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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. 

Stricken Arizona Inflicts Damage On Sisters

USS Tennessee was inboard of West Virginia Multiple torpedo hits had sunk the outer ship, trapping Tennessee against the concrete mooring quays. A direct hit to the battleship USS Arizona’s magazines had sunk that vessel and thrown burning debris on the Tennessee’s decks. Arizona’s burning oil spread across the water, engulfing Tennessee’s stern. Crewmen fought with hoses to keep the fires away. Her forward magazines were flooded to keep them from exploding. The ship’s propellers were turned at speeds up to 10 knots in an effort to keep flaming oil away. The crew was forced to abandon her.

Men from the yard and the repair ship USS Medusa welded Tennessee’s heat-warped stern plates. A total of 650,000 gallons of oil was pumped from the ship. Divers placed explosive charges on the quays. These were detonated on December 16, finally freeing Tennessee from her trap. She spent two months at Puget Sound and eventually returned to duty on February 29, 1942.

Outboard of Arizona was Vestal. Two bombs found her, falling from a thousand feet or higher, smashing straight through her, and exploding underwater. The flooding made her list to port and settle heavily at the stern. To escape the burning Arizona, the Vestal’s captain backed his ship away. Vestalwas 33 years old, and her watertight integrity was not enough to keep her afloat. Two tugboats guided her east to shallow water, beaching her at Aiea Shoal.

Vestal Gets Second Lease On Life

Being a repair ship, USS Vestal had the resources for crew to begin mending her, but she had to wait her turn for dry-docking. It came two months later. Vestal returned to duty on February 18.

A torpedo flooded Raleigh’s engine room. A bomb ripped through three decks and out her side. It exploded uncomfortably close to a compartment storing aviation fuel. When the cruiser’s captain ordered counterflooding to balance the ship, several doors failed. The tugboat Sunnadin and a barge were tied to her port side to save her from sinking.

Men from repair vessels helped the crew rebuild the decks and transfer fuel and water from the Raleigh. She went into Dry Dock Number One on January 3. Running on one engine, she sailed for Mare Island on February 14. After receiving a new engine and electrical parts, she returned to duty on July 23.

Pacific Fleet Slowly Resurrected

Curtiss had no armor and suffered for it. One bomb hit. Three missed, but not by enough. A damaged Japanese plane struck her starboard crane and exploded. Smoke from burning cork insulation made it more difficult for the crew to fight the fires.

Dry-docked from December 19 to 27, USS Curtiss had to vacate early, making way for higher priority jobs. She could not return until April 26, and was substantially repaired by May 28.

Helm had escaped the harbor, but while searching for submarines she was bracketed by two bombs. The shock caused flooding forward and tripped circuit breakers. With the dry docks full, Helm went to the yard’s marine railway on January 15. There she was hauled out of the water for welding and patching. At the end of the month, she left for San Diego.

Each accomplishment brought another part of the Pacific Fleet to life. But these successes were modest compared to what lay ahead. Six battleships, one cruiser, three destroyers, and a mine-laying ship had received severe attention from the Japanese.

Much Work Still Left To Be Done

Destroyers were desperately needed to protect Allied merchant shipping from enemy submarines. Commander John Alden, himself a submariner, wrote, “In addition to the mere urgency of obtaining ASW [antisubmarine warfare] vessels, other factors added weight to the balance. One was the fact that of all the material needed to build new destroyers, most critical and hard to obtain were main propulsion plants. In the effort to break the bottleneck, DE’s [destroyer escorts] and frigates were designed around every conceivable type of power plant … but there was no substitute for the steam turbine in destroyers.”

In addition to the catastrophic loss of the Arizona, one of the most spectacular of the December 7 victims was the destroyer Shaw. She had been on blocks in Floating Dry Dock Number Two. Three bombs struck the ship, rupturing fuel tanks. Fire swept through the ship to her magazines. A tremendous blast wrecked her entire forward section. Twenty-five men died, and 15 more were injured. Five bombs hit the dry dock. To protect it, workers submerged the dock, and the tugboat Sotoyomo sank with it.

Shaw a Total Loss?

To casual observers, Shaw seemed a total loss. Her bridge was destroyed, and her bow was literally gone. But her engineering machinery was intact. She was towed to the marine railway on December 19. Hull repair experts took measurements and set to building a temporary bow.

Navy divers sealed over 150 holes in the hull of the dock. It was raised on January 9, and ready for service on January 25. Six months later, so was Sotoyomo. Shaw was the first ship back into the dry dock. The next day, her new bow was attached along with a new mast and a temporary bridge. This made her look more like an overgrown PT boat than a destroyer, but it worked. On February 4, Shawleft the harbor for power trials. Five days later, with cheers shouted from all over Pearl, she left for Mare Island. A permanent bow awaited her there. Of the badly wounded ships, Shaw was the first to return to sea.

The destroyers Helm and Henley escorted Shaw eastward. Seaman First Class Arthur Schreier from Watertown, Conn., was on Henley’s No. 4 gun mount. He spent many hours watching Shaw plow through the waves. “I felt so sorry for those guys,” Schreier recalled, “because without a bow, you know—they had this little stubby thing welded on. Boom. Boom. Boom. Every wave, for six days.”

A Makeshift Bow for the USS Shaw

Fireman First Class Alfred Bulpitt from Centerdale, RI, was aboard the Shaw. Manning the port engine throttle, he knew she was traveling at only a third of her top speed. “It took us quite a while. We only had one fire room and one screw working. And we had a reduced crew. But I don’t remember anyone saying we wouldn’t make it.”

They did make it, arriving at Mare Island on February 15. Waiting for Shaw was another dry dock and her new bow. She was ready by July, returning to duty as an escort for convoys to Pearl. By the fall, she headed west to join the fight for Guadalcanal.

Destroyers Downes and Cassin had similar troubles. “They had gone through every kind of ordeal which ships could be subjected to,” Wallin wrote. “From bomb hits to severe fires, to explosions, to fragmentation damage, etc. These vessels were the only ones of the Pearl Harbor group that suffered all the kinds of damage enumerated.”

Every Type Of Damage That Could Be Done

A bomb had ripped through the USS Cassin to explode on the floor of Dry Dock Number One. Two more hit the dock, one on each side of the ships. A fourth blasted Cassin again. A fifth destroyed Downes’ bridge. Fragments punctured fuel tanks on both ships. Fire spread through the dock, detonating fuel and ammunition on Downes. Part of a torpedo landed 75 feet away.

Without power or water, no one could fight the fires, which now threatened the neighboring Pennsylvania. Her captain ordered the dock flooded, but as the water rose, so did the flames. Cassincame afloat at her stern and finally collapsed onto Downes.

Both destroyers remained in the dock for two months. Other ships came in for repairs. Each flooding and draining made the destroyers sway and roll, hurting them more. On February 5, Cassin was carefully reset on her blocks. The next day, Downes was towed to the Navy Yard. Cassin followed 20 days later.

The destroyers’ hulls were ruined, but their propulsion machinery was sound. Nimitz, the Bureau of Ships, and the Chief of Naval Operations debated the question: repair them or scrap them? On May 7, the Bureau of Ships found the solution. “Recommend new hulls be built at Mare Island. The Bureau considers that sufficient of the original Cassin and Downes material can be worked into the [new] hulls to thoroughly justify the retention of the original names for the new ships.”

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.”