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 aircraft approached in two waves out of the southeast, fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes of the Imperial Japanese military. Across Hickam Field they came 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 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 fight. Eight torpedoes smashed into her port side, each striking higher on the hull as the great Battleship began to roll.
Bilge inspection plates were removed for a scheduled inspection the following day, making counter-flooding to prevent capsize, impossible. Oklahoma rolled over and died, even as the ninth torpedo slammed home. Hundreds scrambled out across the rolling hull, jumped overboard into the oil covered, flaming waters of the harbor, or crawling out over mooring lines in the attempt to reach USS Maryland 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 ships were damaged, another two sunk. 347 aircraft were damaged, most caught while still on the ground. 159 of those, were destroyed altogether. 2,403 were dead or destined to die from the attack, another 1,178 wounded.
A Japanese pilot took this photo during the attack.
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. 32 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 such mark was drawn by the last survivor on Christmas Eve.
Of the sixteen ships lost or damaged, thirteen would be repaired and returned to service. USS Arizona remains on the bottom, a monument to the event and to the 1,102-honored dead who remain entombed within her hull.
Across the harbor, USS Utah defied salvage efforts. She too is now a registered War Grave, 64 honored dead remain within her hull, lying at the bottom not far from the Arizona.
With the US now in the war repairs were prioritized. USS Oklahoma was beyond repair. 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 the 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. Cables were first attached to these massive A-frames, then direct connections once the hull had achieved 70°. In May 1943, the decks once again saw the light of day. It was the first time in over two years.
At last 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 these men in Descent into Darkness: Pearl Harbor, 1941 – A Navy Diver’s Memoir, if you’re interested in further reading. Most of them are gone now, including Raymer himself. They have all earned the right to be remembered.
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 arrive.
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 that the former battleship was listing heavily. Naval base at Pearl Harbor instructed them to turn around when suddenly, these two giant tugs found themselves slowing to a stop. Despite her massive engines, Hercules was being dragged astern with no warning, hurtling past Monarch, herself swamped at the stern and being dragged backward at 17mph.
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 the battleship sinking fast, Hercules’ cable drum exploded in a shower of sparks as the 409-ton tug bobbed to the surface, like the float on a child’s fishing line.
Christened on March 23, 1914, USS Oklahoma was one of the first two oil burners in US military service. Heavily armored, her armament was as powerful as any vessel in her class. A symbol of US military might who only fired her guns once, in anger. December 7, 1941. Now, “Okie” was stabbed in the back while she lay at rest, attacked and mortally wounded before she even knew her nation was at war.
The causes leading to that final descent into darkness remain uncertain, her final resting pace, a mystery. Some will will tell you her plates couldn’t hold. The beating she took those six years earlier, was too much. Those who served on her decks might tell you a different story. Perhaps this pride of the United States Navy knew her time had come. Maybe she just wanted to die at sea.