November 10, 2017

The Battleships of Pearl Harbor Part 1 - Sunk

On the morning of December 7th, 1941 Pearl Harbor held eight battleships: Nevada, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Tennessee, California, West Virginia and Maryland. All of them were of First World War vintage, representatives of what was known as the Standard Type. These were ships commissioned between 1914 and 1923, all of broadly the same size, and the first ships designed for long-range combat using an all-or-nothing armor scheme. All had four turrets, and all but West Virginia and Maryland mounted 14” guns.1

Pearl Harbor at the beginning of the attack, Battleship Row at the top2

All of the ships except the drydocked Pennsylvania were moored along Ford Island in the famous ‘battleship row’. I’m going to focus on the stories of the individual ships during the attack, moving north to south. The attack began at 0748 on Sunday, December 7th, and a total of 353 Japanese aircraft were involved, in two waves.

A map of Pearl Harbor before the attack

Nevada, the oldest of the battleships present, was alone at the north end of Battleship Row. She was fortunate to have two boilers online when the attack began, as she was shifting which boiler was providing housekeeping power to the ship. She took a single torpedo forward at 0802, causing some flooding, but her gunners, who managed to man their positions very quickly, shot down one of the attacking planes.3

Nevada underway during the attack

At 0840, Nevada got underway, the only battleship to do so during the attack. She initially made for the exit from the harbor, but was redirected to stay within the harbor due to concerns that the Japanese had dropped mines in the exit. During the second wave, she was hit by at least five bombs at around 0950, badly damaging the forecastle and bridge and starting fires throughout the ship. There was insufficient watertight integrity high in the ship, and water was able to flow aft from the bomb holes. Nevada was ordered to beach herself to avoid blocking the channel when she sank, but had turned in a very good performance under the circumstances, despite losing 50 men.

A map of Nevada's movements during the attack

Arizona, ahead of Nevada at the start of the attack, did not fare nearly so well. She took four bomb hits from high-altitude level bombers in the first few minutes of the attack. One ricocheted off the face of Turret 4, and detonated in the captain’s pantry. Another struck near the mainmast, and a third near the rear AA guns. The fourth bomb, though, ensured Arizona’s place as one of the most famous battleships ever. There is still some controversy over what the bomb that struck near Turret 2 set off, but the results were clear. Seven seconds after the impact, a massive explosion of Turret 2’s magazine destroyed the center of Arizona, collapsing her foremast, and putting her on the bottom so fast she did not have time to capsize. About 1100 of her 1500 crewmen died with her.

Arizona moments after the explosion

West Virginia took the most damage of any battleship, two bombs and an estimated seven torpedoes. The torpedo defense system (TDS) she shared with Maryland, California, and Tennessee was one of the most effective ever designed, but she was badly overloaded, and none of the torpedoes hit the TDS cleanly. One hit aft, damaging the steering gear and rudder. Three struck below the armored belt, and another struck the belt directly, requiring the replacement of several plates when the ship was repaired. One or two, hitting after West Virginia had begun to list, actually went over the belt and through holes made by previous torpedoes, detonating on the armored deck. A final torpedo was recovered and disarmed by EOD technicians. Both bombs failed to explode, one having penetrated into Turret 3. Fires took 30 hours to extinguish, and only prompt counterflooding and the presence of Tennessee inboard of her kept her from capsizing before she sank to the bottom. Among the 106 dead was the Captain, who was subsequently awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions after being wounded.

West Virginia burning during the attack, Tennessee behind

Inboard of West Virginia, Tennessee was protected from torpedoes, and escaped relatively lightly on the bomb front, too. She took two hits, one on Turret 2, which disabled the guns and killed West Virginia’s captain, and the other on Turret 3, disabling one gun in that turret. Most of the damage she took came from debris and oil from Arizona, although her crew managed to keep her mostly intact by pushing back the fire with their hoses. Only 5 men aboard died, although it took them until the next morning to finish firefighting operations.

Arizona burning in the foreground, with West Virginia and Tennessee to the left

Oklahoma took three torpedo hits moments after the first bombs fell on Ford Island, and began to list 25° immediately. The order to abandon ship was given, but 415 men failed to get out before she capsized, her masts digging into the bottom of the harbor. Her roll was aided by two more torpedoes on the armored belt as she went over.

Many of Oklahoma’s crew swam over to Maryland, inboard of her, to aid in fighting her anti-aircraft batteries. Maryland, protected by Oklahoma’s hull, survived with only a single bomb hit forward, which missed anything vital. Only 4 men of her crew were lost.

Oklahoma, capsized in the foreground, with Maryland behind

California was moored at the south end of Battleship Row on her own, and took two torpedo hits on the port side at 0805.4 Despite her excellent TDS, which was not penetrated, she suffered extensive flooding. Some hatches were open for maintenance pending an inspection, and Morison suggests that her watertight integrity was generally poor due to a focus on polish as a flagship. Counterflooding kept her level, and the crew manned her anti-aircraft guns, using human chains to pass ammo up when the power failed, and did their best to keep her afloat. However, a pair of bomb hits later in the attack and burning oil from the other ships forced them to abandon the pumps, and California settled, finally coming to rest on the bottom on Wednesday, December 10th. 99 of her crew were lost, including two men, Robert R. Scott and Thomas Reeves, who were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

California surrounded by burning oil

Pennsylvania, the fleet flagship, was in drydock with the destroyers Cassin and Downes forward of her. This protected her from the aerial torpedoes that did so much of the damage to the other ships. Attempts were made to torpedo the caisson (door) of the drydock, but failed. She opened fire on the planes at 0802,5 and only took one bomb hit during the second attack, which damaged the boat deck and some of the secondary 5” guns. However, Cassin and Downes were badly hit by bombs, and Pennsylvania was damaged further when torpedo warheads on Downes exploded. The drydock was swiftly flooded to extinguish the fire aboard the destroyers.6 Morison gives 18 killed aboard, although I’ve seen other numbers, too.

Pennsylvania in the flooded drydock with Cassin and Downes in the foreground

On the other side of Ford Island was the USS Utah, a former battleship converted into a AA training/target ship. She took two torpedo hits early in the attack, and quickly joined Oklahoma on her side.

Next time, I'll cover the post-attack careers of each ship. Some never returned to service, while others played key parts in the later stages of the war.

1 These ships had 16” guns instead.

2 The waterspout is the first torpedo hit on the West Virginia

3 Nevada’s action report is very interesting. It starts with ‘offensive actions’ and ‘damage to the enemy’, and then goes on to discuss damage to Nevada. This is in contrast to the other battleship’s action reports, which focus on their own damage.

4 Interestingly, the initial action report claims three torpedo hits, but more modern sources have reduced this to two.

5 Apparently, they were allowed to carry ammunition into the drydock, which is a major safety violation today.

6 Cassin and Downes were originally going to be scrapped, but the USN decided to instead remove their machinery and weapons, and ship them to the West Coast, where new hulls were built.

Comments from SlateStarCodex:

    • quaelegit says:

      Oh man, the pictures really add to this post! I didn’t realize how many photographs there were of the battle — particularly the colored photographs.

      Some questions:

      >(As an aside, Nevada’s action report is very interesting. It starts with ‘offensive actions’ and ‘damage to the enemy’, and then goes on to discuss damage to Nevada, in contrast to the other battleship’s action reports.)

      What is the significance of the report section ordering? Wondering why it’s ‘interesting’, b/c to rather clueless me it doesn’t mean much that the report was ordered slightly differently.

      >[Re: the California] the initial action report claims three torpedo hits, but more modern sources have reduced this to two.

      Do you know/why did modern sources re-evaluate the number?

      • Protagoras says:

        Yeah, the military seems to have used a lot of color photography, as well as color film, in WWII (because it conveyed more information?) But a lot of it was converted to black and white before most people saw it (for reasons of cost of making the prints? security? a little of each?) I’m kind of curious about the phenomenon, as my various questions suggest.

      • bean says:

        What is the significance of the report section ordering? Wondering why it’s ‘interesting’, b/c to rather clueless me it doesn’t mean much that the report was ordered slightly differently.

        The impression I got was that Nevada was much more concerned with what they did to the enemy than any of the other ships. They were trying to fight back, not just concerned with how badly they were damaged. Keep in mind that the ship was sunk, and they didn’t shoot down that many planes in absolute terms. And yet they lead the report with “look what we did to the other guy”. It shows spirit, which was impressive.

        Do you know/why did modern sources re-evaluate the number?

        Not off the top of my head, as this was written months ago. If you want to dig more, there’s a lot of stuff on the attack at and Hyperwar. The action reports were written on poor evidence available at the time.

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