The Japanese were single-minded about destroying battleships (Navy designation BB) on Dec. 7, 1941. While they hit other ships and destroyed the airfields, they damaged or sunk all eight battleships moored in Pearl Harbor including the USS Pennsylvania that was sitting in drydock. Fortunately, the aircraft carriers Lexington and Enterprise were away that day ferrying aircraft to Wake Island.
The Japanese attack devastated the U.S. Pacific Fleet. The strike was a brilliantly planned and executed tactical move, but backfired spectacularly as a long-term strategic strategy. The cry of “Remember Pearl Harbor” united a badly divided country and reverberated throughout the war inspiring the millions of military personnel and war industry workers. President Harry Truman cited the attack as one of the reasons for dropping the atomic bombs on Japanese cities less than four years later.
While there are literally hundreds of stories arising from Pearl Harbor, this blog examines one fascinating aspect — how most of the sunken and damaged battleships not only rose from the harbor muck but rejoined the military effort against both the Japanese Empire and the Axis.
The ones that didn’t make it
The USS Arizona was the most famous casualty of Pearl Harbor but achieved the biggest revenge of all by becoming a rallying point for the stunned American public. Even President Franklin Roosevelt, who reluctantly admitted anything had been destroyed at Pearl Harbor, announced the Arizona had been sunk. A huge aerial bomb with a delayed fuse penetrated the forward powder magazine and blew up the front part of the ship. The blast even stripped the teak wooden deck off the ship. Recently divers were allowed to penetrate the fairly intact rear section. Silt covers up the human remains, but the divers just took video and tried not to touch anything. They found the admiral’s cabin complete with fireplace, and most remarkably, an officer’s uniform still draped over a coat rack.
Only 334 crewmembers survived; 1,177 perished with the ship and around 900 remain buried in the wreck. Survivors are allowed to have their cremated ashes spread on the water above the ship, but few if any survivors are still living. The striking 1962 memorial (partially paid for with a benefit concert by Elvis Presley) that transverses the Arizona attracts over 1.8 million somber visitors a year. The visitors can watch about nine quarts of oil globules a day float up from the wreck and color the surface. It is estimated the Arizona still contains a half million gallons of fuel oil.
The USS Arizona was deemed “unsalvageable” and was removed from the active roles of Navy ships. A Virginia-class fast attack submarine will soon be commissioned with the name USS Arizona (SSN-803). A granddaughter of a WW II Arizona survivor broke the bottle in the dedication ceremony of the submarine. Several of the names of Pearl Harbor ships now grace nuclear submarines. Arizona achieved more immortality when nine of its 14-inch guns were salvaged and distributed to other ships during the war.
The USS Utah (Utah AG-16 and BB-31) was an old battleship converted to training ship sunk at Pearl Harbor. Japanese pilots naturally thought the ship was another battleship and torpedoed it, causing it to capsize with the loss of 58 sailors. Four people were rescued by cutting through the capsized hull.
I had never heard about this, but another memorial, this one dedicated to the Utah, sits on Ford Island several yards from the rusting hulk of the ship. Only military personnel can access the restricted site. Crews made a failed attempt to salvage the Utah. The remains of the dead still rest in the wreck.
Another well-known casualty of the attack was the USS Oklahoma, which also capsized with the loss of 429 sailors. Several were rescued when crews heard pounding and cut through the bottom of the ship to find the survivors. The Oklahoma was righted and the remains were removed and buried in a mass grave. The individuals were not identified until 2011.
The ship was sold to a company for scrap, but the hulk sank on the way to the mainland.
Their finest hour
Remarkably, at least to me, six of the eight working battleships sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor were salvaged, modernized, and inserted back into the fleet to fight again. These were still old, slow ships so the brass believed they were good for only shore bombardment. New sleek ships like the USS South Dakota or USS Iowa got the honor of traveling with the fast carrier strike forces.
Ironically, Pearl Harbor survivors USS California, West Virgina, Maryland, Tennessee, and Pennsylvania participated in the very last sea battle between opposing battleships — the Oct. 25, 1944, Battle of Surigao Strait. The Japanese navy mounted a last gasp, four-pronged attack on the American forces invading Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. Books have been written about the huge naval battle but suffice to say one of the prongs was through Surigao Strait where the Japanese sent two battleships, a heavy cruiser and four destroyers. They were supposed to link up with other prongs and then sink all the invasion shipping anchored at Leyte.
Rear Admiral Jesse Oldendorf arranged his battleships in a line across Surigao Strait in a classic naval tactic called “crossing the T.” Crossing the T means a line of warships crosses in front of a line of enemy ships, allowing the crossing line to bring all their guns to bear (a broadside) while receiving fire from only the forward guns of the enemy. The Americans were aided by their radar-directed fire control during the pitch black night. The venerable battleships and several American cruisers on the flanks decimated the Japanese column and forced the surviving ships to turn around where all but one was sunk by other American ships.
Back in the war
The Pearl Harbor survivors all added their firepower to American amphibious operations. USS Nevada , which lost 60 sailors at Pearl Harbor but was the only ship to get underway during the attack, escorted convoys and bombarded Normandy, France, during D-Day. After D-Day it assisted with the invasion of southern France and dueled with a German fortress in the harbor of Toulon. During a refitting, the ship received one of the USS Arizona’s guns. The Nevada finished its sterling WW II service by bombarding Iwo Jima and Okinawa. After the war, Nevada was among the ships anchored off Bikini Atoll during the atomic bomb tests. It wasn’t sunk but was so contaminated it was used for target practice by other battleships near Pearl Harbor in 1948. The proud ship refused to sink until it was hit by an aerial torpedo.
Pennsylvania was in drydock when the Japanese attacked and lost nine crewmen. It fought in the Aleutian Islands, Makin, Kwajalein and Eniwetok in the Marshall Islands and the Mariana and Palau Islands campaigns including Saipan, Guam, Peleliu, and Angaur, and finally, Okinawa. The ship ended its service as a target during the Bikini Atoll nuclear tests in 1946. The old battlewagon survived the blasts but was heavily contaminated. It was scuttled off Kwajalein in 1948.
West Virginia didn’t capsize at Pearl Harbor and instead settled into harbor mud. But it lost 106 sailors and was so badly damaged it didn’t return to service until 1944. However, it led the battleship line at Surigao Strait. The whole Pearl Harbor story is tragic of course, but the West Virginia contains one of the most heart-rending stories. Some 60-70 sailors trapped below deck found an air pocket and pounded on the hull. Rescuers couldn’t reach the compartment and the pounding stopped on Dec. 23. The ship was decommissioned in 1959 and scrapped in 1961.
USS California was also heavily damaged at Pearl Harbor and lost 100 sailors. It didn’t return to the fleet until 1944 but participated in the Mariana and Palau Islands campaigns. It was damaged by a collision with USS Tennessee, a fellow Pearl Harbor survivor and also by a Japanese kamikaze but was able to contribute to the victories in the Surigao Strait and Okinawa. It was decommissioned in 1959 and sold for scrap.
Five sailors died on the USS Tennessee during Pearl Harbor and four on the Maryland. Both were returned to the fleet relatively quickly and went on to collect multiple battle stars in the Pacific theater even though both were hit by kamikazes. Both ships were sent to reserve status in 1946 and scrapped in 1959.