Cleaning Up After the Pearl Harbor Attack

By: Alison

When people think of the Pearl Harbor attack, they often think of that one day of horror. What they don’t think about is the wreckage that was left after the attack. Planes and ships had been decimated by bombs and torpedo attacks, and the bodies of crewmen were still being recovered from sunken ships. The U.S. Military had to figure out a way to clean up the mess the Japanese left behind.

Read on to learn how military officials cleaned up after the Pearl Harbor attack – and how work is still being done today.

Salvage Crews and the USS West Virginia

For weeks after the Pearl Harbor attack, salvage crews worked around the harbor to clean up after the bombing. Destroyed planes and hangers needed to be repaired, and ships – other than the USS Arizona – needed to be repaired.

When the Pearl Harbor attack subsided, the USS West Virginia sustained seven hits from torpedoes. Bombs hit the deck leaving gaping holes, and the rudder under the ship was broken. A great slash – one taller than one man standing on top of another – cut across one side of the ship. It was too big for any patch. The only thing that really saved the ship was the fact that she had not capsized – which was saying something when compared with other ships.

Pearl Harbor Attack Aftermath

Though the ship sustained heavy damage and was partially submerged in water, engineers believed it was still salvageable and went to work to restore it. The engineers soon set to work building cofferdams, which could be attached to the ship. These chambers were watertight, and they had to be attached to the ship.

Engineers also had to fix the bottom of the ship. When it hit the bottom of the bay during the Pearl Harbor attack, the USS West Virginia’s bottom scraped along the rocks, which tore through the metal. The bottom of the ship flooded. In order to raise the ship, engineers placed their cofferdams in position and used a special type of concrete to seal them in place. The concrete hardened in the water and had to be piped down from the surface. Once it was laid along the bottom, the water then had to be pumped out from the ship. Little by little, the USS West Virginia returned to the surface.

West Virginia Smoke

The White smoke in this image is from the USS West Virginia as her fires are fought. The black smoke is the USS Arizona. The ship in the foreground is the USS Maryland.

USS Arizona’s Black Tears

When the USS Arizona was bombed in the Pearl Harbor attack, the ship had just been refueled the previous day. The bombs created terrible fires that swept across the ship. As we know, the ship eventually sank, but not all the fuel was destroyed in the fire.

Since the ship sank, the leaking oil – which can be seen from the USS Arizona Memorial – are often called the black tears of the ship. In the 1990s, concerns arose as to the potential pollution of the harbor. After all, having oil leaking into it for several decades can’t be good for the fish.

Black-Tears of Arizona Underwater

The National Park Service, the current overseers of the harbor, began studying the amount of oil spewing out of the wreckage and how it was affecting the ecosystem. Since 1998, officials for the park service have been able to better monitor the amount of oil leaking into the harbor.

Few attempts to stop the oil have been made. The ship is treated as a tomb as many of the bodies of crewmen were never recovered. So long as the oil remains manageable, the ship will continue to leak oil.


If you were in charge of cleaning up after the Pearl harbor attack, would you try to save all of these ships or let them stay as memorials? Share your thoughts with us!

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