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." 

Dewatering revealed the remains of the sailors who had died a year and a half earlier. Identifying them was impossible. Bringing out what remained of over 400 men was unquestionably the salvage team’s hardest job.

Salvage Of Oklahoma Symbolized America’s Recovery From Attack

Oklahoma was refloated on November 3, 1943. On December 28, she entered Dry Dock Number Two. After moving to the yard, she was stripped of every useful piece of equipment.

Whitaker later wrote a detailed study of the project for The Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers. Outlining in detail the full extent of this fantastic achievement, he concluded with what it meant for America. “All of us felt, I believe, that aside from the practical aspects, the salvage of the Oklahoma was symbolic of the Navy’s and the country’s recovery from the treacherous Japanese attack.”

On September 1, 1944, the Oklahoma was decommissioned. The hull was sold for scrap a year later. On May 10, 1947, two tugboats brought her out of Pearl, heading for the West Coast. She sank in a storm the following week. The men who had served in her were pleased. It was a better end than being cut to pieces for scrap.

Utah Left In Place

The USS Utah fared no better. She had capsized at her berth on the west side of Ford Island, and 58 men had perished. Over 30 years old, she had been converted to a training vessel for gunnery and aircraft exercises. The Navy deemed her a nonessential ship occupying nonessential space. The effort to right her was delayed until November 1943. The result was a shadow of the work done for the Oklahoma. By March 1944, the Utah had been partly righted, listing 47 degrees to port and almost completely submerged. Further work being too costly, the Navy left her as she was. Utah remains there today, a training site for divers.

During their time in the West Coast yards, each ship received not only final repairs but modernization. They emerged with sleek superstructures, better armor and armament, especially antiaircraft guns. Some underwent more than one refit and upgrade of their armament and other systems. They had the latest radar and radio equipment. Their power plants were greatly improved. They went on to exact a measure of revenge against the Imperial Japanese Navy.

Revitalized Ships Went On To Serve With Distinction

The revitalized ships distinguished themselves in countless ways. Cassin, for instance, earned six battle stars for carrier escort and invasion support duty in the Philippines and at Iwo Jima. Shaw won 11 stars, fighting from the Santa Cruz Islands to the Philippines. On January 7, 1945, Shaw and the destroyers Ausburne, Russell, and Braine sank a Japanese destroyer off Luzon. “It was the last surface action of the war,” Bulpitt noted. “We were there at the beginning, and we were there at the end.”

Vestal repaired ships in the Solomons. This was incalculably important. By contributing to the repair of other vessels when the future of the Pacific War was still in doubt, she paid many times over for the effort to save her at Pearl.

Nevada, Tennessee, and Raleigh joined the Aleutian Islands operation of 1943, reclaiming Attu and Kiska from the Japanese. Nevada went east to join the Atlantic Fleet, supporting the invasions of Normandy in June 1944, and then southern France in August.

Salvage Sisters Turn Tide Of War During Battle For Philippines

Tennessee joined West Virginia, California, Maryland, and Pennsylvania to participate in the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. The Japanese had summoned the majority of their dwindling naval forces to attempt to disrupt the American landings at Leyte in the Philippines. It was the largest naval campaign in history and marked the end of the Japanese Navy as an effective fighting force.

In a series of torpedo attacks, American destroyers ambushed a Japanese battleship force on the evening of October 25 at Surigao Strait. Using their new fire-control radar, Tennessee, West Virginia, and California followed up, firing more than 220 rounds from their main batteries. Maryland’s older radar system could track where the rounds fell, and with that she added 48 shots of her own.

By dawn, two Japanese battleships, Fuso and Yamashiro, had been sunk, along with three destroyers. The badly damaged cruiser Mogami was finished off by American torpedo planes. Surigao Strait was the last surface action fought between opposing battleships. Having waited almost three years for it, the veterans of Pearl Harbor savored the victory to the fullest. “It was a matter of great satisfaction to many Americans,” Wallin wrote. “And it must have been a bitter pill for the Japanese.”

Helena Fights Gallantly

Helena fought in the battles of Cape Esperance and Guadalcanal. During a night action, she fought off Japanese warships that were shelling Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. On September 15, 1942, she rescued survivors when the aircraft carrier Wasp was sunk, but her luck did not last. Helena was torpedoed during the Battle of Kula Gulf on July 6, 1943. She broke apart and sank. Approximately 170 men died with her.

The other ships served to the end of the war. Following the Japanese surrender, California, West Virginia, and Tennessee remained on station in Japan. But by the autumn of 1945, the U.S. Navy was the largest in the world, and the most expensive. Peace meant shrinking military budgets. All but one of the ships that rose from ruin at Pearl Harbor were decommissioned and consigned for scrapping by 1947. Only Curtiss endured. She served in the Korean War. As a science vessel, she took part in nuclear weapons tests in the Central Pacific and research work off Antarctica. She was decommissioned in 1957 and finally broken up in 1972.

Cruel But Necessary Retirement For Old Warriors

It all seemed heartless, and still does, to the men who lived and fought on these ships. Still, financial considerations aside, the ships were old. Despite their upgrading, it was becoming difficult for them to keep pace with newer ships coming into service, let alone those on the drawing boards. They had done their work.

Over 30 years after the Pearl Harbor attack, Ed Raymer retired from the Navy. Looking back, he readily acknowledged that he was part of a tremendous accomplishment. In 1996, Commander Raymer wrote, “Navy divers and Pacific Bridge civilian divers formed one leg of a salvage triad; salvage engineers and the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard comprised the other two. One leg needed the assistance and support of the other two to be effective.”

“We Keep Them Fit To Fight”

Vice Admiral Homer Wallin retired in 1955, finishing a career spanning 40 years. He had left Hawaii in July 1942 for a new assignment. During an awards ceremony on the deck of the aircraft carrier Enterprise, Admiral Nimitz presented Wallin with the Distinguished Service Medal. As Wallin wrote, “Admiral Nimitz read the citation for the work performed by the Salvage Organization and ended by adding, ‘for being an undying optimist.’ The Medal was accepted by me in the name of the organization which I had the honor to head.”

Wallin meant it. He knew the value of every man who helped him. “Enough cannot be said in praise of the salvage crew,” he asserted. “They worked hard and earnestly. They soon saw that the results of their efforts exceeded the fondest hopes of their supporters and they were urged on by their successful achievements.”

Without question, the Pearl Harbor salvage operation was the largest in naval history. The men behind it lived up to their creed: “We keep them fit to fight.”

This first appeared in Warfare History Network here