The aftermath of Pearl Harbor was an overwhelming task. Only the drydocks, Fuel farm and Submarine Base were untouched. Unknown to those recovering from the attack, they’d only suffered two-thirds of the total plan. The Japanese had planned to send a third wave, which was assigned to destroy the fuel farm, and the drydocks, but, in December 1941, no one had yet managed to land on an aircraft carrier at night, which the third wave would be forced to do. Since the second wave of Japanese planes had been shot down in a much higher number than the first surprise wave, the Japanese officers decided to spare their pilots for further fighting, rather than smash an enemy who was already fairly well destroyed.
It proved to be a crucial error.
With the fuel still intact, and the drydocks operations, the recovery effort began immediately. The submarines at the Submarine Base were quickly fueled and sent to sea, assigned to sink anything flying the Rising Sun flag and report anyone else. The Aircraft carrier Enterprise, nearly two days late getting to port (she was supposed to be in Pearl on December 6) entered on the 8th, and despite the wreckage of Pearl, the sailors managed to refuel her, restock her, and send her on her way in 24 hours, to protect what was left. Pearl could still function, and her people threw themselves into recovery and support.
By some accounts, the burned and scorched oil was several inches thick in many parts of the harbor. Ships that were only lightly damaged were quickly overhauled, fueled and sent to the States for final repairs. Others, West Virginia, Oklahoma, California, would take longer. Arizona and Utah’s fate was still unknown in those first days, and would end up resting in Pearl forever.
Edward Beach, who would become a celebrated submarine commander, and later author, recounted his feelings on nseein Pearl harbor in late May, 1942, nearly six months after the attack, in his book, “Submarine!”
“No one who saw it will ever forget the awful vista of Pearl Harbor. Although we had been prepared for it, the sight of four of our great battleships lying crushed in the mud staggered us.”
He further described the scene in his novel, Run Silent, Run Deep.
“The stench of crude oil was everywhere. It struck my nostrils with almost physical pain. The shoreline, wherever it could be seen was black; filthy; and the water was likewise filthy, and here and there a coagulated streak of black grease clinging like relaxed death to bits of oily debris…The pictures showed a lot, but they could never show the hopeless, horrible desolation and destruction, the smashing, in an instant, of years of tradition and growth.
California’s cage masts had seemed canted a bit peculiarly when we first caught sight of them, and now we could see why. Her bow was underwater
…astern of her lay the bulging side and bottom of a great ship with one propeller sticking out of the water…this was Oklahoma…
another shattered sunken hulk showed its gaunt sides: West Virginia, once the pride of the fleet…a grimy dirty waterline, now high out of the water, showed how far she had sunk. She was obviously afloat again, but horribly mangled. We could see some of the shattered side, gaping above the cofferdam built around it.
Abaft West Virginia, a single tripod mast stood in the water. Below it a silent gun turrent, water lapping in the gun ports and around the muzzles of the huge rifles. Nothing forward except a confused mass of rusty junk. A flag floated from the gaff of the tripod mast, symbol that the United States would never surrender. Arizona…”
It would take years. By May, when Beach observed this scene, battleships Pennsylvania, Nevada, Tenessee, Maryland had already been recovered and sent to the States. Maryland and Tenessee were repaired and on patrol. Pennsylvania, repaired, was testing of California. Nevada was in Puget Sound being overhauled.
California would be refloated and on her way by June of ’42.
When West Virginia was refloated in May of ’42, sixty-six bodies of her sailors were discovered. While all the recovered ships had such sad recoveries to make, the Wee Vee had a few shocks within her. The following is an excerpt from her salvage report.
29. Recovery of Bodies: During the salvage operations sixty-six bodies were recovered from the West Virginia. These were found widely scattered throughout the ship…
30. There were evidences that some of the men had lived for considerable period and finally succumbed due to lack of oxygen. In the after engine room, several bodies were found lying on top of the steam pipes, which areas were probably within the air bubble existing in that flooded space.
31. Three bodies were found on the lower shelf of storeroom A-111 clad in blues and jerseys. This storeroom was open to fresh water pump room, A-109, which presumably was the battle station assigned to these men. The emergency rations at this station had been consumed and a manhole to the fresh water tanks below the pumps had been removed. A calendar which was found in this compartment had an “X” marked on each date from December 7, 1941 to December 23, 1941 inclusive.
The “Wee Vee” would finally be stable enough to go to the States in May 1943, and would eventually participate in the Leyte Landings.
Oklahoma would take months to roll over and refloat, and her hulk was still being salvaged when Flier entered Pearl Harbor December 1943. She’d ultimately prove a total loss.
Utah, already an old target ship when she sank in the first moments of Pearl Harbor’s attack, was not to be salvaged. After Oklahoma was rolled over, the cranes were moved to Utah, rolling her over and out of the traffic lanes. There, she was left to rest with her 54 lost crew, and the ashes of a baby girl.
Arizona, of course, never moved again. Her hull was so shattered and broken it was thought she could not be salvaged even if she was refloated. Nearly half of the Pearl Harbor casualties rested inside. By the first anniversary of the attack, the decision had been made. She would rest where she fell.
Her superstructure and guns were removed, to place most of her hulk underwater. Her aft main guns became a battery protecting Kaneohe Bay. Another set of guns, after being repaired, were placed on her sister Nevada, and fired against the enemy during the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. (Today, yet another set of her guns lie rusting in the East coast. The state of Arizona is seeking to bring them to her namesake state as a memorial.)
And the country of course advanced steadily into war, hundreds of ships running in and out of Pearl Harbor the whole time these repairs and salvages doggedly continued. By 8 December, while Roosevelt and Congress declared war on Japan, the Japanese were landing on Wake Island, Guam, the Philippines, Thailand, and Maylasia. By the time German and Italy declared war on the US and had the offer accepted and reciprocated on December 11, 1941, the Japanese military had expanded their reach beyond what most military strategists had assumed was possible so quickly. The American military, with their back broken in the form of battelships and destroyers, scrambled anything that could still move and sent it out on orders to conduct “unrestricted warfare.”
And the submarine, a curious misfit with little use on December 6, 1941, (according to some commanders) came into its own.
But Pearl wasn’t over. The blame was beginning to settle. But where? And on whom would it rest?
The following is film footage shot at Pearl just days after the attack