To Fight Another Day: The Ships From Pearl Harbor

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 was a severe blow to the US Navy, resulting in heavy damage to the fleet and the end of the battleship as the queen of the seas. But the attack was not actually as devastating as most people think: of the eight American battleships in the harbor that day, only two were permanently lost. The rest were eventually repaired, rejoined the fleet, and helped defeat the Japanese and Germans during the war. But today, of the one hundred US Navy ships that were at Oahu during the attack, only one still survives afloat.

The US Coast Guard ship Taney

USS Arizona

The Arizona is the most famous victim of the Pearl Harbor attack: around half of the people who died that day were aboard the Arizona. During the air raid, Arizona was hit by four bombs. One of these penetrated the deck and detonated in the forward ammunition magazine, setting off a massive secondary explosion that blew out the front of the ship and caused extensive fires.

The Arizona filled with water. Had she been in the open ocean, she would have sunk, but in the shallow water of Pearl Harbor, she rested on the bottom and settled into the mud with her superstructure and gun turrets poking above the surface.

The damage was so extensive that it was decided not to salvage her, nor was it possible to refloat her and remove the wreck. Instead, the guns were removed (and used as shore batteries) and the superstructure and masts were dismantled. The wreckage that visitors to the Arizona Memorial see today is the hull that was left in place, still resting on the bottom of the harbor, and the remaining portions of the deck, with gaping holes where the gun turrets were taken out.


USS Oklahoma

During the Japanese attack, the Oklahoma was hit by at least five and possibly as many as seven torpedoes. The flooding caused the ship to lean over and then capsize, with the bottom of her hull protruding from the water and her superstructure buried in the mud at the bottom of the harbor.

Although the damage was extensive, the Navy hoped to be able to salvage her. Recovery efforts began in May 1942. The first job was to remove as much weight from the ship as possible: much of the ammunition was removed, and some 300,000 gallons of fuel oil were pumped out. This process took about a year.

To turn the ship right-side-up, a series of 21 electric winches were then set up onshore which led through wooden leverage blocks and then to lugs that had been welded to the hull. To lighten the load, air was forced into the sunken hull, pushing out some of the water. This operation lasted about three months, and by June 1943, the Oklahoma at last rested upright.

Now that the damage could be seen clearly, it was decided that it was too extensive to be repaired, and the Navy plan was to remove the wreck and scrap it. A temporary wood and steel patch, 130 feet long and almost 60 feet high, was put into place along the port side to seal off the extensive torpedo damage, and once the hull was watertight a number of pumps began removing enough water from her compartments to refloat her.

The Oklahoma was then towed to a nearby drydock where the Navy decommissioned her and systematically stripped her interior of any useful equipment and material. After the war ended, the remaining hull was sold as scrap metal, but while being towed out of Pearl Harbor to the scrapyard in May 1947, the hulk was caught in a storm and sank off the coast of Hawaii.


USS Pennsylvania

The battleship Pennsylvania was in drydock undergoing routine maintenance when the Japanese attacked. Although the ship itself was not hit, the Pennsylvania suffered some minor damage as one of the destroyers docked next to it exploded when a fire penetrated its magazine. The damage was quickly repaired and the Pennsylvania was back at sea by the end of the month.


USS Maryland

The Maryland had been protected from torpedoes during the attack by the battleship Oklahoma berthed next to her, but was hit by two armor-piercing aerial bombs. In Japanese debriefings, pilots mistakenly reported that the Maryland had taken numerous hits and sunk, but in reality the damage was only slight and she sailed to the west coast for repairs and upgrades to her defensive systems. She was ready for action again by March 1942, and went on to fight at Tarawa and Saipan.


USS Tennessee

The Tennessee was hit by two aerial bombs (fragments from one hit the bridge of the West Virginia, next to her, and killed that ship’s captain). She was also engulfed by a fire that jumped over from the Arizona.

Although the Tennessee’s damage was not heavy, she was trapped in place by the sunken West Virginia and was unable to move for ten days after the attack. On December 21, the Tennessee set out for Puget Sound to be repaired and to upgrade her anti-aircraft systems and radars. She re-entered service in February 1942. Like all the other Pearl Harbor battleship survivors, she was too slow to accompany a carrier attack group, and so was assigned to patrol duties off the California coast, then participated in the Aleutians Island campaign, and performed shore bombardment in the Marshalls and Marianas.


USS Nevada

During the Japanese air raid, the Nevada had been moored at Battleship Row, where she was hit by one torpedo. But unlike the other American battleships, she had managed to leave anchor and get underway, heading for the open sea. This attracted the attention of Japanese planes who hoped to sink her and block the harbor entrance, and Nevada was hit by five aerial bombs. To avoid sinking, her captain beached the ship, and she came to rest with her stern ashore and her flooded bow pointing out into the water.

Because of her precarious position, salvage work on Nevada began almost immediately. To prevent her from sliding off and blocking the harbor, a number of lines were run from her stern to anchors on shore. Then divers systematically patched the torpedo and bomb holes, pumped the water from each of her compartments, and removed equipment to lower the weight. Nevada floated once again on February 12, 1942, and was moved to a drydock a week later. Temporary repair work was finished by April, and on May 1, 1942, the Nevada, operating under her own power, joined a convoy for California, where she went underwent more repairs and had her fire-control electronics modernized. She was back in service by June, in time to participate in the fighting around the Aleutians during the battle of Midway. After being temporarily assigned to the Atlantic theater for shore bombardment missions on D-Day, Nevada returned to the Pacific and took part in the Iwo Jima and Okinawa invasions.


USS California

The California had been hit by two torpedoes and one aerial bomb. In addition, the fire from the Arizona had jumped over to the California and swept her upper decks. To prevent her from capsizing like the Oklahoma, the California’s captain had counter-flooded her by deliberately opening the compartments on the other side of the ship, allowing her to settle onto the bottom on an even keel. It took three days for her to sink, indicating that the internal damage was not as extensive as some of the other ships. The Navy had high hopes from the beginning that she could be returned to service, though it was expected that the electric engines would be heavily damaged.

First, the gun turrets were removed to lighten the ship. Then a wooden “cofferdam” was built around the flooded aft section and the water pumped out, to allow patches to be built and salvage operations to begin. The ship was refloated in May 1942 and moved to a drydock, where the engines were dried out and partially repaired.

On October 10, the California left Pearl Harbor and sailed to the shipyard in Puget Sound using her own engines. Here she was upgraded and modernized, and re-entered service in time to participate in the Marianas campaign.


USS West Virginia

The West Virginia took more hits than any other ship in Pearl harbor, being struck by at least seven, and possibly as many as nine, torpedoes. She was also hit by two aerial bombs, but both of these turned out to be duds. During the attack, she had drifted up against the Tennessee, docked next to her, which probably helped prevent the West Virginia from capsizing.

After being patched, the West Virginia was refloated on May 17 and towed to a drydock. After her electric motors were partially repaired, she sailed to Puget Sound for refitting and upgrading, and re-entered service in July 1944.



Surigao Strait

In October 1944, during the invasion of the Philippines, most of the Pearl Harbor battleships got the chance to directly engage a number of Japanese battleships. As part of a larger naval attack at Leyte Gulf, a fleet of Japanese ships that included the battleships Yamashiro and Fuso and the heavy cruiser Mogami entered the Surigao Strait, where they were confronted by an American fleet containing five of the Pearl Harbor survivors—Maryland, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, California and Tennessee—the newer battleship Mississippi, four heavy cruisers, and destroyers. In the ensuing fight, both Japanese battleships were sunk: there has been no naval battleship vs battleship combat since.


The USCG Taney

Today, of the 101 ships at Oahu during the Pear Harbor attack, only one remains afloat. The Coast Guard’s “High-Endurance Cutter” Roger B Taney was technically not in Pearl Harbor at the time of the attack: she was anchored in Honolulu Harbor next door. Her gunners fired at “unidentified aircraft” that passed overhead during the attack, and as late in the day as 12 noon (the latter must have been American planes).   She is not credited with any hits.

Today, the Taney is a museum ship at permanent anchor in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.


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