Keep Them Fit To Fight: The Salvage of Pearl Harbor

By Tricia Runzel, National Museum of the American Sailor Curator

The attack on Pearl Harbor lasted just two hours, but the loss of life, supplies, and ships was staggering. When the smoke cleared, thirteen ships were in various stages of damage and seven ships, as well as a floating dry dock, were sinking or already sunk. Worse still, the attack had killed over 2,000 military personnel, including Navy, Army, and Marines. The human loss could never be repaired, but for a nation entering war, repair and reuse of the ships and materials was paramount. The question was, how?

USS West Virginia, USS Tennessee, and USS Arizona were struck during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

USS West Virginia (BB 48), USS Tennessee (BB 43), and USS Arizona (BB 39) are struck during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. Salvage operations following the attack would repair Tennessee, raise and repair the sunken West Virginia, and leave Arizona as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the attack. Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum.

The formal salvage operation began just one week after the attack, on December 14, 1941, under the direction of Captain Homer N. Wallin. Wallin was tasked with a Herculean duty – recover and restore use of as many ships as possible. Setting up shop in an abandoned contractor’s shack, Wallin assembled a team of project officers, Navy divers, Naval Yard personnel, crewmen of the injured ships, and civilian contractors. The U.S. Navy was surprisingly fortunate. Ten of the damaged ships sustained only minor to moderate damage and were back to sea within just three months. Another two were back to active duty by mid-1942. The seven sunken vessels, however, presented an entirely different challenge.

USS Nevada (BB 36) is shown beached and burning after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

USS Nevada (BB 36) is shown beached and burning after the attack on Pearl Harbor. National Naval Aviation Museum.

When Admiral Nimitz, Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, inspected the wrecks on the eve of the new year, his report of USS Nevada (BB 36) was grim. In Nimitz’s words, “satisfactory salvage seemed impossible.”[1] The admiral had good cause to be pessimistic. Beached by her crew during the attack, Nevada had been struck by at least five bombs and one torpedo, resulting in one large and several smaller holes in her hull. She also suffered from extensive fires and was completely filled with water; but Captain Wallin was optimistic.[2] The key to refloating Nevada would be patching as many of her holes as possible. The Navy Yard quickly set about creating patches, wooden “window frames” that could be held close to the hull plating by hook bolts manipulated by divers. The Navy Yard also constructed a large patch, intended to cover the torpedo hole in Nevada’s port side. Unfortunately, after much maneuvering and labor, the patch failed to seal the hole. The hull was too warped for the patch to fit properly. Wallin’s team discarded the large patch and instead relied on the strength of Nevada’s bulkheads, a gamble that ultimately paid off.[3]

Sealing Nevada’s holes was only half the battle. The salvage crew then set about draining the ship, cleaning her compartments, and salvaging whatever equipment they could. Nevada’s salvage ultimately involved more than 400 individual dives by Navy and civilian divers, who spent over 1500 hours preparing the ship for dry dock repairs.[4] After three months underwater, Nevada was refloated on February 12, 1942 and entered Pearl Harbor’s dry dock the next day. There, her initial repair work was completed before she was sent north to Puget Sound Naval Yard for final repairs and modernization. Nevada rejoined the fleet in 1942 and went on to be the Naval flagship of the D-Day operation. She was the only ship present at both Pearl Harbor and the landings in Normandy. USS Nevada was decommissioned in August 1946 when she was intentionally sunk in the first atom bomb test at Bikini Atoll.

The sunken USS West Virginia (BB 48) rests low in the harbor, alongside the still floating USS Tennessee.

The sunken USS West Virginia (BB 48) rests low in the harbor, alongside the still floating USS Tennessee. Photograph taken from the capsized hull of the USS Oklahoma (BB 37). Naval History and Heritage Command.

Of Pearl Harbor’s sunken ships, the most extensively damaged was USS West Virginia (BB 48). According to one salvage diver, West Virginia “would test the ingenuity and salvage expertise of every faction involved in the operation.”[5] As many as seven torpedoes hit West Virginia, although the exact number is still unknown. The attack completely blew off West Virginia’s rudder and her port side was ripped open. A thirty-hour oil fire only heightened the damage.

As with Nevada, Capt. Wallin called on the Navy Yard for wooden patches, this time requesting fourteen patches that essentially covered the entire hull. Now the question was how to adhere the patches. The Pacific Bridge Company, a civilian company essential to the salvage effort, suggested the use of underwater concrete. The 650 tons of underwater concrete did their job and successfully sealed the bottoms and sides of all the patch sections. With the ship successfully sealed, the salvage team was able to move forward with the unwatering process, removal of equipment, and extensive cleaning. USS West Virginia entered Pearl Harbor’s dry dock in June 1942, where she received temporary repairs before continuing on to Puget Sound for permanent repairs and modernization. Two and half years after the attack at Pearl Harbor, West Virginia rejoined the fleet for the final year of the war. She took part in the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa before witnessing the surrender of the Japanese in Tokyo Bay.

USS Bennington (CVA 20) passes the wreck of USS Arizona on Memorial Day, May 31, 1958, four years before the opening of the USS Arizona Memorial.

USS Bennington (CVA 20) passes the wreck of USS Arizona (BB 39) on Memorial Day, May 31, 1958, four years before the opening of the USS Arizona Memorial. Bennington’s crew stands in formation, with a special tribute to the Arizona crewmen who lost their lives. Just visible below the water is the outline of Arizona’s hull and the flow of oil in her fuel tanks. Official U.S. Navy Photograph.

In total, five of the capsized vessels were raised at Pearl Harbor and were either sent back into the war effort or salvaged for parts. However, two sunken battleships, USS Utah (BB 31) and USS Arizona (BB 39), would remain at the bottom of Pearl Harbor. Although the salvage team briefly toyed with the idea of raising Utah, it was ultimately decided that both ships should stay where they lay. Utah would be moved and occasionally used as a training vessel for divers, while Arizona was designated the official memorial to all of those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor. Today, as we remember those who made the ultimate sacrifice at Pearl Harbor, we also remember those whose dedicated salvage work made the fleet “fit to fight” once more.

Cover Image: The capsized USS Oklahoma (BB 37) presented a unique challenge to the Pearl Harbor salvage team. Here she is seen being righted on March 29, 1943. National Archives Records Administration.

For information about the National Museum of the American Sailor visit our website and our Facebook page.

Works Cited:

[1] Wallin, Homer N. Pearl Harbor: Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal (Washington DC: Naval History Division, 1968), 211.

[2] Wallin, 211; Sarah Pruitt, “After Pearl Harbor: The Race to Save the U.S. Fleet,” The History Channel, http://www.history.com/news/after-pearl-harbor-the-race-to-save-the-u-s-fleet (accessed Nov. 5, 2018);” Mike McLaughlin, “The Pearl Harbor Salvage Effort: Keep Navy Fighting,” Warfare History Network, https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/daily/wwii/the-pearl-harbor-salvage-effort-keeping-navy-fighting/ (accessed Nov. 5, 2018).

[3] McLaughlin, “The Pearl Harbor Salvage Effort;” “Salvage Work on USS Nevada,” NHHC, https://www.history.navy.mil/our-collections/photography/wars-and-events/world-war-ii/pearl-harbor-raid/post-attack-ship-salvage/salvage-work-on-uss-nevada–december-1941—april-1942.html.

[4] NHHC, “Salvage Work on the USS Nevada.”

[5] McLaughlin, “The Pearl Harbor Salvage Effort.”

2 thoughts on “Keep Them Fit To Fight: The Salvage of Pearl Harbor

  1. Pingback: A Sailor’s View of Humanitarian Aid to Japan | Sailor's Attic

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