Tag Archives: december 7th 1941

A Miracle of Maritime Salvage: The Salvage of the Fleet at Pearl Harbor

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

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. 19 ships were sunk or damaged during the attack, or roughly 20% of the fleet present on December 7th 1941. Unlike other great feats of maritime salvage like that of the German Fleet at Scapa Flow after the First World War, this massive effort led to the majority of the ships being returned to an operational status for further service in the war.

Captain Homer Wallin directing Salvage Operations

Many people know something about the attack, but one of the most remarkable aspects of it was the effort to salvage the fleet in the months following the attack. Under the leadership of Captain Homer N. Wallin teams of Navy and civilian divers from the Pacific Bridge Company worked day and night to salvage the sunken ships. The divers spent over 20,000 man hours under water in the highly hazardous waters; which were filled with unexploded ordinance, and contaminated by fuel and sadly decomposing human bodies. Wallin wrote: “The scene to the newcomer was foreboding indeed. There was a general feeling of depression throughout the Pearl Harbor area when it was seen and firmly believed that none of the ships sunk would ever fight again.”

The divers wore were rubberized coveralls with gloves. The divers were equipped with a lead-weighted belt which weighed 84 pounds and lead-weighted shoes, each of which weighed 36 pounds. Each diver wore a copper helmet attached to a breastplate. Air was supplied through a hose which was attached to the helmet and ran up to a compressor monitored by men on the surface. The work was extremely hazardous, the wrecked ships contained numerous hazards, any of which could cut his air hose and cause his death, and they also contained highly toxic gasses. They often worked in total darkness and had to communicate with the men on the surface via a telephone cable. The divers had to be exceptionally talented to and needed a great amount of coordination senses and balance to work with welding torches, suction hoses, and heavy equipment in the confines of the shattered ships. During the salvage operations a number of divers lost their lives. Before the ships could be raised ammunition, including the massive 14 and 16 inch shells weighing anywhere from 1300 to 2000 pounds each, Japanese bombs and torpedoes, fuel oil, gasoline, electrical equipment and batteries, weapons, and whenever possible the bodies of the entombed crews had to be removed, and then every hole had to be patched to make them buoyant. After the ships were raised cleanup crews had to go aboard and clear the ships of other hazardous waste as repair crews began their work to repair the basic systems needed to get the ships to West Coast shipyards for the major overhauls, The herculean effort was one of the greatest engineering feats in maritime history.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 of the civilians had experience in salvage operations, or underwater construction efforts, such as working on the Golden Gate Bridge which often exceeded the experience of the Navy divers.

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.

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.

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 I saw. They are haunting reminders of the cost paid by sailors during wartime.

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.



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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


Padre Steve+


Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, world war two in the pacific

Forgotten on the Far Side of Ford Island: USS Utah, USS Detroit, USS Raleigh and USS Tangier

USS Utah BB-31 in 1920s

When you visit Pearl Harbor most eyes are drawn to the USS Missouri and the USS Arizona Memorial on Battleship Row.  On the mooring quays the names of the Battleships California, Oklahoma, Maryland, West Virginia, Tennessee and Arizona mark the places where the proud Battle Force of the U.S. Pacific fleet was moored on the fateful morning of December 7th 1941.  Movies such as Tora! Tora! Tora!, In Harm’s Way and Pearl Harbor have recorded the attack in varying degrees of accuracy for audiences worldwide in the 1960s, 1970s and 2000s. All record the attack on Battleship row and the attacks on the Army Air Corps at Hickam Field but all overlook the former battleship moored on the west side of Ford Island, the two elderly light cruisers and the Seaplane Tender moored nearby.

USS Utah AG-16 in 1935

Of course these ships hold little interest to most people, they were elderly, Utah had been converted to a gunnery training ship years before and the Omaha Class light cruisers Raleigh and Detroit were obsolescent and after Pearl Harbor would serve in the backwaters of the Pacific war.  The Tangier a new Seaplane Tender occupied the berth aft of Utah.

The USS Utah AG-16, ex-BB-31 was one of the early U.S. Navy Dreadnought battleships of the Florida Class. Utah was 521 feet long, displaced 21,825 tons and mounted 10 12” guns making her comparable to British Dreadnoughts of the Neptune and Colossus class and slightly inferior to the German Helgoland class.  Utah was commissioned on 31 August 1911 and served at the Vera Cruz incident where a Naval “battalion” of 17 officers and 371 her prevented the delivery of arms from Germany to Mexican dictator Victoriano Huerta.  The in the clash with Huerta’s forces the sailors distinguished themselves earning 7 Congressional Medals of Honor.

Utah served as part of the U.S. Battle Squadron sent to operate with the Royal Navy operating out of Ireland conducting convoy protection missions and preparing to engage the German High Seas Fleet if called upon.  Utah served from 1919-1931 as a battleship conducting training and goodwill missions to Europe and South America before being converted to a gunnery training and target ship (AG16) in 1931 per the stipulations of the Washington Naval Conference. In 1941 she was modernized and equipped with weapons being installed on modern destroyers before resuming training duties with the fleet at Pearl Harbor.

On the morning of December 7th Utah was moored on the West side of Ford Island and at colors the ship was struck by a torpedo forward and began to heal to port. With the flooding causing the list to increase the senior officer on the ship, LCDR Isquith the Chief Engineer ordered Utah abandoned and while most of the crew was able to escape some were trapped below including Chief Water Tender Peter Tomich who remained below to ensure that the boilers were secured and his sailors safely out of the boiler rooms.  Tomich was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his sacrifice.  By 0812 the mooring cables had snapped and Utah lay on her beam sinking into the harbor her war over.  6 Officers and 58 crewmen died the majority trapped in the ship.  The ship would be partially righted to clear an adjacent berth in 1944.

The Raleigh and Detroit were Omaha Class Light Cruisers 555 feet long, displacing 7050 tons and mounting 12 6” guns and 10 21” torpedo tubes and were capable of 3 knots. This made them more heavily armed than the contemporary Japanese Nagara Class or the British C, D  or E Class light cruisers and larger than all but the two ship E Class. However by the beginning of the war they were inferior to all newly constructed ships.

USS Raleigh CL-7 fighting to stay afloat

The cruiser Raleigh took a torpedo that caused her to list so sharply that it was feared she would capsize, however the heroic efforts of her crew and service force craft and sailors kept her afloat and allowed her to fight another day. Most of her war would be fought in the Aleutians and following the war she would be decommissioned and scrapped.

USS Detroit CL-8 1945, final configuration

Detroit was able to get underway during the attack and avoid damage to join other ships which had escaped to form an ad hoc task group to find the Japanese strike force.  She would also serve in the Aleutians through 1944 when she became flagship of the Replenishment Group servicing the U.S. Carrier Task Forces of the 3rd and the 5th Fleets. She would be present in Tokyo Bay for the signing of the peace treaty ending the war. She too would be decommissioned and scrapped shortly after the war.

Tangier would serve in many parts of the Pacific as a mobile base for PBY Catalina’s which conducted reconnaissance, anti-submarine and search and rescue operations in support of the fleet for the duration of the war. She was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrap in 1961.

USS Utah Memorial (Google Earth)

Today a monument is located on Ford Island near the rusting hulk of the Utah. It replaced a bronze plaque which had been placed on the wreck in the late 1940s. The Memorial was officially dedicated on Memorial Day 1972.  The monument is not listed on most tourist brochures and the memorial attracts few visitors. I was able to visit the memorial in 1978 while on a Navy Junior ROTC Cadet Cruise to Pearl Harbor and back.  The official USS Utah association website is linked here: http://ussutah.org/ and the Historical Naval Ships Association webpage on Utah is here: http://hnsa.org/ships/utah.htm and the Naval History and Heritage Webpage is here: http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-u/bb31-y.htm

The Raleigh, Detroit and Tangier have no memorials.  Despite the anonymity of these ships and the men who served on them they all played a role in the war and they should not be forgotten.


Padre Steve+



Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, world war two in the pacific