USS Utah at Pearl Harbor

March 29, 2012
by Randy Miller

She was not even a full fledged battleship on December 7th, 1941, but that did not stop the Japanese pilots from targeting the USS Utah at Pearl Harbor. Fifty-eight men where killed on the USS Utah during the attack and they couldn't even fight back because by 1941 the Utah was demilitarized.

USS Utah was a pre-WWI ship. She served in the Mexican Revolution in 1914 and in Europe in WWI. She conducted training and tours in the 1920s. The Utah was supposed to be demolished in agreement with the London Naval treaty that limited naval firepower.  However, instead of wasting a good ship, she was demilitarized and turned into a target ship. This also meant that her armor was decreased which made the Pearl Harbor attack even more detrimental to the Utah.

USS Utah at Pearl Harbor Attack

The Japanese torpedo bombers were ordered not to waste their torpedoes on the USS Utah at Pearl Harbor because their intelligence correctly advised them that the ship was demilitarized. Some of the pilots recognized the Utah and followed orders to not target her.  Others pilots did not share that awareness and attacked the Utah. In fact, six of the eight Soryu torpedo bombers fired at the target ship. Only two hit their target. This was out of the total of 40 torpedoes dropped at Pearl Harbor.

It was a huge mistake by the torpedo bombers as they wasted precious torpedoes. Some historians thought that the Japanese pilots mistook Utah for a carrier, but it is more likely that those who fired on her thought she was an operational battleship.

The first torpedo to hit the Utah struck at 0801.  By 0812 she had rolled onto her port side. 461 men survived. Four were rescued when crewmen took a cutting torch from nearby Raleigh and freed them from the Utah. During their attempt to cut into the hull they were strafed by zeros, but they continued their rescue attempt after the attack was over.

One of those men was John Vaessan, fireman second class. He stayed on board to make sure that the lights remained lit, a courage act that allowed many of his shipmates to find their way out of the overturned ship.  It wasn't until two days after the attack that Vaessan was rescued. He tragically died soon after, but the cause of death was unknown. It was likely related to being trapped in the ship without water, food or sleep in 150 degree heat for two days.

Righting the Ship

The Utah was righted almost completely. It was then that the Navy department determined that the Utah had too little military value to be raised.  The Utah joins Arizona and Oklahoma as the three ships that did not return to military service after the attack.

Attempt to salvage USS Utah at Pearl Harbor

Memorial for USS Utah at Pearl Harbor

The memorial for the USS Utah was dedicated in 1972. The Utah memorial is not included on tours to Pearl Harbor, but can be arranged for visitors with U.S. Military Identification.

Scattering ashes from USS Utah Memorial

Scattering ashes from Pearl Harbor Survivor Chief Petty Officer Herbert B. Power at the USS Utah Memorial. Power was credited for saving lives during salvage operations.


Rusted remains of the USS Utah




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