It was literally “out of the blue” when the first wave of enemy aircraft arrived at 7:48 am local time, December 7, 1941. 353 Imperial Japanese warplanes approached in two waves out of the southeast, fighters, bombers, and torpedo aircraft. Across Hickam Field and over the still waters of Pearl Harbor. Tied in place and immobile, the eight vessels moored at “Battleship Row” were easy targets.
In the center of the Japanese flight path, sailors and Marines aboard the USS Oklahoma fought back furiously. She didn’t have a chance. Holes as wide as 40-feet were torn into her side in the first ten minutes of the assault. Eight torpedoes smashed into her port side, each striking higher on the hull as the great Battleship began to roll.
Bilge inspection plates had been removed for a scheduled inspection the following day, making counter-flooding to prevent capsize, impossible. The ninth torpedo slammed home even as Oklahoma rolled over, and died. Hundreds scrambled out across the rolling hull, jumped overboard into the oil covered, flaming waters of the harbor, or crawled out over mooring lines in the attempt to reach USS Maryland, tied in the next berth.
The damage was catastrophic. Once the pride of the Pacific fleet, all eight battleships were damaged. Four of them sunk. Nine cruisers, destroyers and other craft were damaged, another two sunk. 347 aircraft were damaged, most caught while still on the ground. 159 of those, were destroyed. 2,403 were dead or destined to die from the attack, another 1,178 wounded.
Nine Japanese torpedoes struck USS Oklahoma’s port side, in the first ten minutes.
Frantic around the clock rescue efforts began almost immediately, to get at 461 sailors and Marines trapped within the hull of the Oklahoma. Tapping could be heard as holes were drilled to get at those trapped inside. Thirty-two were delivered from certain death.
14 Marines and 415 sailors aboard Oklahoma lost their lives immediately, or in the days and weeks to come. Bulkhead markings would later reveal that, at least some of the doomed would live for another seventeen days in the black, upside-down hell. The last mark was drawn by the last survivor, on Christmas Eve.
Of sixteen ships lost or damaged, thirteen were destined to be repaired, and returned to service. USS Arizona remains on the bottom to this day, a monument to the event and to the 1,102-honored dead who remain entombed within her hull. USS Utah defied salvage efforts. She too is a registered War Grave, 64 honored dead remaining within her hull, lying at the bottom not far from the Arizona.
Of necessity, such repairs were prioritized. For the time being, USS Oklahoma was beyond help. She, and her dead, would have to wait.
Recovery of the USS Oklahoma was the most complex salvage operation ever attempted, beginning in March, 1943. With the weight of her hull driving Oklahoma’s superstructure into bottom, salvage divers descended daily to separate the tower, while creating hardpoints from which to attach righting cables.
The work was hellishly dangerous down there in the mud and the oil at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Several divers lost their lives and yet, another day would come and each would descend yet again, into that black water.
21 giant A-frames were fixed to the hull of USS Oklahoma, 3-inch cables connecting compound pulleys to 21 electric motors, each capable of pulling 429 tons.
Two pull configurations were used over 74 days, first attached to these massive A-frames, then direct connections once the hull had achieved 70°. In May 1943, her decks once again saw the light of day, for the first time in over two years.
Fully righted, the ship was still ten-feet below water. Massive temporary wood and concrete structures called “cofferdams” closed cavernous holes left by torpedoes, so the hull could be pumped out and re-floated. A problem even larger than those torpedo holes were the gaps between hull plates, caused by the initial capsize and righting operations. Divers stuffed kapok into gaps as water was pumped out.
Individual divers spent 2-3 years on the Oklahoma salvage job. Underwater arc welding and hydraulic jet techniques were developed during this period, which remain in use to this day. 1,848 dives were performed for a total of 10,279 man hours under pressure.
CDR Edward Charles Raymer, US Navy Retired, was one of those divers. Raymer tells the story of those men in Descent into Darkness: Pearl Harbor, 1941 – A Navy Diver’s Memoir, if you’re interested in further reading. Most of those men are gone now, including Raymer himself. They have earned the right to be remembered.
Ken Hartle died in January 2017 in an Escondido, California Alzheimer’s and dementia center. He was 103, possibly the oldest of those divers. Before the age of SCUBA, Hartle and his fellow divers worked in heavy canvas suits and brass helmets weighing together, over 200 pounds. He regularly risked death, towing away unexploded bombs and torpedoes. He suffered the bends and nearly lost his life one day, when an anchor chain exploded into flying shards of metal. The part he’d never talk about even after all those years, was the hardest part. ‘Bringing up our boys’.
Salvage workers entered the pressurized hull through airlocks wearing masks and protective suits. Bodies were in advanced stages of decomposition by this time and the oil and chemical-soaked interior was toxic to life. Most victims would never be identified.
Twenty 10,000 gallon per minute pumps operated for 11 hours straight, re-floating the battleship on November 3, 1943.
Oklahoma entered dry dock the following month, a total loss to the American war effort. She was stripped of guns and superstructure, sold for scrap on December 5, 1946 to the Moore Drydock Company of Oakland, California.
The battered hulk left Pearl Harbor for the last time in May 1947, destined for the indignity of a scrapyard in San Francisco bay. She would never make it.
Taken under tow by the ocean-going tugs Hercules and Monarch, the three vessels entered a storm, 540 miles east of Hawaii. On May 17, disaster struck. Piercing the darkness, Hercules’ spotlight revealed the former battleship to be listing, heavily. Naval base at Pearl Harbor instructed them to turn around, when these two giant tugs suddenly found themselves slowing, to a stop. Despite her massive engines, Hercules began to move backward. She was being dragged astern with no warning, hurtling past Monarch, herself swamped at the stern and being dragged backward at 17 mph.
Fortunately for both tugs, skippers Kelly Sprague of Hercules and George Anderson of Monarch had both loosened the cable drums connecting 1,400-foot tow lines, to Oklahoma. Monarch’s line played out and detached. Hercules’ line didn’t do so until the last possible moment. With tow line straight down and sinking fast, Hercules’ cable drum exploded in a shower of sparks directly over Oklahoma’s final resting place, the 409-ton tug bobbing to the surface like the float on a child’s fishing line.
“Okie” was stabbed in the back, attacked and mortally wounded even before she knew she was at war. The causes leading to her final descent, remain uncertain. Most will tell you, her plates couldn’t hold. The beating of six years earlier, was just too much. Those who served on her decks, might tell you differently. Maybe she just preferred, to die at sea.
Jesus Garcia of Guam died at age 21 on December 7, 1941, a sailor serving aboard the USS Oklahoma. William Eugene Blanchard of Tignall Georgia, was 24.
In 1947, “Okie’s” honored dead were disinterred. Dental records and dog tags were used to identify thirty-five. The other 391 including Blanchard and Garcia were reburied in 61 caskets, in Hawaii’s National Military Cemetery of the Pacific. Their names were known, only to God.
Nearly sixty years later, scientific advances in DNA analysis made further identifications, possible. Veteran Ray Emory was serving aboard the USS Honolulu on that day in 1941 and persuaded the D.o.D., to make the attempt.
Exhumations began in 2015. Mitochondrial DNA was enough for many identifications, but not all. Mitochondrial DNA comes from the maternal side. Shared ancestral lines means that sometimes, that’s not enough. One DNA sequence matched 25 victims.
Further DNA was collected from paternal lines, combining with the mitochondrial to identify many of Oklahoma’s dead. William Blanchard was laid to rest with full military honors on June 7, 2021 in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.
As I write this it is December 7, 2021. 80 years after the fact some ninety percent of those who gave their lives on board USS Oklahoma once again, have their names.