Here's What You Need to Remember:
During the dark days of December 1941, when it seemed as if American and British bases were falling like dominoes across the Pacific, two incidents during the Japanese attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor gave American morale a much-needed boost.
One of these occurred when Army Air Corps lieutenants George Welch and Ken Taylor managed to get airborne in their two Curtiss P-40 Warhawk fighters from their base at Haleiwa Field and between them downed five enemy aircraft that Sunday morning, ending their attacks only when their ammunition and fuel were exhausted. But their exploits were not fully known until after the attack was over, they had been debriefed and their claims verified, and their story appeared in newspapers to a country hungry for positive war news. They achieved their exploits in the open skies over Hawaii, mostly unseen by those on the ground below.
The second incident was more widely witnessed. The World War I-vintage battleship USS Nevada was the only capital ship that day that managed to get underway during the attack and attempt an escape from the confining waters of Pearl Harbor to the open sea; battered and heavily damaged, her captain chose to beach her on a nearby spit of land so she could be repaired and readied to fight another day. Though her run for the sea lasted barely 30 minutes, it was later claimed (rightfully or not) to have been witnessed, at least in part, by just about every serviceman present that Sunday at Pearl Harbor from numerous vantage points. It was photographed while it was happening and gave an immediate lift to the spirits of those resisting the Japanese onslaught. Because of the vast number of witnesses, the story of her dash to the sea began to spread, either by word of mouth or telephone, almost immediately after the attack. Yet her name is little known today by the general public, and the story of how she became the only ship that day to nearly escape the Japanese attack is even less known.
The USS Nevada was launched on July 11, 1914. As the lead ship of her class, she boasted what were then three new features that later became standard among U.S. ships: three turrets with three guns each; oil fuel rather than coal; and heavy armor plating to protect her vital machinery spaces rather than lighter armor spread over the entire ship. In the parlance of the day she was known as a “super dreadnought.”
At 583 feet long, she boasted 14-inch guns as main weaponry, achieved a speed of 20 knots, held a crew of 1,500 men, and displaced some 30,000 tons. Her World War I career was brief, mostly consisting of Atlantic convoy duty. After the war, she served in the Atlantic Fleet until 1930, representing the United States at the Peruvian Centennial Exposition in July 1921.
In 1930, she was modernized with the replacement of her “basket” masts for tripod masts, a reduction in her secondary 5-inch armament, a new superstructure, new steam turbines, two new catapults for her three spotter aircraft, and eight new 5-inch antiaircraft guns. At the conclusion of this overhaul, she joined the Pacific Fleet where she remained for the next 11 years.
On December 7, 1941, the Nevada and her sister ships were spending their first weekend in port in more than five months. Vice Admiral William Halsey had been given the task of reinforcing Wake Island’s Marine detachment with additional fighter aircraft. Halsey refused to take the slower battleships with him to try and keep up with his 30-knot fleet of aircraft carriers, and so they were resting at berth that Sunday morning instead of being out on patrol. Nevada’s position was on Battleship Row alongside Ford Island in the center of the harbor, immediately behind the USS Arizona, soon to become famous in her own right. But, unlike other battleships moored nearby that day Nevada was not paired next to an adjacent battleship and so was free to maneuver when the attack began.
At 0600 hours Lieutenant Lawrence Ruff, Nevada’s senior communications officer, rose from his bunk. He had opted to turn in early following the ship’s movie the previous evening. He had volunteered to escort the ship’s chaplain, Father Drinnan, in a motor launch over to the hospital ship USS Solace, where Father Drinnan was scheduled to hear confessions and perform Sunday morning services. Upon his transfer to the Nevada, Lieutenant Ruff had had an opportunity to bring his wife and family over to live the idyllic lifestyle of the Hawaiian Islands, but both had decided that in the rising tensions of the day it was a potentially dangerous location to bring a family. They were soon to have their fears confirmed. Just before 0700 the Nevada’s launch pulled alongside the Solace, and Ruff enjoyed coffee and a light breakfast in the officer’s lounge while Father Drinnan conducted the morning’s services.
At 0600 the assistant quartermaster of the watch roused Ensign Joseph K. Taussig Jr., who had the forenoon watch. Taussig, 21, was the son of a rear admiral who had for the last two years publicly warned of the possibility of a Japanese attack in the Pacific, and so was perhaps better informed of the international situation than his fellow sailors of the same age. Taussig, a junior officer assigned to Nevada’s antiaircraft section, was doubtful of any battleship’s ability to defend itself against attack from the air. He felt that though they were highly trained to man the guns, load, and fire “at a rate of speed which people not involved would not believe possible,” the quality of the overall marksmanship was such that “I can testify with vim, vigor and conviction that we couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn except at point-blank range.”
Being officer of the deck, especially on a quiet Sunday spent in port, was usually a boring affair, with little happening to break up the monotony. Taussig spent the first part of his watch trying to think of something to do. It occurred to him that only one boiler had been carrying the burden of powering the ship during the entire four days the Nevada had been in port. He therefore ordered another one lit. This seeming innocent act would have enormous consequences later that morning.
The Nevada’s captain, Francis W. Scanland, and her executive officer had both gone ashore that morning, leaving the ship in the care of its junior-grade officers. Scanland was visiting his wife in nearby Honolulu and had promised to spend the day with her. After all, it was expected to be a leisurely tropical Sunday; some of the crew was organizing a tennis tournament against sailors from some of the nearby battleships, while others were looking forward to a swim at nearby Aiea Beach. The Nevada, the northernmost ship in Battleship Row, was also the oldest in harbor that day but stuck to a very rigid tradition of presenting colors every morning while in port at precisely 0800, to the accompaniment of the “Star Spangled Banner” as performed by the ship’s band.
Ensign Taussig, as officer of the deck, was also in charge of the morning’s proceedings. But this was the first time Taussig had ever stood watch for the morning colors, and he was uncertain as to what size flag to fly. He quietly sent a sailor over to the Arizona at 0750 to find out which size flag they were flying. While everyone waited in the morning sun, some of the bandsmen later recalled spotting specks of aircraft in the sky far to the southwest. Band leader Oden MacMillan later recalled seeing planes diving on the far side of Ford Island and a lot of dirt and sand thrown upward, but thought it was all part of some elaborately staged drill. The sailor soon returned with the welcome news that they had the correct flag after all. The ceremonial group, now assembled at the ship’s fantail in splendid dress whites, was in the process of running the colors up on the flagstaff when the first Japanese planes began diving on Battleship Row.
According to acclaimed author Gordon Prange, the first bomb dropped nearby was actually aimed at the Arizona, not the Nevada. As the first reports of an attack began filtering up the chain of command, Mrs. John Earle, a neighbor of Admiral Husband Kimmel, the naval commander at Pearl Harbor, recalled watching the opening moments of the attack on her front lawn overlooking the harbor along with Admiral Kimmel, who had stepped outside to see for himself. She described him as staring “in utter disbelief and completely stunned.”
“I knew right away that something terrible was going on,” Kimmel later recalled. “This was not a casual raid by just a few stray planes. The sky was full of the enemy.”