMAS Shropshire, light cruisers USS Denver, Columbia, Phoenix, Boise), 28 destroyers and 39 Patrol/Torpedo boats.
On board Tennessee, observers had seen distant flashes of gunfire, star shells, and searchlights as the torpedo boats and destroyers engaged the Japanese. Soon explosions could be heard. At 0302, the battleship's radar picked up Nishimura'a approach at nearly and began to track the lead ship. This was the flagship, Yamashiro. With the cruiser Mogami and destroyer Shigure, she was all that remained of the first Japanese force. At 0351 Oldendorf ordered the flanking cruisers to open fire; and, at 0356, the battleships let fly from .
Radar fire control allowed the American battleships to hit targets from a distance at which the Japanese could not reply because of their inferior fire control systems. Japanese ships Yamashiro and Mogami were crippled by a combination of 14-inch (356mm) and 16-inch (406 mm) armour-piercing shells. Shigure turned and fled, but lost steering and stopped dead. Yamashiro sank at 04:19. The Battle of Surigao Strait was, to date, the final line battle in naval history. Japan's Yamashiro was the last battleship to engage another in combat, and one of very few to have been sunk by another battleship during World War II. Of Nishimura's seven ships, only Shigure survived.
The next several days were quiet ones for Tennessee, though the Japanese sent numerous land-based air strikes against Leyte Gulf. On 29 October, the battlewagon's crew was told that their next destination was to be the Puget Sound Navy Yard. This refit made no remarkable changes in Tennessee’s appearance. Her main battery directors received improved models of the Mark 8 radar, and the Mark 4 radars used with the five-inch gun directors were replaced by the newer combination of paired Mark 12 and Mark 22 dual-purpose equipment. Tennessee’s usefulness as an anti-aircraft ship was enhanced by the addition of a model SP height-finding radar. Her pattern camouflage scheme was replaced by a dark gray finish which was calculated to provide a less conspicuous aiming point for kamikaze suicide planes, introduced during the recapture of the Philippines and becoming more and more of a fact of naval life during the winter of 1944 and 1945.
While Tennessee was being refitted, landings had been made in the Central Philippines and on Luzon; and the liberation of the Philippines was nearly accomplished. Steaming by way of Pearl Harbor and Saipan, she was just in time to join Rear Admiral W.H.P. Blandy's Iwo Jima bombardment force.
Early on 16 February 1945 the Tennessee's assigned firing course took her along the southeastern shore of Iwo Jima, and her guns struck the slopes of Mount Suribachi while the secondaries aimed at the high ground at the north end of the beach. While the heavier guns fired from ranges varying between 2,200 and 6,000 yards, the 40-millimeter battery raked other targets on cliffs at the north end of the beach and shot up the wrecks of several Japanese ships beached near the shore; these had been used as havens for snipers and machine gunners at Tarawa and in later landings, and were always treated as potential threats. Several fires were started ashore; an ammunition dump exploded spectacularly and burned for several hours.
The next morning beginning at 0803 Tennessee, with Idaho and Nevada, closed to 3,000 yards and began firing. The ships were so close that at some point the Tennessee was struck by return fire from a Japanese coastal gun. At 1025 the battleships were ordered to the rear to make way for the invasion troops.
It had been found that single-gun salvoes at close range, using "pointer fire" (in which the gun is directly aimed by telescopic sight), were the most precise and effective. The notion of using a naval rifle for sniping was rather new, but it seemed to work very well.
Ground fighting on Iwo Jima continued until 26 March, as the stubborn Japanese were slowly rooted out or the positions that they continued to defend to the last. Tennessee was a part of this struggle until 7 March, when she sailed for Ulithi.
Tennessee left the area having deposited 1,370 rounds of main-battery fire on Iwo Jima along with 6,380 five-inch and 11,481 40-millimeter projectiles. At Ulithi, she began to prepare for the Okinawa operation.
The pattern of life off Okinawa during the grueling weeks to come, as the "fleet that came to stay" battled to see the land battle through while keeping itself alive, consisted of shore bombardment and fighting off kamikaze attacks. Long hours at general quarters kept all hands tense and tired as the ships prowled off the island firing at every likely target while reports of suicide attacks piled up.
The island was not secured until 21 June. In the meanwhile, the Navy battled by day and night against the unremitting kamikaze offensive. On the afternoon of 12 April, Tennessee, instead of taking up a fire-support station, was steaming in air-defense formation. Five kamikazes picked Tennessee and came in through puffs of shell bursts and the heavy smoke from the burning destroyer Zellars (DD-777). Four were shot down, the last three only hundreds of yards from the battleship. The last diver came down on the bow at a 45-degree angle, was set aflame by five-inch fire, and plunged into the water. At the same time, an Aichi A6M Val divebomber, flying low on the starboard bow, headed directly for Tennessee's bridge. Lookouts spotted the "Val" at 2,500 yards, and every automatic weapon that could bear opened up. One of the plane's fixed wheels was torn off, and its engine began to smoke.
Heading at first for Tennessee's tower foremast, the Japanese pilot swerved slightly and crashed into the signal bridge. The burning wreck slid aft along the superstructure, crushing antiaircraft guns and their crews, and stopped next to Turret Three. It had carried a 250-pound (113 kg) bomb which, with what was left of the plane, went through the wooden deck and exploded. Twenty-two men were killed or fatally wounded, with another 107 injured.
This was not enough to put Tennessee out of action. The dead were buried at sea, and the wounded transferred the following day to the casualty-evacuation transport Pinkney (APH-2). The ship's company turned to on emergency repairs; and, by 14 April, the ship was back on the firing line. Tennessee remained off Okinawa for two more weeks.
On 1 May, Admiral Deyo shifted his flag to a cruiser, and Tennessee set her course for Ulithi. Here, the repair ship Ajax (AR-6) made repairs, cutting away damaged plating and installing new guns to replace those lost. On 3 June, the ship sailed for Okinawa, arriving on 9 June.
By now, the worst was over. Army troops were making a final drive to clear the island, and Tennessee's gunfire again helped to clear the way. With the other old battlewagons, she remained in support until organized resistance was declared at an end on 21 June.
Vice Admiral Oldendorf was subsequently placed in command of naval forces in the Ryukyus, and Tennessee flew his flag as she covered minesweeping operations in the East China Sea and patrolled the waters off Shanghai for Japanese shipping as escort carriers sent strikes against the China coast. This was Tennessee's station until V-J Day brought an end to the war in the Pacific. When this glad day came, the big ship was operating out of Okinawa and preparing to take part in the planned invasion of Japan.
On the fourth anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Tennessee moored at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. During those years, she had fired 9,347 rounds at the enemy, with 46,341 shells from her five-inch guns and more than 100,000 rounds from her antiaircraft battery.
Tennessee remained in the inactive fleet for another 12 years. By then, time and technology had passed her by; on 1 March 1959, her name was struck from the Naval Vessel Register. On 10 July of that year, she was sold to the Bethlehem Steel Company for scrapping.
Tennessee earned a Navy Unit Commendation and ten battle stars for World War II service.