Friends of Padre Steve’s World,
We are coming up on the 77th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. It is hard to believe that the attack occurred so long ago. The survivors are aging, and even the youngest are close to ninety years old, the oldest survivor of the USS Arizona, Joe Langdell died in February of 2015. At the time of the attack he was a nearly commissioned Ensign. He and many like him served as the officers and men aboard the eight great battleships moored at Pearl Harbor on that terrible Sunday morning.
The next day President Franklin Roosevelt spoke these immortal words, “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….
One of the young men who responded to the call to arms after the attack was a future President, 18 year old George H. W. Bush. He was advised to go to college instead of enlisting but he would hear nothing of it. He enlisted as soon as he graduated from high school on his 18th Birthday. He went to flight school and was commissioned just days before his 19th birthday, becoming the youngest Naval aviator. I guess that it is fitting that Bush, who passed away Saturday will be buried on December 6th, the day before the anniversary of the attack.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 at Pearl Harbor comprised four of the seven 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.
USS Oklahoma (above) and USS Nevada
Those present 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.
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 in the fleet, those 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. The newest battleships in the Navy, the modern USS North Carolina and USS Washington were also serving in the Atlantic as a deterrent to the German battleships and battlecruisers which occasionally sortied into the Atlantic to attack convoys bound for Britain.
The great 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 in the U.S. inventory.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Two views of USS Arizona
USS Pennsylvania sailing under the Golden Gate Bridge
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 and 1931. Though damaged in the attack, Pennsylvania was back in action by 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.
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.
USS Tennessee & USS California
California sailing under the Brooklyn Bridge
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 was the Flagship of Battleship Division Two. She was moored at the southern end of Battleship Row. She was hit by two torpedoes in the initial attack, but she had the bad luck to have all of her major watertight hatches unhinged in preparation for an inspection. 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. When the repairs and modernization work was completed the ships 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.
USS Maryland & USS West Virgina
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. 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.
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.
Tennessee & West Virginia after the attack (above) Arizona (below)
Pennsylvania in Drydock Number One, Nevada beached at Hospital Point
Oklahoma Capsized and after being righted
West Virginia suffered some of the worst damage in the attack. She was hit by at least 5 torpedoes and two bombs. One of the torpedoes may have come from one of the Japanese midget submarines that penetrated the harbor. 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.
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 surviving ships to serve as a living memorial at Pearl Harbor with the Arizona. As I noted at the beginning of this article, the brave Sailors and Marines who manned these fine ships are also passing away.
Thus as we approach the anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack it is fitting to remember these men and the great ships that they manned.
One response to “American Dreadnoughts: The Remarkable Battleships of Pearl Harbor”
A clear and straightforward description of U.S. Navy battleship classes. I have been interested in the salvage operations at Pearl Harbour for some years. Many years ago I saw a silent film of the salvage operations on the High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow and have two good books on the subject. The photo of a 27,000 ton battleship inverted on wooden piles in the Admiralty dry dock is astounding. Sadly I have never found a book dealing with the salvage of the Pacific Fleet, can you identify or recommend one please? You often include photos which are new to me so I suspect you can. Regards D.W.H.