The Saga of the USS Oklahoma

by John Delach

Pearl Harbor, Sunday morning, December 7, 1941, 7:48 am. Church services on board the large ships of the Pacific Fleet were about to begin. Being a Sunday, reveille was relaxed being scheduled for 8 am. Those sailors on duty had already maned their stations. The crew assigned to raise the colors had already assembled by their ship’s flagstaff. The buglers wetted their lips in preparation for the call to duty. The crews’ Sunday routine was about to commence when all hell broke loose.

One of the dreadnaughts moored along battleship row was the USS Oklahoma, manned by over 1,300 officers and crew. As was the navy’s custom, the battle ships were paired along concrete mooring fixtures just off Ford Island. Oklahoma was moored outside of the USS Tennessee. 

The first wave of enemy aircraft struck literally ‘out of the blue. Three hundred and fifty-three Japanese warplanes approached Pearl Harbor in two waves from the southeast. The torpedo bombers attacked battleship row at the most favorable point to give their deadly fish the best chance of scoring a hit. They had two advantages that tilted the odds even more in their favor. Their torpedoes were the most powerful of any nation and they had learned the art of launching them into shallow water by using extra fins, a technique they acquired from the British who used fins to destroy the Italian fleet at anchor in the port of Taranto in November of 1940.

Using these same tactics, the Japanese pilots went after the American battleships lined up,  immobile across the harbor. Unfortunately for the crew of the Oklahoma, their ship happened to become a magnet for these attacking pilots.

“Holes as wide as 40 feet were torn into the hull in the first ten minutes of the fight. Eight torpedoes smashed into the port side, each striking higher on the hull as the battleship began to roll.”

Counter-flooding would not have saved the ship but could have allowed it to sink upright on the bottom thirty-feet below. But this wasn’t possible as the torpedoes struck in rapid succession.  “Oklahoma rolled over and died even as a ninth torpedo slammed home.”

Around the clock rescue efforts began almost immediately, the divers’ goal, to find as many of the members of the crew trapped in the overturned hull.

“ Tapping could be heard as holes were drilled to rescue those trapped inside. Thirty-two souls were delivered from certain death, but most lost their battle in the days and weeks to come. Bulkhead markings would later reveal that, at least some of the doomed survived for as long as seventeen days in the black, upside-down hulk of that ship. The last mark was drawn on Christmas Eve.”

Six of the eight battleships damaged or sunk that day would return to service. Arizona and Oklahoma were the exceptions. Rightfully, the navy made the broken Arizona a memorial to the 1,102 crewmen entombed there. That count doesn’t include the ship’s survivors who included a wish in their last will and testament that their remains be entombed in the wreck after being cremated to spend eternity with their fallen brothers.

Oklahoma was also written off as a total loss and work on removing the ship didn’t begin until March 1943. “Twenty-one giant wooden A-frames were fixed onto the lower part of the exposed hull. Three-inch cables were strung from these A-Frames to 21 towers erected on Ford Island, each equipped with an electric motor capable of pulling 429 tons. Two pull configurations were used over 74 days, the first using the A-frames. Once the listing hull reached 70 degrees, the A-frames were removed, and the cables were attached directly to the ship’s hull and the barbettes.”

Finally, level, the wreck’s main deck was barely above the surface. Large wooden and concrete patches, also known as cofferdams, were constructed to temporarily patch the nine holes in the hull blown away by the torpedoes. In addition, hull plates had taken a beating due to the stresses of rolling over and being salvaged. Divers closed these gaps by stuffing them with kapok as the water was pumped out. The enormity of this work bordered on being insane. Divers spent 2 to 3 years making 1,848 dives that consumed 10,279-man hours. But removing the hulk of the Oklahoma was a priority to clear the harbor.  

“Salvage workers entered the pressurized hull through airlocks wearing masks and protective suits. Bodies were in an advanced stage of decomposition and oil and the chemical -soaked interior was toxic to life. Most victims would never be identified.” One can only imagine how painful, odious, disgusting and revolting this work was to the body, mind and spirit of the sailors who endured this assignment. God bless them for their service.

Oklahoma was dry docked early in 1944 to remove the concrete plugs and wooden cofferdams and seal all remaining leaks to make it seaworthy. When the war ended, any reason for retaining this salvaged wreck disappeared. On December 5, 1946, two days short of the fifth anniversary of its loss, the Moore Drydock Company of Oakland purchased the hulk for scrap.

The buyer had a backlog of work and it wasn’t until the following spring before two ocean-going tugs, the Monarch and the Hercules became available to tow the hull from Pearl Harbor to San Francisco Bay.

I can only imagine the concerns and trepidations of the masters of the two tugs contracted to tow the hulk back to the West Coast. Remember, the last time this compromised hulk had been at sea was 1941 and what was left was truly beaten up.

Aware that their charge was not in the best of health, Captain George Anderson of the Monarch and Kelly Sprague, commanding the Hercules, had both loosened their 1,400-foot tow line so they would release in an emergency.

Late in the evening on the first day out from Pearl, a spotlight from Hercules revealed that the hulk of the former battleship was listing heavily. May day calls were transmitted. The operators in Pearl recommended they return post haste.

The Oklahoma had other plans. Both tugs had turned their charge and were steaming slowly enough in hope of preventing the Oklahoma from sinking. Suddenly, although their engine telegraphs registered, slow ahead: Both tugs stopped dead in the water!

Monarch and Hercules found themselves being dragged astern at 17 knots. Oklahoma was heading for the bottom of the Pacific taking the tugs with it. Monarch’s tow rope broke first, but Hercules’ rope held, and the tug’s death ride continued until the last possible moment when the weight of the sinking battleship broke the rope.

Good ending: Both tugs survived and the USS Oklahoma, died an honorable death.