Category Archives: US Navy

A Good Day to Speak Truth to Power and to be Listened to

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I have been writing about my recent experiences in trying to get help for my own issues dealing with PTSD as well as my frustration with a military mental health system that is, at least in my view, floundering.

That effort over the past month or so has been quite painful, at times humiliating and dehumanizing, and frankly driven me into a depressed and nearly suicidal fog, from which I am slowly emerging.

Today was a good day. Not just for me but maybe for all of those seeking help at our local Naval Medical Center. Instead of being blown off and shunted aside by providers as well as mid and high level administrators I was able to have a long, nearly forty-five minute phone conversation with the Admiral who commands that facility as well as every Naval Medical facility on the East Coast and Europe, with the exception of the Bethesda-Walter Reed complex in Washington DC. Bottom line up front; it was a very good and positive experience for me that I believe will help others get better care.

I have to say up front that I was terrified about asking to talk to him. One of the people on his staff told me that “it would not be a good thing for me to talk to him.” When I heard that comment my heart sank. I didn’t know what to do, I was perplexed because most commanders of Medical facilities in the Navy that I have worked for actually did want to hear about negative experiences of the people that are their customers, most because they care, but if nothing else because they want to make sure that they pass the Joint Commission accreditation that their facilities get every few years. So I wondered if the Admiral actually knew what was going on, at least in regard to the Mental Health Department and the experiences of people like me.

My last Command Master Chief, who read some of my very angry posts on a social media site suggested that I call my former Commanding Officer, a man who helped me a lot, cared about me and who is soon to become an admiral. I finally worked up the courage to call him, not out of fear, but because I felt like I might be bothering him, and would not be worth his time. I left his command a year ago and frankly I thought why should someone moving up in an organization be bothered by the problems of a former subordinate.

However, he was both concerned and helpful. He did not just listen but he took action by contacting the Admiral here. He told him that he knew me and that he knew that it was my desire to make sure that people get the help and care that they need, that I wasn’t just complaining or seeking special treatment.

Yesterday the admiral called me, of course my phone went directly to voice mail so I missed the call, but his message, and the tone of his voice conveyed a sense of care and concern. I called back and got his voice mail. So this morning I called again and was able to share my heart, in a very respectful way with him. He listened and seemed to be attempting to formulate some kind of positive response that would actually help people. He wants to get answers and he told me that he wanted those that come to that facility to be treated as he would want his grandparents treated.

As I said we talked for forty-five minutes and he listened. I have no doubt, within the very real fiscal constraints faced with current budget cuts and the still looming threat of sequester that he will do his best to improve and change the system that is within his control. He also did something that I have never experienced before from a superior officer, he called me “sir” a number of times. I am not used to that and I don’t think that I have ever in all of my reading of military history recall an Admiral or General calling a subordinate “sir.” I was blown away.

That system appears to be undermanned, under-budgeted and overwhelmed. It is struggling and as it struggles, as it reacts to criticism from the media, politicians and advocacy groups, it resorts to protecting itself as any bureaucracy does in such a situation. The Admiral realized this and he encouraged me to call him again on his office number if I see things that he can help. That was very encouraging. I don’t think that I will have to ask him to intervene on my part, but I have an open door to use this relationship to help others.

All that being said, most people do not have the connections that I have in the system, nor are they willing to take the risks to rock the boat. The stigma is great and personal risk can be or at least seem too great to make the effort, so most people just give up. After all the bureaucracy can be unbending and even vindictive in the way that it rebuffs those that try to raise issues. They resist change and try to keep bad news from enquiring superiors. Bureaucracies and those who faithfully serve them do just that. It is part of who and what they are; be they military, other government, business or ecclesiastical organizations. Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan wrote:

“It [the bureaucracy] tends to overvalue the orderly routine and observance of the system by which it receives information, transmits orders, checks expenditures, files returns, keeps the Service the touch of paper; in short, the organization has been created for facilitating its own labors.”

However, when I first collapsed after Iraq, I decided that I could not be silent and have “sky-lined” myself which probably will not help me get promoted, not that care anymore. I am sure that being so public about my struggles with PTSD, Moral Injury and even my crisis of faith, which left me an agnostic for a couple of years, while serving as a Chaplain in adult and pediatric Intensive Care Units has marginalized me in the Chaplain Corps. I don’t know that for a fact and would hope that it is not the case, but it is the feeling that I get when I deal with most Chaplains.

All of that said, the past few weeks have been some of the most difficult since my return from Iraq. I personally find no pleasure in being anxious, depressed or feeling suicidal and getting even less sleep than my chronic insomnia normally allows.

At least I was listened to, and I really did get the sense that the Admiral that I was able to have such an honest conversation with today, does really care and wants to help improve the system and change the culture.

But that is the thing. This is a systemic and cultural problem, not just in the military or the Veterans Administration, but in society as a whole. In our desire for efficiency, supposed effectiveness  measured by profits and the bottom line; we have forgotten to care about people. Sadly that is statistically verified in poll after poll by people from all parts of the political spectrum. People don’t trust the government, they don’t trust big business, they don’t trust health care systems, they don’t trust the police, they don’t trust the banking and insurance industries and they certainly don’t trust the church or religion in general. Can I get an amen?

Thank you…

But our culture has to change, we have become so materialistic and embrace the most crass forms of predatory Capitalism and Social Darwinism, even in church, that people don’t matter, especially the poor and those with no voice or power, especially those who volunteer to serve the nation and come back broken in body, mind and spirit.

Joshua Chamberlain the hero of Little Round Top at Gettysburg spoke years after the Civil War something that should be a warning to us about how we treat people. Of course Chamberlain was talking about the horror of war, but it can apply to anyone, anywhere:

“But we had with us, to keep and care for, more than five hundred bruised bodies of men–men made in the image of God, marred by the hand of man, and must we say in the name of God? And where is the reckoning for such things? And who is answerable? One might almost shrink from the sound of his own voice, which had launched into the palpitating air words of order–do we call it?–fraught with such ruin. Was it God’s command that we heard, or His forgiveness that we must forever implore?”

His question is as operable today as it was then. There has to be a reckoning somewhere for destroying peoples lives, and further traumatizing them when they seek help, otherwise there is no justice nor anything that resembles a loving God.

We have to start valuing people, regardless of their social status, their race, religion, sexual preference, disability or even their alma mater. If we don’t start caring for people as human beings, then why bother with anything else? It is either about humanity or its not. Those who are comfortable cannot turn a  blind eye thinking that these issues don’t affect them, because they will.

So in spite of being unpopular in some circles I take the personal risk to speak the truth the best and most honest way I can to anyone that will listen. I have to do it, for those that feel that they have no voice, as well as those who I have known who have lost their lives after giving up on the system. I owe it to them. It is now my mission in life and I do that I can both inside the system and outside of it to speak out for those who need it.  I guess I have become something of a liberal social activist, not that there is anything wrong with that.

I can be as persistent and irritating as Mustard Gas; I am doggedly determined to speak out for those that do not feel that they matter or have a voice; and I will stay in the fight until I can’t fight anymore. As Paul Tillich said “It is my mission to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.”

I admit that sometimes it is like tilting at windmills, but this week, two men who have the position to influence the system took the time to listen and just maybe at least at some level things will begin to change. I am grateful tonight, maybe I will sleep well…

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under faith, healthcare, mental health, Military, PTSD, suicide, US Navy

Broken and Unlikely to Get Better: Military Mental Health Care

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Well, my friends it’s time for me to get on the PTSD soapbox and go “Smedley” on the military mental health system. The fact is the system is broken, maybe not as bad as the VA, but broken nonetheless. The biggest part of the problem is not that there are not enough providers, there are not even though many more have been hired. The biggest part of the problem is that the system has lost any humanity that it once had, all in the name of efficiency and the budgetary bottom line. The fact is that the bottom line actually matters more than people and bean counters, not providers have the final say.

Marine Corps Major General, and two time Medal of Honor winner, Smedley Butler wrote after he retired in his classic book War is a Racket:

“I have visited eighteen government hospitals for veterans. In them are about 50,000 destroyed men- men who were the pick of the nation eighteen years ago. The very able chief surgeon at the government hospital in Milwaukee, where there are 3,800 of the living dead, told me that mortality among veterans is three times as great as among those who stayed home.” 

Two years ago, the Navy seeing a increase in healthcare costs decided to bring as many people back into the Navy Medicine system as possible and cut back on referrals for active duty personnel. I understand that, money is short and Lord knows we need to save it wherever we can in order to buy aircraft like those in the grossly over-budget, behind schedule and substandard F-35 Lightening stealth fighter plane program, or ships like the Littoral Combat Ship which are over budget, under armed and not designed to survive the slightest combat. Mind you, none of the F-35s are in service, despite a decade of tests and production delays, costing hundreds of billions of dollars. But I digress…after all, war is a racket.

Now let me be honest and as fair as possible. There are many great mental health providers in the military and the Navy Medicine system; active duty, reserve, civilian and contractors. These people actually do care, but often they don’t get to make decisions that they think are right for their patients. At the same time there are others working in the system that are just in it for job security or the money. However, all of them are at the mercy of commanding officers that decide how they want to spend their budget, and dictate to their providers, sometimes at the threat of their job, contract renewal, a positive fitness report or promotion recommendation what they will approve, or more likely, deny. Thus in some cases commanders will support their providers doing whatever possible to get patients help, while others look at the bottom line. I have had both experiences.

I have been getting mental health treatment for PTSD since July 2008 when my life fell apart after Iraq. I have had mental health providers in the Navy Medical system. I also had a civilian psychiatrist who I was allowed to see when I was at Camp LeJeune, even after Navy Medicine decided to bring people back into the Navy Medicine system.

You see at Camp LeJeune, the old hospital commander, who I worked for, and the Director of Mental Health who I worked with realized that as a Chaplain that my personal and professional privacy, and my need for continuity of care was important. They realized that I needed to feel safe. There I was treated with professional courtesy, with humanity and I felt like people actually cared about me. That was was something that I needed then, and still need now. Unfortunately that is not happening now.

When I returned to the Hampton Roads area I knew that I still needed mental health care. I finally got my first visit and intake evaluation in June. My first appointment with a psychiatrist came on July 7th. The psychiatrist herself was not the issue. You see I used to work at the Naval Medical Center for two years and continued to work at the Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune for another three. I am fairly well known in the Navy Medical Region East.

I suffer a tremendous amount of anxiety. I admit it, I am still bat-shit crazy. I have the PTSD “Mad Cow.” The night before my first appointment I could not sleep, most likely because of being anxious about going to the Naval Medical Center outpatient mental health clinic. The fact is, it is really big and impersonal, and frankly that scares the hell out of me. I can’t go to big churches for the same reason. I feel terribly unsafe in them.

My worst fears were borne out. The waiting room was crowded, and after waiting I had my name and rank called out for everyone to hear, so much for the expectation of privacy, in fact I think that was a HIPPA violation. In the intake room I was met by three very junior hospital corpsmen. I didn’t even get a “hello, how are you doing sir?” from them. Instead one told me to take off my shirt, one told me to step on a scale and after that I was told to sit down, and got my blood pressure taken. My blood pressure was twenty points, actually almost 30 points higher than normal, even after I have just had a bunch of caffeine, which I did not on July 7th. I have to attribute the rise in blood pressure to the anxiety of just going in to the clinic, there is no other reason. After I had my vitals checked, I was asked a series of rapid fire questions that were very personal in nature and that I would prefer a doctor or nurse ask. I was then told to go back and wait.

The whole process was impersonal, embarrassing and dehumanizing. But it was very efficient, and the bean counters should be happy. That being said it was the absolute worst experience I have had with military medicine, and that includes having a thumb stuck up my ass and having to duck walk at the Military Entrance Processing Station. That was a rite of passage, but this scared the absolute hell out of me, I did not feel like I mattered as a person to anyone in the clinic.

When I saw the doctor she was pleasant. I told her of my experience and requested that I be referred to a provider in town as I had at Camp LeJeune. I was told that she would submit the request to her division officer who is a doctor that I know, and get back to me in a day or two. I didn’t hear from her. I waited two and a half weeks, and finally decided to e-mail the doctor on July 24th asking what was going on. Today I got an e-mail telling me that “my case could not be sent to the civilian network.” No reason was provided. The time between that appointment and the denial of my request was almost four weeks, totally unacceptable by any standard of care, military, civilian or even Klingon.

I was given the option of seeing a provider at an outlying clinic however the one close to where I work would be similar to the main hospital, crowded and impersonal. The other option was using a resource called “Military One Source” where I could get up to 10 or 12 appointments with a civilian provider in town with no guarantee that I would be able to see them after those visits were up without approval from the same people who just told me that I couldn’t be seen in town. If I do that my medication would then be managed by my PCM instead of a shrink. At this point I no longer have any trust in the military mental health system, at least for me, and the Military One Source providers are not really there to deal with long term chronic conditions.

I knew that I was being blown off. In military speak it is the old adage that “a mission passed is a mission completed.” The fact is that I do not matter to these providers. Unlike the people at Camp LeJeune, they have no personal investment in me as a patient or as a professional colleague, so why should it matter to them? I don’t write their evaluations, the bean counting admiral does so, why would an old and broken chaplain who doesn’t work with them matter?

Likewise I am being treated like a child in regard to medication. I have no history of drug abuse, prescription or otherwise. Unlike LeJeune where my doctor put refills on my as needed PRN anxiety medicine, I now have to subject myself to the industrial “production line” inhumanity of that clinic, just to get a refill each month.  Even if I didn’t want therapy I would have to endure the ignominy of the inhuman treatment at the clinic 12 times a year just to get a pittance of very low dose anti-anxeity medication. I don’t need that kind of abuse, and that it exactly what it is no matter what the bean counting admiral calls it.

But here’s the deal. I am a senior officer. No wonder so many senior officers decline treatment, attempt to hide their symptoms and self-medicate. The treatment in the system is demeaning and the stigma is there. I have known of a good number of senior officers, Marines, Navy and Army who have ended up losing their careers or lives over untreated PTSD. Right now I am debating even if I should go back to therapy. I know I need it, but if it is a choice of the abuse I am going through at the mental health clinic or maintaining a semblance of human dignity, a good craft beer tastes far better than Xanax.

Not only that, but an even far more important reason than me and my needs, that of the junior enlisted personnel who seek help or are directed by their commands to get help from mental health. Now I cannot imagine what it would be to be a powerless junior enlisted soldier, sailor, Marine or airman. But wait I can, I enlisted in the National Guard back in 1981. However, back then I wasn’t broken, and I cannot now imagine what is is for young, powerless enlisted personnel have to go through what I am going through when getting mental health treatment. That is the bigger issue.

Is it any wonder that the military suicide rates are still high and that this year the Navy is up from the same time as last year? According to statistics released last week, there have been 36 Navy suicides this year, last year at this time there were just 24 with 43 for the entire year. I wonder if that has something to do with pushing people into an often uncaring bureaucratic system that is more concerned with saving money than meeting the needs of patients.

I was talking to a friend, an officer at the Medical Center today while at a different clinic where I am treated with great compassion, care and dignity, a clinic that is not afraid to get me the medical help that I need, even though it is expensive. This officer and I served at Portsmouth together back in 2008-2010 and that officer told me today that the place has changed. He said it was all about business, impersonal and machine like, devoted to the bottom line, with lip service being given to actual patient needs by those in senior leadership.

Thank God I won’t have to stay in the military medical system the rest of my life. The good news is that when I retire I get to go to the amazingly proficient VA system for that care. Won’t that be grand?

No it won’t. Not for me or any of the tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of military personnel with PTSD, TBI or Moral Injury. We’ve all read about the problems in the VA, they are persistent, endemic and won’t change anytime in the near future. That is shameful.

General and former Secretary of State Colin Powell famously said “you broke it, you buy it.” Of course he was talking about Iraq, but the same principle should apply to those who have put their lives on the line during the last 13 years of war and come back broken. It is a moral obligation, it is something that we as a nation promised. The country pledged to care for those who served, and the fact that it is barely a half percent of the population who have served in war for the last 13 years, men and women who now have to fight for the basic care that a civilized, and as the Religious Right likes to call a “Christian nation” should provide as a matter of basic human decency. It is not special treatment that broken veterans deserve, it is simple decency and honoring a commitment that we made as a nation.

Yes I am going “Smedley” here, because war is a racket, and it is a racket that those inside the military, the government and the private sector promote.

I’m sure that I will get some blowback from this from some in the system, but I don’t care. The system is broken and until we as a nation stop bullshitting and admit there is a problem and elect to do something about it won’t get better. The bean counters, war profiteers and bureaucrats need to be held accountable by our elected representatives.

I am going to be contacting the Admiral that commands the medical center as well as my Congressman, and probably the chairmen of both the House and Senate Defense committees because I suspect from what I hear from soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen around the country that this is not an isolated instance. So, if someone like me, a senior officer still in the system doesn’t do this who will?

I hope that this post will become viral so that our sailors, Marines, soldiers and airmen get the quality care, delivered with compassion and humanity that they deserve. For some it will be a matter of life and death.

Pray for me a sinner.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under healthcare, Military, PTSD, US Navy

Rest In Peace Captain Tom Sitsch USN

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Captain Tom Sitsch died by his own hand on January 6th outside a hospital Emergency Room in Littleton New Hampshire. Captain Sitsch was loved and respected by his sailors. As an Explosive Ordnance Demolition officer and expert he was deployed into harms way many times. As the commanding officer of Task Force Troy, a Joint Task Force in Iraq his expertise and leadership helped save countless lives from Improvised Explosive Devices or as they are more familiarly known “IEDs.”

He was my last Commodore at EOD Group Two in Norfolk. He took command from Captain, now Admiral Frank Morneau. Both men mean a lot to me. They were leaders of men and care for those who they commanded. When I collapsed from the effects of PTSD in June 2008 then Commodore Morneau made sure that I got the help I needed and worked with our Medical Officer to make it happen. Commodore Sitsch was one of the first men, maybe the first to ask me the hard question: “where does a chaplain go for help?”

Both were men of compassion, and Captain Sitsch’s suicide has stunned me. I learned of his death tonight on Facebook as I had lost track of him after he was retired from the Navy in 2009.

Evidently his demons were too much for him. He suffered from PTSD, which considering his vocation is not surprising. In 2009 he was relieved of his command and forced to retire after he was caught shoplifting a pair of shoes from a local Navy Exchange. Following his retirement he struggled and was in and out of trouble. He was estranged from his wife, and he was forbidden to enter the state she lived by a court order. Four weeks before he took his life he was arrested for shoplifting at a Fredericksburg Virginia Wal-Mart. When arrested he told the police that he was a kleptomaniac.

Some who do not understand will condemn him even as he lies in his grave. I cannot. I didn’t know Captain Sitsch well, but no matter what his flaws may have been, he showed me compassion when I needed it most. For that I am grateful. Many of his EOD officers and sailors, as well as the Army, Marine Corps and Air Force EOD technicians Who served alongside him will say the same thing.

The one question all of us are probably asking is “what could any of us done to prevent this?”

Truthfully I don’t know. Captain Sitsch is not the first and will not be the last legitimate American hero to fall victim to his own demons, or end his life by his own hand. The physical wounds of war, PTSD, traumatic Brian Injury as well as what is called “moral injury” not to mention the months and years away from hearth and home take a tremendous toll on our veterans and their families.

From my perspective it seems that rank, age and experience are not necessarily safeguards against any of these conditions. It is my opinion after over 30 years of service that our military bureaucracy and promotion systems contribute to tragedies like that of Captain Sitsch. As they are set up they ensure that those who admit to struggles are shunted aside even as equally damaged individuals who “suck it up” and say nothing move up.

I was able to chat with some EOD friends this evening. That was helpful. I pray for the soul of Captain Sitsch, as well as his family, friends, and shipmates during this time of inexpressible loss.

I pray that the soul of Captain Tom Sitsch and all the departed will rest in peace.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under PTSD, shipmates and veterans, US Navy

The Never Built Battlecruisers of 1921: The G3, Amagi and Lexington Classes

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Artists Depiction of G3 Battlecruiser 

As the First World War ended a new Naval Race was heating up. The United States had announced its intention during the war to build a navy second to none while Imperial Japan was making plans for a fleet that would give it superiority in the Western Pacific. The British, though still be far the largest naval power in the world were burdened by the massive costs of war and empire, but also seeking to maintain their naval dominance.

The ships known as battle cruisers were first built by the British Royal Navy as a compliment to the all big gun Dreadnought battleships. The Battle Cruiser concept was a ship of roughly the same size and firepower as a Battleship but sacrificing protection for greater speed, endurance and range.  and Japan joined in the Battle Cruiser race before and during the war. The United States had concentrated on Battleships.

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HMS Invincible Blowing Up at Jutland 

During the war the weaknesses of the type were exposed during the Battle of Jutland where three British Battle Cruisers, the HMS Invincible, HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary blew up with the loss of most of their crews of the  3311 officers and sailors on the ships only 26 survived. The HMS Lion was almost lost in a similar manner but for the heroic actions of her crew. The British ships had glaring deficiencies in armor protection and the arrangement of their ammunition magazines and hoists which certainly contributed to their loss. Their German counterparts on the other hand proved much tougher and though all sustained heavy damage while engaging British Battleships and Battle Cruisers, only one the Lützow was lost. She absorbed over 30 hits from large caliber shells and only lost 128 crew members.

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As the war progressed other Battle Cruisers were built, the British launched the HMS Repulse and HMS Renown and completed the HMS Hood shortly after the war was over. The Japanese built the four ship Kongo class from a British design. As the powers embarked on the next Naval Race planners and naval architects designed ships of massive firepower, better protection and higher range and speed. All would have been better classed as Fast Battleships.

The British designed and began construction on the G3 class in 1921, the Japanese the Amagi Class, and the United States the Lexington Class. However the construction and completion of these ships as Battle Cruisers was prevented by the Washington Naval Treaty.

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The treaty was ratified in 1922 limited the United States and Great Britain to a maximum of 525,000 tons in their battle ship fleets and 125,000 tons in aircraft carriers.  The Japanese agreed to a limit of 315,000 tons and the French and Italians 175,000 tons each. Tonnage for battleships was limited to a maximum of 35,000 tons with a limitation on guns size to 16 inches.  Since the bulk of the ships planned or being built by the US and Japan exceeded those limits they would be effected more than the British whose post war shipbuilding program had not begun in earnest, in fact the G3 Class had just been approved for construction.

The G3 class would have comprised four ships and been similar to the N3 Class Battleships. They were very well balanced ships and would have mounted nine 16” guns in three turrets on a displacement of 49,200 tons and deep load of 54,774 tons. They had an all or nothing protection plan meaning that the armored belt was concentrated in vital areas around the armored citadel, conning tower, turrets and magazines and engineering spaces. Their armor belt would have ranged from 12-14 inches, deck armor from 3-8 inches, conning tower 8 inches, barbettes 11-14 inches, turrets 13-17 inches and bulkheads 10-12 inches. Their propulsion system of 20 small tube boilers powering 4 geared steam turbines connected to 4 propeller shafts would have produced 160,000 shp with a designed speed of 32 knots.

The four ships, none of which were named were ordered between October and November of 1921. Their construction was suspended on November 18th 1921 and they and the N3 Battleships were cancelled in February 1922 due to the limitations of the Washington Naval Treaty. Many concepts of their design were incorporated in the Nelson Class Battleships.

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Amagi Class as Designed, Akagi as Completed (below) 

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The four planned Japanese Amagi Class ships would have mounted ten 16” guns on a displacement of 47,000 tons at full load. Their propulsion system 19 Kampon boilers powering four Gihon turbines would have given them a maximum speed of 30 knots, They would have had less protection than the G3 ships being more of a traditional Battle Cruiser design. As a result of the Washington Naval Treaty the Japanese elected to convert two of the ships, the Amagi and Akagi to aircraft carriers. Amagi was destroyed on the ways during the great Tokyo earthquake and Akagi was completed as a carrier. The other two vessels were scrapped on the ways.

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The United States Navy planned the six ship Lexington Class. These ships would have mounted eight 16” guns on a ship displacing 43,254 tons at full load. They would have had a maximum speed of 33 knots being powered by 16 boilers which drove 4 GE electric turbines producing 180,000 shp. It was a massive engineering plant and the class did not have as heavy armor protection as either the G3 or Amagi classes but were superior in speed as well as endurance. Upon ratification of the Washington Naval Treaty four of the six ships were cancelled and the remaining two, the Lexington and Saratoga competed as aircraft carriers.  Had any of the ships been completed as Battle Cruisers it is likely due to their speed that they would have operated primarily with the the carriers that the US Navy built during the 1930s.

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One can only speculate what the navies of World War II would have looked like had the Washington and the subsequent London Naval Treaties not been ratified. One can also only imagine how the war at sea would have been different had the ships completed as carriers been completed as Battle Cruisers.

However that was not to be, of the planned 14 ships of these three classes only three were completed, all as aircraft carriers. Thus they are an interesting footnote in the annals of naval ship design and not much more.

Until tomorrow,

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy

Salvaging the Fleet: Salvage Efforts after the Attack on Pearl Harbor

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One of the more interesting aspects of the Pearl Harbor attack were the efforts of the US Navy to salvage and return to duty the ships sunk or so heavily damaged that they were thought to be irreparable after the attack. 21 ships were sunk or damaged during the attack, roughly 20% of the fleet present.

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Of these were battleships, the USS Arizona sunk by a cataclysmic explosion, her broken hulk with her collapsed foremast the iconic symbol of the attack. USS Oklahoma was capsized on Battleship Row.  USS Nevada was grounded and sunk off Hospital Point after an abortive attempt to sortie during the attack. USS California and USS West Virginia lay upright on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, their superstructure, distinctive cage masts and gun turrets visible above the oily water.

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The former battleship USS Utah lay capsized on the far side of Ford Island while the light cruiser USS Raleigh was fighting for her life barely afloat near Utah.  The ancient Minelayer USS Oglala was laying on her side next to the light cruiser USS Helena at the 1010 Dock. She was not hit by a bomb or torpedo but was said to have “died of fright” when Helena was hit by a torpedo, the blast which opened the seams of her hull. The destroyers USS Cassin and USS Downes were wrecks in the main dry dock. USS Shaw was minus her bow in the floating dry dock after exploding in what was one of the more iconic images of the attack. Other ships received varying amounts of damage.

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As the engineers, damage control and salvage experts looked at the damage they realized that every ship would be needed for the long term fight. The building program of the US Navy was just beginning to pick up steam and it would be some time before new construction could not only make up for the losses but also be ready to fight a Two Ocean War. The decision was made to salvage and return to duty any ship deemed salvageable.

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Even the seemingly less important ships needed to be rapidly salvaged. Some which initially appeared to be unsalvageable needed at the minimum to be cleared from dry docks and docks needed by operational or less damaged ships. Likewise equipment, machinery and armaments from these ships needed to be salvaged for use in other ships.

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Even by modern standards the efforts of the Navy divers and salvage experts and the civilians who worked alongside them were amazing. In the end only three of the 19 ships never returned to service. The work began quickly and on December 14th Commander James Steele began to direct the salvage operations on the sunken hulks. Captain Wallin relieved Steele on January 9th 1942. Wallin formed a salvage organization of Navy officers and civilian contractors.The civilian contractors were instrumental in the operation. Many had experience in salvage operations that exceeded the military personnel.

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Wallin prioritized the tasks of his organization working to recover items that could be of immediate use to the fleet such as anti-aircraft guns and to salvage less damaged ships in order to return them to service. They worked at the task through 1944. The divers faced extraordinary dangers, poisonous gas, unexploded ordnance, treacherous tides and the uncertainty of the destruction of the ships below the surface that could not be ascertained apart from diving on the wrecks.

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The divers recovered bodies whenever possible, salvaged equipment, removed weapons and ammunition, made temporary repairs and help rig the ships for righting or re-floating. In each case the salvage experts, divers and engineers faced different challenges.

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Arizona was never raised. Her superstructure was cut down, main battery and some anti-aircraft guns removed. The main batter guns were delivered to the Army Coastal Artillery for use as shore batteries but none reached an operational status before the end of the war. The dives aboard were so dangerous that eventually the attempts to recover bodies ceased as several divers lost their lives in the wreck.  Over the years the National Parks Service has continued to dive on the wreck to assess it as a war grave and memorial.

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Utah too was not raised. She was righted in 1942 but efforts to do more were halted because the elderly wreck had no remaining military value. Her wreck along with that of Arizona are war graves, many of their crew members, including over 1000 of Arizona’s men forever remain entombed in their ships. When I visited Pearl Harbor in 1978 as a Navy Junior ROTC Cadet and visited both memorials I was humbled at what  saw. They are haunting reminders of the cost paid by sailors during wartime.

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The salvage of the Oklahoma was one of the more challenging endeavors faced by Wallin’s men. Hit by at least five torpedoes during the attack the great ship capsized, her tripod masts digging deep into the mud of the harbor as she settled. Over 400 over her crew lay dead inside the ship. Since it was apparent that the ship was a total loss the salvage operations did not commence until the middle of 1942. The primary goal of the operation was to clear needed space for berthing large ships along Battleship Row. The operation involved making the ship as watertight as possible, solidifying the bottom of the harbor around her to enable her to roll and emplacing a massive system of righting frames, anchor chains and shore mounted winches and cables. The process involved cutting away wrecked superstructure, removing ammunition, weapons and the bodies of those entombed in their former home. She was completely righted in July 1943, and floated again in November. Moved to a dry dock in December she was made watertight and moored in another part of the harbor. Following the war she was being towed to a scrap yard but sank in a storm in May 1947.

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Nevada was the first major ship salvaged. She was re-floated in February 1942 and after temporary repairs sailed to the West Coast on her own power. After repairs and a significant modernization of her anti-aircraft systems was complete she returned to action in 1943 in the invasion of Attu Alaska. She participated in many amphibious operations including Normandy, Southern France, Iwo Jim and Okinawa. She survived the Atomic Bomb tests in 1946 but wrecked and radioactive she was sunk as a target off Hawaii in 1948.

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California was raised in March and after temporary repairs sailed under her own power to the West Coast. Her repairs and modernization were a major undertaking. Fully reconditioned and modernized to standards of most modern battleships she returned to service in January 1944. She served in retaking Saipan, Guam, Tinian as well as Leyte Gulf were she had a significant part in the Battle of Surigao Strait. Hit by a Kamikaze she was repaired and returned to action at Okinawa and support the occupation operations of the Japanese Home Islands. She was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrapping in 1959.

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West Virginia suffered the most severe damage of the battleships returned to duty. She was raised in July 1942 and after repairs sailed to Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Like California she was completely rebuilt and returned to action in October 1944 in time to take the lead role in destroying the Japanese Battleship Yamashiro. She served throughout the remainder of the war in the Pacific at Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the occupation of Japan.

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The Mahan Class destroyers Cassin and Downes were so badly damaged sitting in the Dry Dock Number One with Pennsylvania that initially they were believed beyond salvage. However after closer inspection it was determined that the hull fittings, main weapons systems and propulsion machinery on both ships were worth salvaging. These items were removed, shipped to Mare Island Naval Shipyard and installed on new hulls being constructed. The hulks of the old ships were scrapped at Pearl Harbor. Those ships were commissioned as the Cassin and Downes and served throughout the war.

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Both were decommissioned in 1945 and scrapped in 1947. Their sister ship Shaw which had blown up in the floating dry dock was wrecked from her bridge forward. However the rest of the ship including her engineering spaces were intact. A temporary bow was fashioned and the ship sailed to Mare Island under her own power. Completely overhauled she was back in service by July 1942. She was decommissioned in 1945 and scrapped in 1946.

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The ancient minelayer Oglala was raised in July and sent back to the West Coast where she was repaired and recommissioned as an internal combustion engine repair ship. She survived the war was decommissioned and transferred to Maritime Commission custody. She was a depot ship at the Suisun Bay Reserve Fleet until 1965 when she was sold for scrap.

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The salvage feat to return these ships to duty was one of the most remarkable operations of its type ever conducted. Not only were most of the ships salvaged but most returned to duty. While none survive today many played key roles during the war. Artifacts of some of the ships are on display at various Naval Bases, Museums and State Capitals. They, their brave crews and the Navy Divers and civilian diving and salvage experts who conducted this task exhibited the finest traditions of the US Navy. The successors of the Navy divers at Mobile Diving Salvage Units One and Two still carry on that tradition today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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In Harm’s Way: The Ships that Got Underway at Pearl Harbor

They were an odd collection of ships. A battleship, two modern light cruisers, an elderly light cruiser and a collection of destroyers, destroyer minesweepers and destroyer minelayers. Yet in the midst of the din and bloody chaos of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor these ships, sometimes with only the most junior of officers in charge got underway and took to sea in order to seek out and engage the Japanese.

Their sortie is dramatized in the Otto Preminger film In Harm’s Way. 

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For the first forty minutes of the attack only two ships were underway. The USS Ward which had sunk the Japanese midget submarine outside the harbor entrance an hour before the attack began. The USS Helm was in the main channel as the attack began. They were joined over the next two hours by other ships.

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The USS Nevada was the only battleship to get underway that morning and though she did not get to sea her example served to inspire those on the battered ships in the harbor and ashore. Her commanding officer and executive officer were ashore, along with many other senior officers. However her Damage Control Officer, Lieutenant Commander Francis Thomas, a reservist took command and as the senior officer present on the the ship got her underway. Then as she was battered by the second wave of Japanese attackers he skillfully grounded her off Hospital Point to keep her from being sunk in the narrow main channel.

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The USS St. Louis was moored outboard of her sister ship USS Honolulu at the Naval Station. Her sortie was enabled by members of her crew who chopped down the gangplank and cut water lines to the shore. Under command of Captain George Rood she got underway at 0931 and was the first cruiser to get underway.

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USS Phoenix sortie at Pearl Harbor

She was joined by her sister ship USS Phoenix and the elderly light cruiser USS Detroit which was moored on the far side of Ford Island.  Phoenix survived the war only to be sunk in the 1982 Falklands war as the Argentine ship General Belgrano.

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The destroyer USS Blue got underway under the command of Ensign Nathan Asher, who had just three other ensigns with him as that ship got underway. She was joined by Monaghan, Dale, Henley, Phelps, Farragut, MacDonough, Worden, Patterson, Jarvis and Aylwin also under command of an junior officer, Ensign Stanley Caplan. Henley left without her commander under the command of Lieutenant Francis Fleck Jr.

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Others too got underway, The USS Mugford was the duty destroyer and got underway quickly, as did Cummings. The Ralph Talbot was underway by 0900. Conyngham got underway in the early afternoon. Perhaps the most interesting story was the USS Selfridge which got underway manned by a composite crew of 7 different ships.

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The cruisers and destroyers were joined by a number of elderly former destroyers which had been converted to Destroyer Minesweepers or Minelayers. The Ramsay, Breese, Trever and Perry all got underway, Trever also minus her commanding officer.

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Some of the ships formed in a vain search for the Japanese strike force while others conducted defensive anti-submarine operations in the waters off Pearl Harbor.

The fact that all of these ships were able to get underway and navigate through the chaos of the attack, often under the command of junior officers and without key crew members was a testament to the courage and initiative of US Navy Officers and Sailors. It is a courage and initiative still in evidence today.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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Battleship Row: The Story of the Battleships of Pearl Harbor

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“Yesterday, Dec. 7, 1941 – a date which will live in infamy – the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan…. The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian Islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. Very many American lives have been lost.” Except of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s Pearl Harbor Speech December 8th 1941

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Today is the 72nd anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and as we were then we are at war. Of course it is not the same kind of war and most Americans live in the illusion of peace which makes it even more important to remember that terribly day of infamy.

I remember reading Walter Lord’s classic and very readable book about Pearl Harbor “Day of Infamy” when I was a 7th grade student at Stockton Junior High School back in 1972.  At the time my dad was on his first deployment to Vietnam on the USS Hancock CVA-19.  As a Navy brat I was totally enthralled with all things Navy and there was little that could pull me out of the library.  In fact in my sophomore year of high school I cut over one half of the class meetings of the 4th quarter my geometry class to sit in the library and read history, especially naval and military history.

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The main battery of either USS Arizona or Pennsylvania 

Over the years I have always found the pre-World War Two battleships to be among the most interesting ships in US Navy history.  No they are not the sleek behemoths like the USS Wisconsin which graces the Norfolk waterfront. They were not long and sleek, but rather squat yet exuded power. They were the backbone of the Navy from the First World War until Pearl Harbor.  They were the US Navy answer to the great Dreadnaught race engaged in by the major Navies of the world in the years prior to, during and after World War One.

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USS Pennsylvania passing under the Golden Gate

Built over a period of 10 years each class incorporated the rapid advances in technology between the launching of the Dreadnaught and the end of the Great War.  While the United States Navy did not engage in battleship to battleship combat the ships built by the US Navy were equal to or superior to many of the British and German ships of the era.

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US Battleships at the Grand Fleet Review of 1937

Through the 1920s and 1930s they were the ambassadors of the nation, training and showing the flag. During those years the older ships underwent significant overhaul and modernization.

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The Battle Force of the Pacific Fleet in 1941 included 9 battleships of which 8 were at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7th.  In the event of war the US War Plan, “Orange” called for the Pacific Fleet led by the Battle Force to cross the Pacific, fight a climactic Mahanian battle against the battleships of the Imperial Japanese Navy and after vanquishing the Japanese foe to relieve American Forces in the Philippines.  However this was not to be as by the end of December 7th all eight were out of action, with two, the Arizona and Oklahoma permanently lost to the Navy.

The ships comprised 4 of the 6 classes of battleships in the US inventory at the outbreak of hostilities.  Each class was an improvement on the preceding class in speed, protection and firepower.  The last class of ships, the Maryland class comprised of the Maryland, Colorado and West Virginia, was the pinnacle of US Battleship design until the North Carolina class was commissioned in 1941.  Since the Washington Naval Treaty limited navies to specific tonnage limits as well as the displacement of new classes of ships the United States like Britain and Japan was limited to the ships in the current inventory at the time of the treaty’s ratification.

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USS Oklahoma

The ships at Pearl Harbor included the two ships of the Nevada class, the Nevada and Oklahoma they were the oldest battleships at Pearl Harbor and the first of what were referred to as the “standard design” battleships. The two ships of the Pennsylvania class, the Pennsylvania and her sister the Arizona served as the flagships of the Pacific Fleet and First Battleship Division respectively and were improved Nevada’s. The California class ships, California and Tennessee and two of the three Maryland’s the Maryland and West Virginia made up the rest of the Battle Force.

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USS California passing under Brooklyn Bridge

The Colorado was undergoing a yard period at Bremerton and the three ships of the New Mexico class, New Mexico, Mississippi and Idaho had been transferred to the Atlantic before Pearl Harbor due to the German threat.  The three oldest battleships  ships of the New York and Wyoming Classes, the New York, Arkansas and Texas also were in the Atlantic. Two former battleships, the Utah and Wyoming had been stripped of their main armaments and armor belts and served as gunnery training ships for the fleet. The Utah was at Pearl Harbor moored on the far side of Ford Island.

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The ships that lay at anchor at 0755 that peaceful Sunday morning on “Battleship Row” and in the dry dock represented the naval power of a bygone era, something that most did not realize until two hours later. The age of the battleship was passing away, but even the Japanese did not realize that the era had passed building the massive super-battleships Yamato and Musashi mounting nine 18” guns and displacing 72,000 tons, near twice that of the largest battleships on Battleship Row.

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USS Nevada at Pearl Harbor

The Oklahoma and Nevada were the oldest ships in the Battle Force.  Launched in 1914 and commissioned in 1916 the Nevada and Oklahoma mounted ten 14” guns and displaced 27,500 tons and were capable of 20.5 knots. They served in World War One alongside the British Home Fleet and were modernized in the late 1920s. They were part of the US presence in both the Atlantic and Pacific in the inter-war years. Oklahoma took part in the evacuation of American citizens from Spain in 1936 during the Spanish Civil War.

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USS Oklahoma Capsized (above) and righted (below)

 

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During the Pearl Harbor attack Oklahoma was struck by 5 aerial torpedoes capsized and sank at her mooring with the loss of 415 officers and crew. Recent analysis indicates that she may have been hit by at least on torpedo from a Japanese midget submarine. Her hulk would be raised but she would never again see service and sank on the way to the breakers in 1946.

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USS Nevada aground off Hospital Point

Nevada was the only battleship to get underway during the attack.  Moored alone at the north end of Battleship Row her Officer of the Deck had lit off a second boiler an hour before the attack.  She was hit by an aerial torpedo in the first minutes of the attack but was not seriously damaged. She got underway between the attack waves and as she attempted to escape the harbor she was heavily damaged. To prevent her from sinking in the main channel she was beached off Hospital Point.

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USS Nevada at Normandy 

Nevada was raised and received a significant modernization before returning to service for the May 1943 assault on Attu.  Nevada returned to the Atlantic where she took part in the Normandy landings off Utah Beach and the invasion of southern France.  She returned to the Pacific and took part in the operations against Iwo Jima and Okinawa where she again provided naval gunfire support.  Following the war the great ship was assigned as a target at the Bikini atoll atomic bomb tests. The tough ship survived these tests and was sunk as a target on 31July 1948.

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USS Arizona

The two ships of the Pennsylvania Class were improved Oklahoma’s.  The Arizona and Pennsylvania mounted twelve 14” guns and displacing 31,400 tons and capable of 21 knots they were both commissioned in 1916. They participated in operations in the Atlantic in the First World War with the British Home Fleet. Both ships were rebuilt and modernized between 1929-1931.

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They were mainstays of the fleet being present at Presidential reviews, major fleet exercises and making goodwill visits around the world.  Pennsylvania was the Pacific Fleet Flagship on December 7th 1941 and was in dry dock undergoing maintenance at the time of the attack. She was struck by two bombs and received minor damage.

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She was back in action in early 1942. She underwent minor refits and took part in many amphibious landings in the Pacific and was present at the Battle of Surigao Strait.  She was heavily damaged by an aerial torpedo at Okinawa Pennsylvania and was repaired. Following the war the elderly warrior was used as a target for the atomic bomb tests. She was sunk as a gunnery target in 1948.

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Arizona was destroyed during the attack. As the flagship of Battleship Division One she was moored next to the repair ship USS Vestal.  She was hit by 8 armor piercing bombs one of which penetrated her forward black powder magazine. The ship was consumed by a cataclysmic explosion which killed 1103 of her 1400 member crew including her Captain and Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd, commander of Battleship Division One.  She was never officially decommissioned and the colors are raised and lowered every day over the Memorial which sits astride her broken hull.

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The Tennessee class ships the Tennessee and California were the class following the New Mexico class ships which were not present at Pearl Harbor. These ships were laid down in 1917 and commissioned in 1920. Their design incorporated lessons learned at the Battle Jutland. They mounted twelve 14” guns, displaced 32,300 tons and were capable of 21 knots. At Pearl Harbor Tennessee was moored inboard of West Virginia and protected from the aerial torpedoes which did so much damage to other battleships. She was damaged by two bombs. California the Flagship of Battleship Division Two was moored at the southern end of Battleship Row. She was hit by two torpedoes in the initial attack. However, she had the bad luck to have all of her major watertight hatches unhinged in preparation for an inspection.

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Despite the valiant efforts of her damage control teams she sank at her moorings. She was raised and rebuilt along with Tennessee were completely modernized with the latest in radar, fire control equipment and anti-aircraft armaments. They were widened with the addition of massive anti-torpedo bulges and their superstructure was razed and rebuilt along the lines of the South Dakota class.

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USS California following Modernization

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USS Tennessee with another ship, possibly California in reserve awaiting the breakers

When the repairs and modernization work was completed they looked nothing like they did on December 7th. Both ships were active in the Pacific campaign and be engaged at Surigao Strait where they inflicted heavy damage on the attacking Japanese squadron. Both survived the war and were placed in reserve until 1959 when they were stricken from the Navy list and sold for scrap.

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USS West Virginia 

The Maryland and West Virginia were near sisters of the Tennessee class.  They were the last battleships built by the United States before the Washington Naval Treaty. and the first to mount 16” guns. With eight 16” guns they had the largest main battery of any US battleships until the North Carolina class.

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They displaced 32,600 tons and could steam at 21 knots. Laid down in 1917 and commissioned in 1921 they were modernized in the late 1920s. They were the most modern of the Super-Dreadnoughts built by the United States and included advances in protection and watertight integrity learned from both the British and German experience at Jutland.

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USS Maryland behind the capsized Oklahoma

At Pearl Harbor Maryland  was moored inboard of Oklahoma and was hit by 2 bombs and her crew helped rescue survivors of that unfortunate ship.  She was quickly repaired and returned to action.  She received minimal modernization during the war. She participated in operations throughout the entirety of the Pacific Campaign mainly conducting Naval Gunfire Support to numerous amphibious operations. She was present at Surigao Strait where despite not having the most modern fire control radars she unleashed six salvos at the Japanese Southern Force.

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USS West Virginia, sunk, raised and in dry dock, note the massive damage to Port Side

West Virginia suffered some of the worst damage in the attack. She was hit by at least 5 torpedoes and two bombs. She took a serious list and was threatening to capsize. However she was saved from Oklahoma’s fate by the quick action of her damage control officer who quickly ordered counter-flooding so she would sink on an even keel.  She was raised from the mud of Pearl Harbor and after temporary repairs and sailed to the West Coast for an extensive modernization on the order of the Tennessee and California.

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USS West Virginia after salvage and modernization 

West Virginia was the last Pearl Harbor to re-enter service. However when she returned she made up for lost time.  She led the battle line at Surigao Strait and fired 16 full salvos at the Japanese squadron. Her highly accurate gunfire was instrumental in sinking the Japanese Battleship Yamashiro in the last battleship versus battleship action in history.  West Virginia, Maryland and their sister Colorado survived the war and were placed in reserve until they were stricken from the Naval List and sold for scrap in 1959.

The battleships of Pearl Harbor are gone, save for the wreck of the Arizona and various relics such as masts, and ships bells located at various state capitals and Naval Stations.  Unfortunately no one had the forethought to preserve one of the survivors to remain at Pearl Harbor with the Arizona.  Likewise the sailors who manned these fine ships, who sailed in harm’s way are also passing away.  Every day their ranks grow thinner, the youngest are all 89-90 years old.

As this anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack passes into history it is fitting to remember these men and the great ships that they manned.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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