Sunday, December 07, 2008

"Air Raid Pearl Harbor, this is no drill!"
Sixty-seven years ago today, Japanese aircraft slashed through the morning skies over Pearl Harbor Naval Station, Ford Island Naval Air Station, Hickam Field Army Air Corps Station, and Wheeler Field and the Schofield Barracks Army Station on the northwest side of Oahu.

Alerted by the thump of bombs falling from high above, and from the rattle of machine gun fire from low flying Japanese A6M-2 Zero-Sen Fighters on strafing runs, the ships of the United States Pacific Fleet were slow to react. Slowly, battle stations were manned, and ammunition broken out from magazines was finding its way to US Navy gunners. It was far too little and far too late. Japanese Val dive bombers and Kate torpedo planes began streaking in on their runs, delivering telling blows to the big ships.

In human lives, the attack on Pearl Harbor was horrific. 2,403 were dead, and 1,178 wounded.

188 planes were destroyed, the vast majority on the ground, as only a few Army Air Corps fighters managed to get airborne. A further 159 aircraft were significantly damaged, leaving only 43 planes operational at attack’s end.

It was the toll in ships that was staggering, however.

· Arizona blown up with a loss of 1,177 men.
· Oklahoma capsized with a small part of her hull above water.
· California “sank gradually for about three or four days: and came to rest rather solidly on a mud bottom, with her mainmasts and the upper parts of her main batteries above water. “The quarterdeck [was] under about twelve feet of water...”
· Nevada, which had got under way, beached in the narrow channel opposite Hospital Point in a wrecked condition.
· West Virginia sunk at her berth.
· Maryland moderately damaged but not needing to go into drydock.
· Tennessee, seriously damaged aft in the officers’ quarters from fire and otherwise moderately damaged.
· Pennsylvania, in drydock, with considerable damages, “but not of vital nature.”
· Utah, then used as a target ship, capsized, having been at the Saratoga’s regular berth.
Light Cruisers
· Raleigh, Helena, and Honolulu moderately damaged.
· Cassin and Downes, in Drydock No. 1, severely damaged.
· Shaw’s bow blown off while in floating drydock, severely damaged.
· Vestal (repair ship) was along side the Arizona when the raid commenced and was beached at Aeia to prevent further sinkage.
· Curtiss (seaplane tender) was badly damaged by a crashing plane and one 500-lb. bomb.
· Oglala (minelayer) capsized.”*

For the Japanese, the cost was minimal.

“Twenty-nine planes did not return: fifteen dive bombers and high-level bombers, five torpedo planes, and nine fighter escorts. The midget submarines inflicted no damage, and none returned to their mother ships; four were sunk, and one was wrecked on a reef, its captain captured. One I-class submarine was also sunk.”*

[*Dull, Paul S., A Battle History of the Imperial Japanese Navy (1941-1945). United States Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, 1978.]

In spite of the overwhelming destruction inflicted on the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese were foiled by a number of things that did not go according to plan, or were missed by the planners. The attack called for strikes particularly on the US Aircraft Carriers, however, they were at sea at the time of the attack and were missed. Additionally, millions of barrels of oil were stored in large tank farms behind the US Submarine base at Pearl Harbor, and also between there and another tank farm near Hickam Field. The Japanese left them totally unscathed. They also failed to attack the submarine section of the sprawling naval base. With the exception of a number of Cruisers and Destroyers based elsewhere throughout the Pacific, the surface fighting arm of the Pacific Fleet was on the bottom at Pearl Harbor, but the Aircraft Carriers, their pilots and planes were intact, as were the submarines, and their facilities at Pearl Harbor. The remains of the Pacific Fleet would not suffer for the want of oil to patrol the waters of the Pacific either.

The Japanese sneak attack catapulted the isolationist American nation to a Declaration of War, made by Congress the following day, at the request of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his stirring “Day of Infamy” speech.

The rest of the story…
was the ship that suffered the most damage. Devastated when a bomb ripped through the main deck and exploded in the forward magazine. Arizona has come to symbolize the events of December 7th at Pearl Harbor. Some of her dead lie still entombed within her, the rest buried in the cemetery at the “Punch Bowl”. The USS Arizona remains in commission as a U.S. Navy ship.

The former battleship Utah was converted to an auxiliary vessel in 1931 and used as a radio controlled target ship. Later, she was converted back to a gunnery training ship. Moored on the opposite side of Ford Island from Battleship Row on December 7th the Utah was in the spot where the aircraft carrier Saratoga usually was to be found. Utah received the attention of dozens of Japanese planes; struck repeatedly by bombs and torpedoes, she rolled over and sank. Later the hulk was raised and moved closer to Ford Island where she remains today.

Horribly mangled by bombs and torpedoes, the Nevada, the only battleship to get under way, was intentionally beached to prevent her sinking. Repaired and returned to service by 1943, she took part in a raid on the Aleutian Islands and eventually made her way to the Atlantic where she provided shore bombardment at Normandy on D-Day in 1944.

Capsized, the Oklahoma was eventually partially raised but never repaired. A frantic rescue effort went on for days after the attack trying desperately to free men trapped inside the overturned hull.

Flagship of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Pennsylvania was in drydock at the time of the attack, sharing the drydock with the destroyers Cassin and Downes. Pennsylvania’s damage was minimal, thanks in no small part to the sturdiness of the drydock caissons. Japanese aircraft tried repeatedly to torpedo the Pennsylvania, but the drydock walls absorbed the hits. Not so lucky were the two destroyers in with the Pennsylvania, USS Cassin DD 372 and USS Downes DD 375. The Downes and Cassin were both salvaged with much equipment taken off their ruined hulls and installed on new hulls in the U.S. Re-launched, these “new” vessels went on to fight in many of the western Pacific Campaigns from 1943 on. The Pennsylvania was quickly repaired and returned to service. In 1944 she participated in the bombardment of Guam prior to the invasion there, and later saw action at the Battle of Surigao Straits.

The Tennessee was moored inboard of the USS West Virginia, and was thus protected from torpedo attack. She was scorched by the flaming oil from the Arizona, and received two bomb hits on her main gun turrets. After a period of repair and modernization in California, the Tennessee resumed duty, participating in all the major offensives of the Western Pacific from early 1943 on. Tennessee took part in the Battle of Surigao Straits and later had a hand in the sinking of the IJN super battleship Yamato.

Severely damaged by torpedoes and bombs, and sunk at her berth, California was a major salvage undertaking and was not completed until January of 1944. She took part in the major Pacific campaigns of 1944 and 1945, and fought in the surface action against Japanese Battleships at the Battle of Surigao Straits.

Perhaps the least damaged of all the battleships at Pearl Harbor, Maryland turned out to be the unluckiest. After a brief overhaul stateside in 1942, Maryland returned to combat status. While supporting Marine amphibious operations at Saipan in 1944 she was torpedoed by a Japanese plane. After another repair period, Maryland returned to the firing line at the Palaus Islands, and operated with the fleet during the Leyte invasion in October 1944. A month later she was struck in Leyte Gulf by a Japanese Kamikaze aircraft, requiring still another overhaul. She returned to the line just in time for the end of the war in the Pacific.

Next to the Arizona, the West Virginia took the worst beating at Pearl Harbor. Several bomb hits and at least seven torpedo hits all on one side. Excellent damage control kept her from rolling over, and thus allowed many of her crew to escape. She was re-floated and repaired, and back in action by July of 1944, in time to participate in the closing months of the war in the Pacific.

USS Helena CL 50. Helena was a brand new light cruiser. At Pearl Harbor she was struck in an engine room by a single torpedo, and was repaired to fight in the southwest Pacific campaigns of 1942 by July of that year.

USS Raleigh CL 7. Unlike the Helena, Raleigh was a much older vessel, built in 1924. Like the Helena, she was lightly damaged at Pearl Harbor, receiving one torpedo hit and a near miss by a bomb. She was repaired and back in the fight by summer of 1942.

USS Honolulu CL 48. Another relatively new cruiser, the Honolulu received only moderate damage to its hull and by mid January was repaired and escorting a convoy to San Francisco.

USS Shaw DD 373. The destroyer Shaw was in a floating drydock and received serious damage from a bomb. Her bow section was completely blown off. Repaired and restored for duty, Shaw went back in action in the summer of 1942.

USS Helm DD 388. The Helm, a relatively new destroyer, was slightly damaged by two near-miss bombs. She remained in service.

USS Curtiss AV 4. The Curtiss was brand new seaplane tender. A bomb hit her and a Japanese plane crashed into her upper works. She was repaired on the west coast of the United States and back at Pearl Harbor by February, 1942.

USS Vestal AR 4. The Vestal, a repair ship, was moored alongside the USS Arizona on December 7th. Struck by two bombs and further damaged by the explosion in the forward magazine of the Arizona, Vestal was moved to another part of the harbor where she was grounded to avoid sinking. Vestal was repaired and by August of 1942 she was busy repairing ships involved in the Guadalcanal campaign.

USS Oglala CM 4. Oglala was the fleet minelayer for the Pacific Fleet. An old ship, she was damaged during the attack by nearby torpedo and bomb explosions. She rolled onto her side and sank. Raised and repaired, she was returned to action as a repair ship for internal combustion engines in 1944.

Amazingly, of the twenty ships mentioned above, which indeed are the ones that received any damage of a nature greater than superficial, only Arizona, Utah, and Oklahoma were not raised, repaired and returned to wartime service. And Utah was little more than a hulk to begin with. Ultimately, one of the real stories about Pearl Harbor is this superb salvage effort to get the ships repaired well enough for a voyage to a West Coast shipyard, where they were repaired and in many cases overhauled and modernized, often returning to service in much finer condition than prior to the attack. The men and women who performed these tasks at Pearl Harbor are as big a set of heroes as any crew who sailed their ships against the Japanese in the Pacific.

All the ships served with distinction later in the war, and it was a fitting event at the Battle of Surigao Strait when Admiral Jesse Oldendorf led six U.S. Battleships, among them Pearl Harbor veterans California, West Virginia, Maryland, Tennessee and Pennsylvania in a classic “Crossing the T” maneuver, just as Togo had done at Tsushima Strait in 1905, and sank most of Vice Admiral Nishimura’s striking force of battleships and cruisers.

The salvage work done at Pearl Harbor in the aftermath of the December 7th attack was finely managed and heroically carried out. Oldendorf’s victory at Surigao Strait is a testament to that effort. Icing to the cake was added barely six months later when the Naval Shipyard located at Pearl completed what would normally have taken several months to repair: the battle damage to the USS Yorktown from the Battle of Coral Sea, in 48 hours, allowing her and her aircrews to participate in the first major naval victory against the Japanese at the Battle of Midway. Aircraft from the three US aircraft carriers, the Hornet, Enterprise, and Yorktown, the ones that were missed at Pearl, sank four of the Japanese aircraft carriers that participated in the December 7th attack on Pearl Harbor, the Hiryu, Soryu, Kaga and Akagi.

Remember Pearl Harbor…67 years ago today.


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  1. Anonymous08:19

    Nice article, one thing though; I think the Zero was an "A6M" vice "AGM"

  2. You are absolutely right. Thank you for the correction. I have made the change.