Free Online Research Papers has over 20 years experience publishing and promoting high quality student research papers, essays, journals, and other writing examples.

The Salvaging Operation of the U.S.S. Oklahoma

Raised From the Depths:
The Salvaging Operation of the U.S.S. Oklahoma

The sound of thunder echoed over Pearl Harbor, except there was not a cloud in sight on the morning of December 7, 1941. The sound was that of torpedoes and bombs that were being dropped by the Japanese Imperial Navy on a surprise and brutal attack on the United States Pacific Fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor. The ships that were berthed along battleship row were sitting targets of this deliberate attack. Though the U.S.S. Arizona is the most remembered and revered battleship lost in the attack the, but the U.S.S. Oklahoma is the most horrifying. “To witness the fate of the Oklahoma was the crowning horror of the day, worse even than the volcanic eruption aboard the Arizona. The explosion

of a battleship, although an awesome thing, was comprehensible. It even had a certain tragic human dignity. But for a battlewagon to overturn was unthinkable; it affronted human dignity.” To free the Oklahoma, and her crew from the fateful grave of the dark and oil covered waters of Pearl Harbor, would prove to be a rescue and engineering feat that the world had never laid eyes on. The divers, salvage workers and engineers of the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard would prove their mettle in years ahead.

The U.S.S. Oklahoma was built as a Nevada class battleship at the naval shipyard in Camden, New Jersey, with its keel being laid on October 26, 1912. Upon completion of the build she was launched into the water on 23 March 1914, and received her commission into service on 2 May 1914. The Oklahoma started her tour of duty in the Atlantic Fleet based out of Norfolk, Virginia. This service with the Atlantic Fleet afforded the Oklahoma some valuable combat experience; she was put into action protecting convoys in European waters in mid-1918. The Oklahoma also had the distinction of escorting President Woodrow Wilson across the Atlantic Ocean in 1919, on his journey to and from France. Upon completion of the Oklahoma’s tour of duty in the Atlantic she was reassigned to the Pacific Naval Fleet based out of San Diego, California in 1921. During this time the Oklahoma participated in numerous naval exercises including the Pacific Battle Fleet’s trans-Pacific cruise to Australia and New Zealand during 1925. While still being assigned to the Pacific Fleet the Oklahoma was moved to the Philadelphia Navy Yard 1927 for major upgrades and modernization to its hull, defenses, and armaments. She did not return to active service until 1929 once all the modifications had been made. The next action the Oklahoma saw after upgrades came in 1936 when she was sent to Spain to help evacuate American citizens, during the Spanish Civil War. Once completed with this task she went back to San Diego until 1940 when the United States Navy decided to move the Pacific Battle Fleet from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. At this point in time the Oklahoma’s fate changes, and she becomes a ship in danger.

While stationed at Pearl Harbor the Oklahoma became involved in one of the most tragic and deliberate attacks on United States military forces by a foreign advisory. The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1942 changed the face of history and became known as, quoted by President Franklin D. Roosevelt “a date that will live in infamy.” At 0800 on that Sunday morning the Japanese Imperial Navy launched an air attack on the United States Pacific Fleet, based at Pearl Harbor, specifically targeting the massive battleships that were berthed along battleship row. The Oklahoma was tied up at berth F-5, outboard of the U.S.S Maryland, this left the Oklahoma exposed to the torpedoes being dropped by Japanese fighters attacking the ships. The position that she was in doomed the Oklahoma to the watery grave that awaited her. There has been debate on exactly how many torpedo hits the Oklahoma took, some survivors say three torpedoes hit in a matter of 3 minutes, other survivors say she took five hits and some estimates state that seven torpedoes slammed into her portside. According to Adolph M. Bothne, a boatswain aboard the Oklahoma when she was attacked stated “a third torpedo hit in the middle of the ship, and the ship started to list noticeably.” As the Oklahoma continued to list rapidly to her port side from the first three torpedo, two more torpedoes struck her either on or above the armor belt causing her shell to cave in and leading to the fate that awaited her. With the Oklahoma listing far to her portside it was just a matter of time before she went turtle and rolled completely over trapping the crew in a steel grave. As she continued to roll the men inside of her were driven into confusion. Stephen B. Young a seaman that was trapped inside of gun turret number 4 recalls the final seconds as the Oklahoma rolled over in the waters of Pearl Harbor.

Those of us who were left behind down in the powder handling room during those final seconds when the ship capsized were not aware at first that she was turning turtle. The darkness there was wild and confusing with objects of all descriptions being tumbled and thrown about. As we frantically fought to save ourselves, we became disoriented. I felt the ship lurch. The deck slipped out from under me and my hands snatched at empty air. I was tossed and spun around, pitched into great nothingness, suspended in air…All of us the living, dying and the dead-were whirled about…Then the dark waters closed in over me as the ship came to rest-upside down on the bottom of the harbor…I was surprised to find myself alive.”

With the Oklahoma capsized over 150 degrees to her port, she was resting on the bottom of Pearl Harbor with her masts and superstructure buried in the mud, and the bottom of her hull sticking just above the water. With the sight of the Oklahoma capsized at berth F-5 the civilians and sailors from the Pearl Harbor Navy Shipyard mobilized and reached the Oklahoma and began rescue operations by 0915, while Japanese fighters were still overhead. These rescue efforts were led by the Oklahoma’s damage control officer William H. Hobby, who was not on the ship at the time, along with the trapped sailors tapping on the bulkheads of the Oklahoma. Hobby immediately ordered that equipment be brought out to cut the men out of the ship and try to rescue as many as the survivors still trapped inside as possible. With this order oxygen-acetylene torches were brought from the Rigel and air powered saws and drills were brought from the Navy Yard. Efforts were made to free the survivors by first cutting three entry holes with the cutting torches into the hull of the Oklahoma. The holes were cut in the amidships area, the feed water tank and the fire room. These openings allowed the rescue team to reach some of the sailors trapped inside and free them from the metal hulk that surrounded them. Though the oxygen-acetylene torches proved to work great for cutting through the thick metal skin of the hull, they were abandoned as a recue tool after it was discovered that they produced toxic gases. Two sailors trapped in the evaporator pump room efforts were made to keep them alive until they could be cut out and pulled to the surface. To achieve this, a discharge line was ran down to them, and food and water was passed to them through this line to help them survive until the rescue team could arrive. At 2300 on December 7 1941 a hole was finally cut into the evaporator pump room using the oxygen-acetylene torches, but when the rescuers reached the sailors, they found them dead, due to suffocation.

Apparently the oxygen-acetylene torches produced fumes that were toxic as they cut through the hull and caused the sailors to perish. From that point on no oxygen-acetylene torches were used to free survivors. Further efforts to free the trapped men were made only using air powered tools such as saws, drills, and jackhammers to bust of the rivets of f of the hull. Rescue efforts on the Oklahoma continued until December 9, 1941 when the final survivors were freed at 0230, bringing the total to 32 rescued. The rescue team had no idea at that time how many men were left trapped inside the ship, but no more survivors were to be pulled from the tomb of the Oklahoma, 415 would end up making the ultimate sacrifice.

Now came the task of what to do with the Oklahoma as she laid overturned in Pearl Harbor, there was a debate of whether to salvage her immediately and put her back into action or to wait and allow the other ships that were less damaged to be salvaged. Upon further inspection of the damage to the Oklahoma’s hull and the engineering and manpower that were needed to roll her over it was decided to salvage the lesser damaged ships first and hold off to salvage the Oklahoma until the end. Captain Homer H. Wallin, Battleforce Engineer, at Pearl Harbor wrote:

“My reason for not indicating the Oklahoma in the near-term program is that righting he is likely to prove a very extensive job, and I question whether the salvaging of the vessel warrants a diversion of forces, and materials which would be required to do the job. After she is righted there would be a big job of further salvage and reconditioning to get her into service. I do not question, but that this can be done but would require a year or more of time in addition to the talent of working forces mentioned.
Upon hearing this recommendation from Capt. Wallin, Admiral Furlong, Pacific Fleet Commander, pushed the salvaging and righting of the Oklahoma to the back burner, along with the U.S.S. Arizona and the U.S.S. Utah. The decision to salvage the Oklahoma came from the Department of the Navy in May 1942. During this time arrangements were made with the Pacific Bridge Company, the contract company that was involved with the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and the salvaging operations of Pearl Harbor. These arrangements divided the work among the Navy and Pacific Bridge Company, it also allowed time for the company to secure the manpower and materials that were going to be required to right and refloat the Oklahoma. The first step was to right the Oklahoma, or roll her back over upright. This was going to be no easy task and an engineering nightmare, Admiral William Calhoun, head of the salvage division at Pearl Harbor noted, “To turn such a mass back through 150 degrees is an engineering feat of considerable magnitude which will require careful planning and thorough preparation.” The job of planning the righting operation and performing the actual task fell to the Pacific Bridge Company, because they had the experienced engineers to attempt such a feat. So on July 14, 1942 the salvage operation of the Oklahoma began, the first step was to cut access holes into the fuel tanks so that the fuel could be offload onto an awaiting barge. The offloading of fuel, and oil needed to be accomplished to lighten the weight of the Oklahoma, who had an estimated dead weight of 27,200 tons. After the fuel had been offloaded questions remained about what would happen when the Oklahoma was attempted to be righted. These questions ranged from, would the bow and stern turn equally, to would she sink further into the mud as she was rolled back over. To answer some of these questions divers from Pacific Bridge Company were sent down to obtain soil samples from the bottom of Pearl Harbor before the righting operation was commenced. Once the results of the soil test were reported back to the salvagers the next problem arose. This was how to assist the Oklahoma as she was righted. At first the use of submarine salvage pontoons was thought to be the answer, but when the Navy denied the shipment of five of them from the west coast that idea was nixed. So the problem was solved by creating an air bubble in the interior of the ship, this was accomplished by closing off hatches at the air bubble boundary and opening up hatches on the interior of the ship. Along with closing off the outlying hatches the fireroom uptakes had to be sealed off. This task was left up to the Navy salvage divers. These fireroom uptakes measured thirty feet by thirty feet and had to be sealed off to prevent the air bubble from leaving the ship. This was done by building the forms outside the ship then disassembled to be transported into the fireroom. Once inside they were reassembled according to exact instructions. The operation of moving the forms into place was hazardous due the toxic gas hydrogen sulfide that had accumulated inside the ship from decomposing bodies and the rotting metal from sea water. Once the forms were put into place and wired to the uptake openings, underwater cement was sent down in a pressurized hose to fill the forms and seal up the intakes. Once the firerooms had been sealed off air was pumped into the ship to evacuate the water and raise the air pressure in the man made bubble to twelve psi. The air bubble that had been created by the divers, helped account for 20,000 tons of the Oklahoma’s weight, which would greatly help in the righting operation. While the operations of creating the air bubble aboard the Oklahoma were taking place, engineers from the Pacific Bridge Company began to remove several enlisted men’s quarters on Ford Island to make way for the concrete deadmen that would be put in place to anchor down the 21 winches and the righting tackles that were to be used. Once the winches and tackle assemblies were in place on Ford Island, preparation was now needed on the Oklahoma herself. Connections for the wires that were going to be used in righting her were tack welded to her hull. Then one inch wire was ran out from the winches to the tackle assemblies, and from the outer tackle assembly a three inch wire was stretched to the headframes that had been attached to the hull of the Oklahoma. From these headframes the wire was divided into four cattails and these cattails were then attached to the connections that were welded to the Oklahoma’s hull. Once all the hardware was in place and properly connected to the Oklahoma’s hull the righting operation could commence. At 0841 on March 8, 1943, eight months after preparations had been started, the winches were turned on and the Oklahoma began her journey to be turned right side up again. With the winches turning the Oklahoma rolled at an astonishing speed of three feet per day, and finally came to rest with a list of two degrees on June 6. It had taken 3 months of on and off pulling to roll the Oklahoma from 150 degrees to two degrees of port list. Now that the righting was completed it was time to get her afloat and drag her in to drydock for further repairs.

After the Oklahoma was righted salvagers from the Navy and the Pacific Bridge Company began to inspect the damage that she had sustained during the attack. It was found that the Oklahoma was severely damaged on her port side with one of the 48 foot armored plates completely blown off, while other sections of the armor plating had four to five inch cracks in them from the torpedo explosions. Also the damage on the port side extended all the way up to the upper deck, were it was completely missing altogether along the amidships section. The Pacific Bridge Company came out to the Oklahoma and took measurements of her port side so cofferdams could be fabricated to patch the damaged port side. Each section of the cofferdam was enormous, measuring 13 feet wide, 50 feet high, and weighing nearly 20 tons a piece. Once the cofferdams were attached to the port side of the Oklahoma, pontoons were chained to the outside of the cofferdams to help support the weight, and keep the Oklahoma from rolling back over. To finish the sealing the port side over 1000 tons of marine concrete was poured into the cofferdam to finish sealing job. Now that the major part of the Oklahoma had been sealed off deepwater pumps were brought in to evacuate the remaining water inside of the ship, and raise the Oklahoma from a 45 foot draft that she was sitting at to a 36 foot draft that was needed to enter the drydock. As the pumps evacuated the water a problem that was not foreseen surfaced. It seems that as the Oklahoma was rolled over part of her hull had gotten crushed and popped rivets out along the bottom. This problem had to be solved and the leaks plugged if the Oklahoma was ever going to be refloated again. So divers from the Navy salvage team came up with an ingenious idea of floating kapok (material used in lifejackets) along the bottom part of the hull and allowing the pumps to suck it up into the hull thus sealing off any leaks that had develop. Once the problem of the leaking hull was solved, the water pumps continued to work until each compartment of the Oklahoma was left with less than two feet of water in them. On December 28, 1943, 751 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor the Oklahoma made her arduous journey to Dry Dock 4, were she would sit in repair. The fate of the Oklahoma became clear in dry dock as Navy Yard employees made temporary repairs to ensure her water tightness, also they removed her guns, auxiliary machinery, and all of her ammunition. Once the Navy was satisfied that the Oklahoma would not sink again she was moved to West Loch, were she would await the highest bidder for scrap metal. On September 1, 1946 the Oklahoma was officially decommissioned and sat at West Loch for almost two more years before she was purchased by Moore Drydock Company for a total of $46,000. So the beloved Oklahoma with all she had been through and the men that had given their lives in service to her watched on May 10, 1947 as she was towed out of Pearl Harbor on her final voyage to the west coast, but the Oklahoma in all her glory would not go quietly into the night. On May 17 1941, for no explained reason for the skies was clear, and the seas were calm the Oklahoma took a port list the same she had a Pearl Harbor when she was attacked. The tug crew that was towing her fought four days to try to save her, but on the fifth night the sky clear, the Oklahoma unaccountably straightened upright, held herself upright for a few moments then sank straight down 500 miles off of the Hawaiian Islands.

The U.S.S Oklahoma was one of the most heartbreaking stories of the Pearl Harbor attack. The blood, sweat and tears that were given by the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and all the men that worked to rescue trapped sailors, and salvage the Oklahoma will never be forgotten. These salvagers risked their lives and forged a new page in history with the raising of the sunken Oklahoma, and their efforts will always be appreciated. Even though the Oklahoma was sold as scrap metal great effort was given to attempt to save her and restore her place back in the Pacific Fleet. A quote from Trapped in the Oklahoma best sums up the fate of the U.S.S. Oklahoma “Good for you Oklahoma! Go down at sea, in deep water, as you should, under the stars. No razor blades for you. They can make’em from the Japanese ships and planes that did you in. So long, Oklahoma! You were a good ship!”

Primary Sources
Madsen, Daniel. Resurrection: Salvaging the Battle Fleet at Pearl Harbor. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2003.
Miller, Nathan. War at Sea: A Naval History of World War II. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Prange, Grodon W. At Dawn We Slept: The Untold Story of Pearl Harbor. New York: Penguin Putnam Inc., 1981.
Raymer, Edward C. Descent Into Darkness: Pearl Harbor 1941, The True Story of a Navy Diver. Novato: Presidio Press, 1996.
“USS Oklahoma (Battleship # 37, later BB-37), 1916-1946,” (accessed February 20, 2008).
Wallin, Homer N. Pearl Harbor: Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1968.
Young, Stephen Bower. Trapped at Pearl Harbor: Escape for Battleship Oklahoma. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991.
Secondary Sources
Baldwin, Hanson W. “Biggest Repair and Salvage Job Ever Undertaken Carried Out at Pearl Harbor,” New York Times, December 6, 1942, (accessed February 10, 2008).
Cymeran, R.A. “Entombed in Oklahoma,” World War II. December 2005, (accessed February 10, 2008).
Gammil, Don. “USS Oklahoma Escapes Indignity of Scrap Heap,” The Oklahoman, December 6, 1991, (accessed February 10, 2008).
Horne, George F. “Oklahoma Salvage a Ticklish Problem,” New York Times, February 13, 1942, (accessed February 10, 2008).
McCaul, Ed. “From Pearl Harbor to Iron Bottom Bay,” Military History, December 2005, (accessed February 10, 2008).
Oklahoma: Up from the Mud at Pearl Harbor. Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard archives.
USS Oklahoma. Pearl Harbor: National Parks Service.
Salvage of the Battleship Oklahoma: Following the Attack on Pearl Harbor 1942-1946. (accessed