Dredging Up—and Blowing Up—Pearl Harbor's Past

July 30, 2018

Remnants from the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor are still being uncovered, despite the passage of 77 years since it unfolded. Recently, new discoveries have been made at the heart of where the attack took place, in the waters surrounding the wrecks of the battleship USS Arizona (BB-39) and battleship-turned-target-ship USS Utah (BB-31/AG-16).

According to US Navy contractors, dredging projects at Pearl Harbor have uncovered stockpiles of munitions that were lost during the 1941 attack. Dredging is routinely performed at Pearl Harbor to uncover old military material and possibly happen upon artifacts of historical importance. In this instance, they came across both.

An Explosive Discovery

There is little to be done with antiquated munitions, however, and so over the course of three days, the contractors will detonate their discovery. The material that was recovered included hand grenades, rifles, 5”, 3” and 11” projectiles, fuses, small arms ammunition, and more.

Explosion of the USS Arizona (BB-39)

Explosion of USS Arizona (BB-39)

The controlled explosions are scheduled for July 26, August 30, and September 28, 2018 and people nearby, including those visiting Pearl Harbor on those days, may hear popping noises. While it’s fascinating to think of the disposal process of the old munitions, it’s important not to forget how such a stash came be situated at the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

Over the course of the attack, dozens of US Navy ships were damaged, three of which ended up being total losses. Two of those still remain in the harbor. The battleships USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma (BB-37), USS California (BB-44), and USS West Virginia (BB-48) were all sunk during the attack, though the latter two were refloated and repaired. As they sank to the bottom of the harbor, their hulls damaged by torpedo and bomb attacks, what munitions that weren’t lost in the explosions could have found their way to the harbor floor. For 76 years those pieces of Pearl Harbor history waited until a routine dredging operation brought them to the surface.


A Different Disaster

USS LST-480 burning, 22 May 1944

LST-480 burning, 22 May 1944

Some of the recovered ammunition was linked to a disaster unrelated to the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. On May 21, 1944, in the West Loch section of Pearl Harbor, LST-353 exploded either from an accidental dropping of a mortar round or ignition of gas vapors from fuel drums. In the chaos that followed, six LST vessels were sunk, including LST-353, LST-39, LST-69 and LST-480. Much like with the battleships during the earlier attack on Pearl Harbor, it’s likely that, as these ships sank, they lost their munitions.

It's unlikely that these will be the last artifacts of World War II-era vessels to be found in Pearl Harbor. The floor of the harbor is without doubt still hide fascinating finds that future dredging projects will uncover.

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