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This Is What It Took to Save the U.S. Navy's Battleships After Pearl Harbor

This Is What It Took to Save the U.S. Navy's Battleships After Pearl Harbor

And submarines, and destroyers and more. 

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.

“… None Of the Ships Sunk Would Ever Fight Again.”

“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.” This was a haunting sentiment from Captain Homer Wallin, the man who would lead the salvage effort.

Admiral Chester Nimitz, named Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) days after the attack, flew to Hawaii to take command. He landed in Pearl Harbor on Christmas Day. His briefings had prepared him, or so he thought. Awestruck, he remarked, “This is terrible seeing all these ships down.” The ceremony installing Nimitz as CINCPAC was held on the deck of the Grayling, a submarine he had once commanded. Cynics commented that it was the only deck fit for the ceremony.

The days of the Battleship Navy were over. The Japanese made the point again on December 10, sinking the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse off Singapore. Nimitz’s aircraft carriers were now the heart of his strategy. Yet with proper escort, the battleships could still be effective weapons. If they could be saved, Nimitz would give them work.

No Time Wasted For Salvage Effort

The salvage effort began on December 7 when crews manned hoses to fight the fires while the attack was still under way. These firefighters were aided by boats, tugs, and even a garbage hauler. Men from the fleet’s base force brought pumps to battle the flooding. Rescue teams searched for sailors trapped in the capsized battleships Oklahoma and Utah.

On January 9, 1942, Captain Wallin took charge of the Salvage Division, itself a new branch of the Navy Yard. A native of Washburn, ND, Homer Wallin had spent half his life training for this. Like many men raised far from the sea, he sought a naval career. He went to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1913, then served aboard the battleship New Jersey during World War I. He joined the Navy’s Construction Corps in 1918, and studied naval architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After completing his master of science degree in 1921, he spent the next 20 years in the New York, Philadelphia, and Mare Island Navy Yards, as well as at the Bureau of Construction and Repair in Washington, DC.

Salvage Triage

Wallin’s Salvage Division had three clear goals: Rescue the men who were trapped aboard the ships, assess the damage to each ship, and repair as many as possible. The task was to fix each enough to be able to travel to the larger yards on the West Coast for complete restoration.

The Japanese would come to regret leaving two vital areas of the harbor intact. The first was the fleet’s fuel supply—over 4.5 million gallons. The other was the Navy Yard, whose shops had a vast capacity to fix or build almost anything. “They built liberty boats, 25-foot motor whaleboats, any kind of harbor craft,” recalled Walter Bayer. “They could overhaul a 14- or 16-inch gun. Just pull them around on those big cranes, and handle them like they were toothpicks in those big buildings. They were enormous buildings. They still are.”

Bayer grew up on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. In 1940, he became a civil service employee and went to work in the compressed gases plant in the Navy Yard. He was an assistant supervisor by December 1941. After the attack, demand for his services soared. “When they organized to cut through the bottom of the Oklahoma—she had a double hull—the welders came to us to get acetylene and oxygen for their cutting torches. And they’d use it like water. It would just go in no time.”

Admiral Without Flag Ship Made Yard Commandant

The new commandant of the yard was Admiral William Furlong. He and Nimitz were in the same class at Annapolis. Until December 25, 1941, Furlong had been Commander Minecraft, Battle Force. His flagship, the mine layer Oglala, had been sunk off the yard’s main pier, 1010 Dock. Furlong gave Wallin everything he needed: personnel, equipment, and waterfront work space. With a fleet of small vessels roaming the harbor, Wallin could send men and machinery wherever he needed them. He had experts to remove ammunition and ordnance materiel. He had divers trained to operate inside sunken ships. Plus he had the Pacific Bridge Company, whose men were contracted to build Navy facilities across the Pacific.

One Navy diver was Metalsmith First Class Edward Raymer. He had joined the service to escape the quiet life in Riverside, Calif. In 1940, he trained at the diving school in San Diego. His work clothes were rubberized coveralls with gloves, a lead-weighted belt (84 pounds), lead-weighted shoes (36 pounds each), and a copper Helmet attached to a breastplate. Above water, the suit was awkward. Submerged, the weights counteracted the suit’s buoyancy, permitting the diver to move fairly easily. An air hose ran from the Helmet to a compressor monitored by men on the surface. The diver carefully moved the hose with him while working within sunken ships. He often worked in total darkness. He took directions from the surface via telephone cable and needed heightened senses of touch and balance to work with welding torches and suction hoses.

“Welcome To the Salvage Unit.”

On December 8, 1941, Raymer’s team flew to Pearl. “Welcome to the Salvage Unit,” a tired warrant officer told them. “You will be attached to this command on temporary additional duty, which may not be temporary from the amount of diving work you see before you.”

The team’s first assignment was to determine if men were trapped below the water level in the battleship Nevada. “To accomplish this,” Raymer remembered, “we lowered a diver from the sampan to a depth of 20 feet. Swinging a five-pound hammer, he rapped on the hull three times, then stopped and listened for an answering signal. We took turns for hours. No answering signal was ever heard.” Frustrating as this was, other search parties successfully freed men from the Oklahoma and Utah. The last of them were brought out by December 10.

“Lesser damaged” was the term applied to the condition of the battleships Pennsylvania, Maryland,and Tennessee; the cruisers Honolulu, Helena, and Raleigh; the repair ship Vestal; the seaplane tender Curtiss; and the destroyer Helm.

USS Pennsylvania Returned To Duty

Pennsylvania was in Dry Dock Number One during the attack, behind the destroyers Downes and Cassin. One bomb hit the battleship, damaging a 5-inch gun and passing through two decks before exploding. The blast wrecked bulkheads, hatches, pipes, and wiring. Her hull and power plant were sound, though. On December 12, she went to the Navy Yard. The damaged gun was replaced with one from the West Virginia, whose decks were awash after she settled into the mud on the bottom of Battleship Row, the victim of several Japanese torpedoes. On December 20, the Pennsylvania sailed for Puget Sound, Wash.

A bomb had struck the pier beside Honolulu. The blast bent in 40 feet of hull on the port side, causing shrapnel damage and flooding. Yard workers began patching the hull, while Honolulu’s crew worked within.

With them was Seaman First Class Stephen Young from Methuen, Mass. Young had just transferred from the Oklahoma. He had endured 25 hours trapped in the battleship. Having survived that, he was impressed by his new job, helping to remove damaged powder cases from the cruiser’s magazine. Shrapnel had punctured many of them, spilling explosive powder on the decks. “Why they never went off, I don’t know,” Young recalled.

USS Honolulu and Helena Next Up

Honolulu moved to Dry Dock Number One on December 13. On January 2, she went to the yard for further work. Ten days later, she returned to service.

USS Helena took a torpedo on her starboard side, flooding an engine room and a boiler room. On December 10, she entered Dry Dock Number Two, which was still under construction. Pacific Bridge personnel borrowed wooden blocks from the yard for the ship to rest upon. After 11 days, she moved to the yard. On January 5, Helena left for the Mare Island Navy Yard in San Francisco.

Maryland was moored inboard of Oklahoma and had escaped torpedoes, but one bomb hit her forecastle. Another struck her port side at water level. No dry dock was available, so repairs were performed at the quays. ­The yard’s workshops built a wood and metal patch for the rupture in the hull. A barge-mounted crane lowered the patch into the water, and divers fitted it in place. The water was pumped away, and repairs continued inside the ship. On December 20, she left for Puget Sound. Her final repairs were completed there on February 26, 1942.