Learning Pearl Harbor: What Is a Battleship?
When you visit the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, you hear a lot about the battleships that were moored along the southeastern shore of Ford Island on December 7, 1941, the day the Imperial Japanese Navy launched their devastating attack. The battleships became the main focus of the attack as Japan sought to sink them in order to disable the US Pacific Fleet. Hoping to continue their expansion in the Pacific and Southeast Asia without American interference, Japan launched an assault on the naval base at Pearl Harbor, targeting the ships moored along Battleship Row.
But what, exactly, is a battleship? And why were they the Japanese Navy’s prime targets? Given the historical importance of the battleships at Pearl Harbor, including the USS Missouri (BB-63) and the wreckage of the USS Arizona (BB-39), it's a good idea to brush up on what made these mighty vessels of the US Navy so important.
The Battleships of Pearl Harbor
The Arizona, the USS Oklahoma (BB-37), the USS California (BB-44), the USS Pennsylvania (BB-38), the USS West Virginia (BB-48), the USS Nevada (BB-36), the USS Maryland (BB-46), the USS Tennessee (BB-43) – each of these eight iconic battleships was present during the Pearl Harbor attack and most of them suffered extensive if not fatal damage during the December 7, 1941 attack. There was a reason Japan’s aerial fleet set its sights on the battleships of Pearl Harbor, and it was all about their power.
History of the Battleship
As early as the 17th century, versions of battleships have been recorded. Initial concepts and implements of the battleship started with the “ship of the line,” unarmored wooden vessels equipped with up to 120 smoothbore guns and carronades. In the 19th century, this type of ship was replaced by the ironclad, the the first of which was the French Gloire, pictured above. By the 1890s, the ironclads had evolved into true battleships.
Equipped with large-caliber armament, battleships proved a threat to land, sea, and air targets. These warships, which were first conceived in the 1880s, were part of most major sea battles during the war in the Pacific Theater and, as Japan feared, proved to be strong enough to eventually decimate the their own fleet.
Though considered a powerful part of any navy, battleships were found to have a dangerous weakness in the face of aerial strikes. It was a weakness that Japan took advantage of when it used bombers and modified torpedoes in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Fate of the Battleships
By the end of the 20th century, the battleship was deemed obsolete, and in 2006 the last two battleships were removed from the US Naval Vessel Register. During the early- to mid-20th century, however, battleships ruled the sea. They were deemed the most powerful warships of the ocean and were a vital implement for any nation that wished to have any power at sea.
Today, a few surviving battleships have been converted to museums or memorials. The Missouri, known affectionately as the "Mighty Mo," may be the most significant of these, being the setting for the Japanese surrender that ended World War II. The World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument and Pearl Harbor Historic Sites provide an opportunity for visitors to explore the Missouri, hear the story of the ill-fated Arizona and see the memorial to the 1,177 men who perished when she exploded and sank, and get an overview of the other battleships moored in the harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.