What happened to the Battleships of Pearl Harbor

*Originally published August 25, 2015* Note: another long one. 😉

The Ships

The following battleships were put out of action by the Japanese attack on Pear Harbor on December 7, 1941:

  • BB 39 USS Arizona
  • BB 44 USS California
  • BB 46 USS Maryland
  • BB 36 USS Nevada
  • BB 37 USS Oklahoma
  • BB 38 USS Pennsylvania
  • BB 43 USS Tennessee
  • BB 48 USS West Virginia

All but two of the battleships, were eventually repaired, rebuilt and returned to service before the end of World War II.

USS Arizona


One need only view photos or video of Arizona’s destruction in 1941 to conclude she was a total loss. Even to an untrained naval eye it’s plain to see that the ship’s forward section was blown apart from the inside out.

Because of this, and the fact that so many of the ship’s crew were entombed inside the sunken hulk, the decision was made that the ship would remain there, indefinitely.

Raising Oklahoma

Righting Oklahoma. March 1943

USS Oklahoma was also a total loss. It was not until the battleship was first righted, that the extent of her gutting was known.

Because Oklahoma capsized during the attack, raising the ship was especially problematic. And, a great deal of ingenuity and went into a project, that had never been attempted before.

For those who took interest in the engineering marvel that went into refloating the cruise ship Costa Concordia, the Oklahoma salvaging project was equally as daunting for the 1940’s.

Righting Oklahoma. (shore-side view) March 1943

To right the ship, header frames were designed, assembled, then affixed to battleship’s starboard hull. Enormous cables were then threaded through a pulley system on the header frames, which were drawn by winches on shore.

The ship was resting on her port side, on the harbor bottom in shallow water, which actually aided the process. There was no danger of the ship sliding deeper, as was the case with Costa Concordia.

Oklahoma righted, June 1943.

Righting the ship took from March to June 1943, due to the danger posed by loose, shifting ammunition and debris, unknown damage inside the ship, and the possibility of the ship breaking up from the strain of cables pulling it one way, and the weight of flood water the other.

Once righted, crafting & installation of cofferdams to the damaged port side could begin, followed by deflooding in stages to refloat the ship and move her to dry dock.

Oklahoma in dry dock at Pearl Harbor. Jan. 1944

On the morning of the attack, Oklahoma was due for an admiral’s inspection. The majority of watertight doors and hatches below the waterline had been opened; a practice that was never again allowed after Pearl Harbor.

Once refloated, the massive damage to the ship’s port side was revealed, and assessed too much to repair. The damage seen below the battleships armor belt in the photo above, is what brought on the fast, heavy list to port during the attack.

The horrific damage visible above the belt occurred as Japanese torpedoes struck the listing battleship’s main deck.

Oklahoma was officially decommissioned in September 1944 and finally sold for scrap in December 1946. On May 17th 1947, while under tow to San Francisco for scrapping, Oklahoma sank rapidly dragging the two towing tugs as fast as 15 knots backwards until their tow cables played out. The tugs survived and returned to Pearl Harbor.

Ex-BB 37 Oklahoma tied up inboard of BB 64 Wisconsin. Pearl Harbor HI November 1944

The Six

Six of the battleships fought Japan again. The untold story is the feat of naval engineering and architectural redesign which were applied to these ships; modernizing them to the level of any contemporary vessels of the time.

A noteworthy achievement, considering that the youngest of the eight battleships of Pearl Harbor were launched before 1922. The next class of American battleship, USS North Carolina, was not launched until 1940.

BB 44 California

California Entering dry dock April 9 1942

USS California did in fact sink at Pearl Harbor. However, she settled upright in very shallow water and merely had to be patched and refloated. California was moved into dry dock by April 1942, four months after the attack.

After an initial repair at Pear Harbor to make her fit for sea, California got under way for Puget Sound Navy Yard for a total overhaul. She emerged in January 1944 with her appearance totally altered and packing as much modern firepower as newly designed battleships.

California running post refit trials in Puget Sound, 1944.

Her stack and superstructure in fact were patterned after the new South Dakota Class battleships. The overall beam was also widened to create torpedo blisters along the original hull, and to accommodate the addition of eight dual 5 inch gun mounts.

California served the remainder of the war in the Pacific, providing naval gunfire support in some of the fiercest island battles. She was finally decommissioned in February 1947 and remained a part of the naval reserve fleet until July 1959 when she was sold for scrap.

BB 46 Maryland

USS Maryland suffered light damage at Pearl Harbor from aerial bombs. The capsized Oklahoma was outboard of Maryland, so Japanese torpedo bombers were not able to score hits on her hull.

The battleship was intact and her light damage was repaired quickly. So, she was not taken in hand for major overhaul; only for installation of additional anti-aircraft guns. By February 1942 Maryland was patrolling off the US west coast on guard for a Japanese invasion of California that never materialized.

Maryland served in numerous combat operations, particularly amphibious assaults providing air defense and naval gunfire support to assault troops. She only received additions & upgrades of radar and communications equipment and replacement of her forward bow after serious damage from a Japanese torpedo.

After suffering further combat damage from a Kamikaze strike in April 1945, Maryland was taken in for repairs and a partial overhaul. She reemerged in August 1945 but, did not see further action.

USS Maryland, Aug. 1945 after her final refit.

Retaining her forward tripod pagoda mast, she did receive radar and dual 5in gun mounts.

She did not receive beam widening or torpedo blisters. Her original superstructure left in place, there was adequate space amidships for adding the 5in guns.

USS Maryland was decommissioned in April 1947, laid up in fleet reserve until sold for scrap in August 1959.

BB 36 Nevada

Nevada, beached and severely burned. Pearl Harbor Dec. 1941

USS Nevada held the distinction of being the only battleship to get underway during the attack on Pearl Harbor and attempt to make it to open sea. Attacking Japanese pilots realized that if Nevada sank in the narrow channel entrance of Pearl Harbor, that the harbor would be choked shut, leaving ships there stranded and others from entering.

The ensuing attack by the Japanese as Nevada traversed the harbor left the ship heavily damaged, though not destroyed. The skipper wisely beached the ship to keep from sinking in the channel. Refloating operations were completed in February 1942. Nevada was maneuvered to dry dock and made seaworthy. In April 1942, she got under way for an overhaul at Puget Sound.

As with USS Maryland‘s 1945 modernization, Nevada‘s 1942 modernization did not include beam widening or torpedo blisters. Nor was the forward tripod pagoda mast removed. However, as would later be done with USS Maryland, Nevada‘s superstructure was streamlined, modernized with radar & communications, and given the eight dual 5in guns.

Nevada off Normandy France, June 1944.

After relaunch in December 1942, Nevada operated in the Pacific supporting U.S. operations in the Aleutian Islands clearing them of Japanese forces. Transferring to the Atlantic Fleet in July 1943, Nevada was on hand for the Normandy landings in France in June 1944, providing naval gunfire support for several weeks after the landings.

By February 1945, Nevada had been sent back to the Pacific Fleet, providing naval gunfire support to troops. She remained in commission for a year after VJ Day. Held in fleet reserve, Nevada was selected for the 1946 Bikini Atomic Bomb Tests and painted orange as the prime aiming point.

Prime Target – Bikini Atoll 1946

Though she survived atomic tests, Able and Baker, Nevada was of course extensively irradiated and finally sunk by gunfire from the battleship Iowa in July 1948.

BB 38 Pennsylvania

Dry Dock No. 1 – Pearl Harbor HI Dec. 1941 Battleship Pennsylvania, destroyers Cassin & Downes.

Second to USS Oklahoma, the battleship in the next worst disposition for a surprise attack was USS Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania was dry docked and literally a ‘fish out of water’ as the first Japanese planes dove in to attack. Forward of the battleship were too destroyers USS Cassin DD 372 & USS Downes DD 375, also ‘fish out of water’.

Realizing that bomb or torpedo hits on the dock gates would create a tsunami effect and send the 34,000 ton battleship crashing into the two destroyers, the dock master immediately ordered the dry dock flooded. Though both the destroyers were destroyed by Japanese bombs, Pennsylvania was spared far worse hull damage that would have resulted from crashing forward into the destroyers.

Lightly damaged, Pennsylvania departed for San Francisco December 20, 1941 for completion of repairs and additional anti-aircraft gun installation. Pennsylvania returned to duty March 30, 1942 to patrol off the coast of California.

From October 1942 to February 1943 Pennsylvania was overhauled at Mare Island Naval Shipyard receiving the eight dual 5in gun mounts, having the aft mast removed, the remainder of her superstructure streamlined and radar and communications equipment installed.

Battleship Pennsylvania, Lingayen Gulf, October 1944. Followed by battleship Colorado, cruisers LouisvillePortlandColumbia.

Pennsylvania spent her entire wartime service in the Pacific Theatre supporting amphibious landings with gunfire support to assault troops. In October 1944, Pennsylvania participated along with fellow Pearl Harbor survivor USS West Virginia in the Battle of Surigao Strait; the last gun duel between battleships.

On August 12th 1945, Pennsylvania was struck in her stern by a Japanese aerial torpedo off Okinawa which blew a 30 foot hole in her aft hull. The ship settled heavily by the stern, but managed to stay afloat long enough to be towed to Guam, sailing for home in October 1945.

Pennsylvania to the right of the atomic blast, 1946.

With the war over, no repairs were made. In July 1946, the battleship limped to Bikini Atoll to be used as a target in atomic bomb tests. Decommissioned officially in August 1946, she remained at Kwajalein Lagoon for radiological studies.

Extensively irradiated, Pennsylvania was scuttled February 10, 1948 off Kwajalein.

BB 43 Tennessee

USS Tennessee suffered relatively superficial damage during the Japanese attack. However, some of the damage was directly to her main battery of 14in guns. But, the ship was still afloat, with no hull damage or any damage to her decks or superstructure.

Though berthed inboard of the sunken USS West Virginia, Tennessee was maneuvered out of her berth to get under way for the west coast for hurried modifications.

USS Tennessee, first post-Pearl Harbor refit, Feb. 1942.

The battleship emerged barely six weeks later with her aft cage mast removed, damaged 14in guns replaced and augmented with eight, single 5in gun mounts and multiple small-caliber anti-aircraft guns; upgraded radar and fire control. Her remaining forward superstructure was also streamlined. Interestingly, her main deck level 5in internal swivel mounts for short-range surface defense were retained.

Late in 1942, Tennessee was taken in hand for major overhaul, emerging in May 1943 radically altered structurally. All secondary armament being replaced with eight dual 5in guns, the ships entire superstructure removed and replaced with a South Dakota Class style design. Torpedo blisters were also added to the hull giving the ship a wider beam.

BB 43
Tennessee – final refit and modernization. May 1943.

Tennessee continued in this final configuration for the remainder of the war. The battleship provided Pacific amphibious assault forces heavy naval gunfire support and anti-aircraft protection.

Finally decommissioned in February 1947, she was held in fleet reserve status until sold for scrap in July 1959.

BB 48 West Virginia

USS West Virginia did sink, but was salvageable. The greatest damage was from torpedo hits on her port side. The Japanese dropped more torpedoes on her after she settled upright, obliterating the main deck amidships, collapsing the gun deck above it, and forcing the outer port bulkhead inward.

West Virginia was temporarily repaired, before sailing to the west coast for major overhaul.

April 1943, West Virginia departing Hawaii for the USA. Port side amidships, temporarily rebuilt for the trip home.

Emerging from overhaul in the fall of 1944, West Virginia was equipped with new 5in dual gun mounts, peppered with 20mm anti-aircraft cannon, equipped with modern radar and fire control and her hull reinforced with a wider beam and torpedo blisters.

USS West Virginia, autumn 1944.

The battleship rejoined the fight for the last year of World War II in the Pacific supporting amphibious landings; then serving on until decommissioned in January 1947. Held in fleet reserve status, West Virginia was finally stricken and sold for scrap in 1959.

Why the effort?

One might wonder why so much effort was made for half or more of the war, when newer, more powerful, faster battleships were being built.

There was a pride factor at work with the Navy and on the Home Front. Raising, repairing, rearming and sending back into battle the fleet Japan destroyed, was to show the enemy their surprise attack had ultimately ‘failed’. However, there were practical reasons too.

As late as June 1945, it was fully believed that the war with Japan would last well beyond 1945. Some estimates were up to 1949. It was expected that operations against Japan’s home islands would require frequent, sustained naval gunfire support. No one at the time knew of the Manhattan Project, which produced the atomic bomb.

And, of three prime Axis powers, Japan and Italy had large, powerful battle fleets in 1941. Germany, was expected at some point, to build large blue water navy of their own, though that never materialized. High battle losses among ships, old and new were fully expected.

At the time of Pearl Harbor, it was also still considered very possible that Britain could be forced to surrender if German U-boats succeeded in starving the British Isles, and/or Churchill were forced out in a leadership challenge. In that event, it was thought highly likely that Hitler might demand Britain hand over the bulk her battle fleet as part of any negotiated peace. And, that fleet included very many battleships and battle cruisers.

The Pearl Harbor battleships also added very heavy naval gunfire support for the Marines, without having to strip the main battle fleet of faster battleships needed to keep up with and protect aircraft carrier task forces.

USS Tennessee, Okinawa landings. April 1945

These older, slower battleships were practically tailor-made to escort, and remain on scene to protect, slower troop transports and supply ships in an amphibious assault zone. They also made excellent flag ships with newly installed communications suites; accommodating both naval force commanders, and Marine Corps field staffs, until the latter could transfer to shore.

Whatever the reasons were, the naval engineering and architecture that reinvigorated these older, damaged and previously outclassed battleships was nothing short of phenomenal.

So phenomenal, that US Navy shipyards were asked by Britain to overhaul older British battleships. The Free French Government also requested that the incomplete/heavily damaged French battleships Richelieu, and Jean Bart be finished after those vessels shifted to Free French allegiance following the Allied landings in North Africa.

Post-war, similar work continued on heavy and light cruisers designed for World War II, with guns; but converted into guided missile cruisers for the Cold War. As well as the massive upgrade and modernization programs that kept Essex Class aircraft carriers in service from 1945, into the 1970’s.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: