Battleship Comeback: How the U.S. Navy Stormed Back After Pearl Harbor

Battleship Comeback: How the U.S. Navy Stormed Back After Pearl Harbor

" The Pearl Harbor disaster presented the U.S. Navy with a sobering question: how to recover? More than 2,000 men had died. Nearly half as many were wounded. Eighteen ships were damaged or sunk." 

Like a Bride Being Led Down the Aisle a Second Time

Through the spring and summer, nearly 1,000 tons of useful equipment was removed, carefully catalogued, and shipped to Mare Island. By August, what remained of Downes was scrapped. The Cassin followed suit by October, but the hearts of both vessels, including the 37-ton stern sections bearing their names, were saved. On May 20, 1943, Downes was “relaunched.” So was Cassin on June 21. There was no precedent for this in Navy history. Never had a ship been launched twice. “In both cases there was a minimum of fanfare,” Alden wrote. “Like a quiet ceremony with discreet minimized publicity for a bride being led to the altar for the second time.”

Of the battleships, only Nevada had been able to run for the sea. However, she took hits from a torpedo and at least seven bombs. One smashed her forecastle, blowing a 25-foot triangular hole on the port side. Another crashed through the ship—including a gasoline tank without igniting it—and detonated beneath her. Flooding was too heavy to be stopped.

Nevada Beached At Harbor Entrance During Attack

Watching from Oglala, Admiral Furlong ordered two tugboats to move the USS Nevada to the shallows at Waipio Point above the harbor entrance, where she was beached. Her bow settled until the deck was nearly awash.

Admiral Nimitz’s inspection of Nevada was a grim one. The ship had been wrecked by blasts and fire and fouled with oil and polluted water, but her men were determined to win. Nimitz consented.

Using measurements from Nevada’s sister ship, Oklahoma, yard shipwrights built a patch to cover the holes. It was a huge piece of craftsmanship, 55 feet long, 32 feet deep, and curved to fit the ship’s bilge.


The divers had a frustrating time securing the patch. The explosions had warped the hull, and it was impossible to seal the patch completely. It had to be discarded. The alternative was to gamble on the strength of Nevada’s bulkheads. Divers tightened every door and hatch in the ruptured compartments and bolted patches over smaller holes in the hull.

The Battle To Drain Nevada

Removing water from the ship was a headache, too, given the number and types of pumps available. The strongest could pump 4,000 gallons a minute, but there were not enough of them. Some could draw water up about 15 feet, but no higher. To compensate, engineers arranged them so that the smaller ones brought water to areas where the stronger pumps could move the water up and out of the ship. This was done with care. If one section drained much faster than others, Nevada could list or capsize. Although the pumps gradually moved water out faster than it came in, the ship remained in danger until dry-docked.

The drying compartments sobered the most hardened men. The filth was appalling. A mixture of oil, mud, paper, clothes, and rotting food filled every part of the ship. And there were the bodies of men who had died in the attack. They were taken to the naval hospital for identification and burial. Then work parties brought in hoses and sprayed every object and surface with sea water, followed with Tectyl, a cleaning chemical that absorbed water from anything it touched.

To increase buoyancy, Nevada’s crew transferred the remaining stored oil from the ship. Wreckage was cleaned away. Guns, ammunition, electric motors, and auxiliary equipment were brought out. Much of it was salvable, despite being submerged for nearly three months.

Deadly Gas Slows Salvage Effort

The optimism of the salvage crew was tempered by the discovery of hydrogen sulfide, an odorless toxic gas created when oil and polluted sea water are mixed under pressure. On February 7, one man opened a gas-filled compartment and collapsed from a fatal dose. While trying to rescue him, five more sailors were also overcome. Only four recovered. Increased ventilation became top priority. No man was permitted on the ship without a gas mask and a litmus paper badge to indicate if the gas was present.

One week later, Nevada was afloat. A last inspection was made of every bulkhead and hatch. Any serious leak would send the battered battleship to the bottom. On February 14, two tugs brought the Nevada to Dry Dock Number Two. Nimitz and Furlong were with the cheering crowd that welcomed her. On April 22, 1942, she left Pearl Harbor for Puget Sound Navy Yard for final repairs and modernization.

California posed greater problems. She had been hit by two torpedoes and one bomb and jarred by several near misses. Arizona’s burning oil had forced California’s crew to abandon her. She took three days to sink to the bottom, settling with a list to port. Her main deck was 17 feet beneath the surface.

Complex Plan Devised To Raise the USS California

The Yard Design Section feared that patching and pumping out the ship would fail. As she regained buoyancy, the weight of the water above her decks might collapse them. One option was to build a cofferdam around the ship. A barrier of pilings driven into the harbor bottom would permit men to drain the water within and effect repairs. It was a good plan, but expensive and complicated.

An alternative was found: build two cofferdams attached to the ship to enclose her forecastle and quarterdeck. Barge cranes lowered huge wooden planks along the ship’s sides. Pacific Bridge divers bolted them to the hull and sealed them with lengths of hose filled with sawdust and oakum (hemp mixed with tar). The planks were 30 feet high and varied in width and thickness. They were weighted down with sandbags and reinforced to endure external water pressure as the interior was pumped out.

The divers plugged more holes. One needed a 15-by-15-foot patch. As with Nevada, the pumps eventually caught up to the leaks, then passed them. Oil was skimmed from the surface and transferred from the bunkers to a barge alongside. Eventually, over 200,000 gallons were recovered.

Heroic Effort By Welders Save California After Gas Explosion

By the end of March, California had risen to a nearly even keel, but on April 5 an explosion blew out the hull patch. She began settling at the bow. Gasoline vapors had leaked from a fuel tank and ignited. The patch was ruined, and there was no time to build another. Another battleship was coming in for repairs, and California had to meet the tight schedule for dry dock time. Raymer’s team contained the flooding on the ship’s third deck. The men took turns welding a warped hatch shut. After 12 hours, it was secured and the flooding stopped. Four days later, California entered Dry Dock Number Two. She was on time.

California’s electric drive engines had suffered heavily from the saltwater. The job of rewrapping miles of wire called for specialists not available at Pearl. A team of engineers flew in from the General Electric Company in Schenectady, NY. Through the summer they concentrated their efforts on one alternator and two motors—just enough to get the ship to Puget Sound. They finished in the autumn. California headed for Puget Sound on October 10, 1942.

Raising West Virginia Tests Salvage Team To Limit

West Virginia’s problems were even worse. Two bombs and at least seven torpedoes sank her, killing over a hundred men. She, too, had electric drive. Her steering system was ruined, and her rudder was blown off. Over 200 feet of her port hull was wrecked. Raymer wrote, “Raising West Virginia would be far more difficult than either the Nevada or the California had been. It would test the ingenuity and salvage expertise of every faction involved in the operation.”

Yard craftsmen came through again, building 14 hull patches in sections 13 feet long and over 50 feet wide. Curved at the bottom to fit the ship’s bilge, they straightened to climb the sides to high above the surface. Like the walls of a fortress, each was made of metal beams and 12-by-14-inch timbers, with four-inch planking beneath. Several had access doors so divers could enter the hull. To counteract its buoyancy, each was weighted with lead. After each section was fitted in place, the lead was removed. Divers filled the seams with 650 tons of underwater concrete. Since this added more weight than the hull could endure after dry-docking, the divers finished by welding steel reinforcing rods to the hull.

Plugging Every Last Hole

After the patches were secured, the pumps lowered the water within by a few feet, but no more. “No further headway was made in dewatering,” Raymer recalled. “Most of the leakage was found to occur in the areas contiguous to the patches from leaking seams, shrapnel holes, and loose rivets.” Every hole mattered. Raymer’s men sealed all they could find with smaller patches or wooden plugs.

Salvage crews moved deeper into the ship, mindful of the hydrogen sulfide threat. A medical officer worked with them, maintaining a bulletin board showing which compartments were safe. They brought out more oil, ammunition, and machinery along with the bodies of 66 men who had died in December.