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." 

The bodies of three sailors were found in a dry storeroom. With them was a calendar. The days from December 7 to December 23 were crossed off. The men had food and drinking water, but their oxygen had run out. “The discovery of these three men in an unflooded compartment caused a profound sense of anguish among our divers,” Raymer said. “Especially shaken were Moon and Tony, who had sounded the West Virginia’s hull on December 12 and reported no response from within the ship.” The men had been in the starboard side, hard against Tennessee’s port side. It had been impossible for divers to reach that area.

Chipping Away Years Of Paint

Recalling his part in the salvage, Electrician’s Mate Second Class Claude Miller wrote, “This consisted mainly of endless days of chipping the years of paint coats from the bulkheads. This paint was in many places a full one inch thick or more, and shattered like cement when chiseled by air-driven chipping hammers.” A native of Trenton, Mo., Miller had traveled far with the Navy, with no shortage of work. He had been with the aircraft carrier Yorktown at the Battles of Coral Sea and Midway. After his carrier was sunk, he and many of his friends were reassigned to Pearl to assist with the recovery work there.

“We worked in very hot and sometimes toxic spaces in half-hour shifts,” he added. “Then we would go up to topside for about half an hour, for fresh air and pineapple juice. Later on I was assigned to clean, rewind, and restore small electric motors, and also manage the engineers’ tool room.”

On May 17, West Virginia rose from the bottom. Work continued over the next three weeks to reduce her draft. Finally, it was down to the required minimum, 33 feet. She just fit into Dry Dock Number One on June 9. She went to the yard a few days later and stayed for 11 months. In April 1943, as Miller put it, “The old warrior finally was made ready to move on her own, and we sailed to Bremerton Navy Yard for the balance of the restoration.”

”When Helena Got Hit, Oglala Died Of Fright.”

The USS Oglala came last. On December 7, a torpedo had passed beneath her to strike the inboard Helena. Since the ships were tied together, the explosion ruptured Oglala’s bilge. Two hours later she capsized to port. Only her starboard side amidships remained above water. This led to the cynical joke that when she saw Helena get hit, Oglala died of fright.

Originally a coastal steamer, Oglala had joined the Navy in World War I. She was 34 years old, and her compartments were not designed to endure battle damage. The merits of raising her seemed thin. She was blocking valuable pier space, and scrapping seemed the best option. However, since demolition experts and equipment were unavailable, men from the yard and the repair ship Ortolan set out to rescue her, employing three elements.

The first was a set of 10 submarine salvage pontoons. Each was a giant metal cylinder that could be flooded and sunk, then attached to massive chains placed under the hull by divers. When pumped out, each pontoon would exert nearly 100 tons of lifting power. Second was a barge with winches to haul cables attached to Oglala. The third was compressed air, pumped into the hull to displace some of the water within. This required extreme care, given the hull’s weakened condition.

Oglala Stubbornly Resists All Efforts To Salvage Her

On April 11, bridles linking the chains to the pontoons broke. The pontoons floated free. They were resunk and new bridles were attached. Another attempt was made on April 23. Oglala rolled up to rest on her bottom with a 20-degree port list. Further work reduced this to 7 degrees, but her bow remained 6 feet below the surface and the stern was 19 feet deeper.

Cofferdamming came next, using wood and steel from the California salvage. Divers secured the sections and patched the port bilge, where the worst shock damage was. They cut free the wooden deck house, and a barge crane hoisted it away.

The cofferdam was completed in June, and pumping began. After the water had dropped seven feet, a section of the dam failed. Captain Wallin dryly noted, “This was not a design failure, but resulted from the action of some ‘practical men.’” The men in question had substituted 12-inch-square timbers for the steel H-beams specified in the designs. The wood was replaced with steel. Pumping above and from within the ship resumed. On June 23, Oglala floated.

The “Jonah Ship”

On the night of June 25, several pumps became fouled with debris, and Oglala’s bow sank. Her stern followed. The pumps were cleared, and the vessel was refloated once more on June 27. She sank a third time on June 29 when the cofferdam failed again. By then Oglala had earned the nickname “the Jonah ship.” She was returned to the surface again by July 1.

Fire broke out aboard Oglala that night when a technician spilled gasoline on a pump’s exhaust manifold. He then dropped the burning gas can into the water, igniting the oil on the water’s surface. It took 20 minutes for men from Ortolan and the Navy Yard Fire Department to extinguish the blaze. To their weary relief, the salvage men found that damage to the cofferdam was superficial.

On July 3, Oglala entered Dry Dock Number Two. To Wallin, the ship looked like Noah’s Ark without a roof. Despite her troubles, her hull was in better shape than expected. She eventually returned to service as a repair ship, aiding many other vessels throughout the war.

The Vessels Beyond Saving

The remaining victims of December 7 were beyond saving. Arizona had suffered several bomb hits. She had sunk with the loss of more than 1,100 men. One bomb hit had detonated her forward magazines and broken her back. Her armament and fuel were taken ashore, and Arizona was left where she sank. More than 20 years passed before the famed memorial was built above her.

Many torpedoes had struck Oklahoma. “I can vouch for five,” Young recalled. The blasts disintegrated much of her port hull. Fifteen minutes after the attack began, she capsized. She stayed that way for nearly six months. When men and resources were finally available, the most spectacular chapter of the Fleet salvage began.

Months Spent Devising Plan To Raise Oklahoma

The man responsible for leading the staggering effort to raise the Oklahoma was Commander F.H. Whitaker. Born and raised in Tyler, Tex., Whitaker was a naval construction expert who, like Wallin, had graduated from Annapolis and M.I.T. Whitaker and his staff spent months running tests to determine the most effective method to raise the ship. Experiments with a 1/96 scale model of the battleship in Pacific Bridge’s laboratory in San Francisco demonstrated that the Oklahoma could be gradually rolled into an upright position.

Divers placed pontoons at key points where the superstructure was buried in the mud. They also tested the strength of the mud. It had to be hard enough, or the ship might drag along the bottom as the winches turned. Fortunately, it was. The divers placed an additional 4,500 cubic yards of coral soil along the inshore side of the ship’s bow. Twenty-one concrete foundations were poured near the water’s edge on Ford Island. Seated in them were electric winches. With a system of hauling blocks and pulleys, the winches’ combined strength could exert a titanic 345,000 tons of pulling force. Forty-two miles of one-inch wire ran from the winches, through the blocks, out over a row of 40-foot A-frame towers built on Oklahoma’s hull, and finally to pads welded to the ship.

”Like Something From Gulliver’s Travels.”

It looked like something from Gulliver’s Travels, but the objective was to free a giant, not restrain it. The righting began on March 8, 1943. “With a lurch and a groan the Oklahoma started her slow but steady rotation,” Raymer wrote. “Everyone was jubilant. They cheered lustily as they observed the ship’s movements, drowning out for the moment the sounds of metal being crushed and torn.” Inexorably, almost invisibly, the ship began her roll to starboard. Turning at a snail’s pace, the winches reeled in cable for more than three months. Finally, on June 16, the battleship reached an upright position, listing only 3 degrees to port.

Pacific Bridge divers placed cofferdam patches over 200 feet of the Oklahoma’s hull. They sealed them with 2,000 tons of underwater concrete and added four more pontoons to offset the weight. Tragically, this led to the deaths of two men. Rusting inside one pontoon had removed the oxygen from the air. While working alone inside it, a Navy chief collapsed and died. A Pacific Bridge diver drowned when the wake from a passing boat drove another pontoon against Oklahoma, severing his air hose.