Friends back home used to ask about the Japs. "Hell, we could blow them out of the water in three weeks!" But here we are with our pants down and the striking force of our Pacific Fleet is settling on the bottom of East Loch, Pearl Harbor. Who wouldn't be ashamed?
Diary of 1st Lieutenant Cornelius C. Smith,
U.S. Marine Corps Reserve
Entry of 7 December 1941
A visitor to the navy yard at Pearl Harbor on Oahu Island, Territory of Hawaii, at sunrise, on Sunday, 7 December 1941 would have experienced one of the most dramatic daybreak scenes in the Pacific Ocean. On the south the yard bordered one of several channels of a large, cloverleaf-shaped body of water that, as morning twilight gave way at 0626 (6:26 A.M.) to light orange sunlight, presented still-dark shades of blue and gray. A slight breeze rippled its surface. On Makalapa Heights to the immediate east across East Loch and on Aiea Heights in the distant northeast, the new light picked out lush green growth on purple slopes. Overhead, cottonball clouds from the trade winds floated beneath the brightening sky.
So far this was a scene that might be repeated at any Pacific island port. But if the visitor walked out onto the yard's Ten-Ten Dock, so-called because of its 1,010-yard length, his or her eyes would behold a parade of images unlike any to be seen elsewhere for 3,000 miles around. Visible at the base of Ten-Ten, in Dry Dock No. 1, were the upper hull and superstructure of an impressively huge, gray, spectral United States Navy battleship, USS Pennsylvania (BB-39), flagship of the Pacific Fleet. While walking out toward the pier's end, past, to port, the moored light cruiser USS Helena (CL-50) and the minelayer USS Oglala (CM-4) secured alongside her, the visitor would begin to discern ahead the outlines of seven other majestic, gray-bathed battleships. They were moored to individual concrete quays set in a line some two hundred yards off the southeast shore of a small inland island named Ford that rose in the center of the harbor.
Two of the battleships would be difficult to see at first because they were berthed inboard of other battleships at the same quay. Toward 0700, when waxing light made it possible, the visitor could make out the precise silhouettes of all those ships' stately hulls, their jutting guns, and fighting tops. It was the rare visitor who did not find the bloodstream quickening at such a sight. The pride of the Pacific Battle Force, the battleships were, in order of station, USS California (BB-44) nearest to the drydocked Pennsylvania; Oklahoma (BB-37) outboard and Maryland (BB-46) inboard; West Virginia (BB-48) outboard and Tennessee (BB-43) inboard; Arizona (BB-39); and Nevada (BB-36).
It was America's famed Battleship Row.
At an hour past dawn the battleships were beehives of activity, white-uniformed officers and sailors seen everywhere about their decks and tops. Well over half the officers and an average of 90 percent of the ships' enlisted complements were on board. Only a few men were ashore on other duty or liberty. The morning watches were completing their watch-keeping, cleaning, and polishing duties. They and the crewmen who manned the anti-air-craft (AA) guns -- two machine guns were continuously manned around the clock with two cases of .50-caliber ammunition at hand, and other crews stood by two 5-inch AA guns with fifteen rounds of ammunition for each -- prepared to be relieved by the forenoon watches at 0745. At exactly that minute the forenoon crews, having breakfasted, took their assigned stations, while the morning watches went below to chow down.
Bands and guards prepared for morning colors at 0800. Catholic and Protestant chaplains laid out their sacred vessels or their hymnals for services to be held on deck following colors. One could hear, faintly, the bells of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Peace in nearby Honolulu calling worshipers to eight o'clock mass.
The Navy bands and Marine color guards paraded to their places on the main decks aft. At the stern flagstaffs seamen fastened American flags to the halyards, furled and ready to break. At the same time, other details prepared to hoist the Union Jacks -- forty-eight stars on a blue field -- on the bow staffs. Officers on the signal bridges looked keenly to Pennsylvania. When the flagship hoisted the Blue Peter, or "Prep" flag, at 0755, boatswains on that and all other ships of whatever type in the harbor piped the preparatory signal for the hoisting of colors and the playing of the national anthem. But during the interval of the following five minutes something went terribly wrong.
At the naval air station on Ford Island, Lieutenant Commander Logan C. Ramsey, operations officer of naval aviation Patrol Wing 2, watched with the staff duty officer in the command center as an aircraft made a shallow dive over the seaplane ramp and Hangar 6 at the south end of the island. The pilot should not have been interfering with the ceremonial silence of morning colors in the first place. In the second, he was "flathatting"-- showing off at low altitude -- in violation of flight rules. While Logan and the duty officer discussed the difficulty of getting the aircraft's fuselage number, a delayed-fuse bomb that the plane had dropped at 0757, which the two naval airmen had not seen fall, exploded. in Ramsey's words: "I told the staff duty officer, 'Never mind, it's a Jap.' I dashed across the hall into the radio room [and] ordered a broadcast in plain English on all frequencies, 'AIR RAID, PEARL HARBOR. THIS IS NO DRILL.' " The transmission time was 0758.
Quickly afterward, eight other green-painted dive-bombers could be seen gliding rather than diving from the northeast toward parked aircraft in the vicinity of Hangar 6. As they pulled out, as low as four hundred feet off the deck, naval personnel on the ground could plainly see red roundels on the undersides of their wings. They were Japanese all right! They had to have come from carriers. As their bombs exploded, thirty-three out of a total of seventy U.S. naval aircraft of all types were destroyed or damaged.
The signal tower in the yard repeated Logan's alert to ships in harbor at 0800. But by that time, in mid-colors, when the hoarse klaxons sounded general quarters on all vessels, two ships in the harbor had already been struck by very-low-flying torpedo bombers, barely detectable against the horizon, sixteen in number, which swooped in from the Pearl City peninsula to the northwest over that part of the water called West Channel. Their targets were warships other than battleships that were moored to quays along Ford's opposite, or northwest, side. The first six attackers to drop aerial torpedoes took aim at an antiquated target and training ship, USS Utah (AG-16), and at the light cruiser USS Raleigh (CL-7). Three of the missiles missed and ran aground in the mud off Ford. But two hit Utah on her port side and one struck the portside of Raleigh, moored in line ahead. Raleigh would survive, but Utah was mortally wounded. The torpedo hitting Raleigh blew a hole in her hull thirteen feet below the waterline in the area of frames 50-60. Inrushing water flooded two forward boiler rooms and the forward engine room. As she listed to port, a fleet tug, USS Sunnadin (ATO-28), came alongside to steady her. That and the energetic work of her crew in counterflooding below kept Raleigh from capsizing. She would be holed again by a dud bomb an hour and ten minutes later.
For Utah the end came quickly. Two torpedoes in quick succession punctured her hull at frames 55-61 and 69-72. Within a matter of a few minutes, Utah listed 80 degrees to port, then capsized, the two layers of 6-by-12 timbers that protected her deck from dummy practice bombs rolling overside. Ordered to abandon ship, crewmen hustled out of portholes and ran up the starboard side to her keel as, at 0810, the old vessel went belly-up. Some men were trapped inside the overturned hull, which they banged on with hammers. Despite immediate efforts to rescue
cf0them, using cutting tools borrowed from the damaged Raleigh, only one trapped crewman, a fireman second class, was saved. The total number of deaths on Utah was fifty-eight. The wreck itself sank to the bottom, where it still rests.
Directly after those hits, five torpedo bombers from the same flight, crossing over Ford Island to the East Channel, made drops at 0801 against the light cruiser Helena, moored inboard of the minelayer Oglala at Ten-Ten Dock. Helena was probably selected for attack by error; she was temporarily occupying the berth previously held by the now drydocked flagship Pennsylvania. Again, Japanese marksmanship was less than perfect as only one torpedo hit home. That successful missile, running at a depth of twenty feet, passed under the minelayer and exploded below the armor belt on Helena's starboard side in the area of frames 69.5-80.5. Twenty men were killed instantly by the blast; thirteen more died in the fires and smoke resulting. But the remaining crew saved the ship. The same cannot be said for Oglala, whose thin portside plates were stove in by the same blast effect. Too flooded to remain afloat, she capsized, but not before two civilian contract tugs towed her clear of Helena.
*Endnotes were omitted
Copyright © 2001 Michael Gannon