Sunk But Not Forgotten – The American Ships That Sank in the Pearl Harbor Attack


By: Tara Tyrrell

There were 100 commissioned warships and service auxiliary ships that were docked at Pearl Harbor on the day of December 7, 1941, when the Japanese acted. Although only 16 of those 100 were damaged, it was the amount of damage to the more significant of the ships that left the biggest mark.

The USS Arizona BB-39 / The USS Oklahoma BB-37

Two of the shipping fleet were lost forever, with the two battleships The USS Arizona BB-39, and the USS Oklahoma BB-37 being sunk in the initial attack. Arizona was sunk after a bomb detonated in a powder magazine, killing 1,177 officers and crewmen, and the Oklahoma was sunk by several torpedoes during the attack and 429 crew died when it capsized in Battleship Row.

The USS BB-36 Nevada

The USS BB-36 Nevada (the Oklahoma’s sister ship) was the only battleship to get active during the attack, but was hit by one torpedo and at least six bombs while steaming away from Battleship Row, forcing it to be beached at Hospital Point.

The Nevada was retrieved and restructured and later served as a convoy escort in the Atlantic and as a fire-support ship in four amphibious assaults. At the end of World War II, the Navy assigned it to be a target ship in the atomic experiments to be conducted at Bikini Atoll, and was later retired in 1946 and sunk during naval gunfire practice in 1948.

Eliminating the battleships

Eliminating the battleships

During the attack, the Japanese had a key focus on eliminating the battleships, as they were one of the biggest threats to the internal affairs of Japan and their campaigns for imperialising Manchuria.

Stealthy Japanese planning permitted the attack on Pearl Harbor to remain under detection from US intelligence, and for weeks before the attack, Japanese destroyers and battleships had led fighters, dive-bombers, high-level bombers, and torpedo planes into position to the north of the Hawaiian Islands.

Upon reaching Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, the torpedo bombers that had travelled in complete radio silence attacked the harbor in groups of twos and threes in a surprising, quick and powerful attack, with the second fleet of Japanese aircraft blitzing the site an hour later.

USS California BB-44

A number of other boats were sunk in the attack, but later recovered and rebuilt. The USS California BB-44 lost 100 crew members that morning, after the ship suffered extensive flooding damage when hit by two torpedoes on the port side. Both torpedos detonated below the armor belt causing virtually identical damage each time. A 250 kg bomb also entered the starboard upper deck level, which passed through the main deck and exploded on the armored second deck, setting off an anti-aircraft ammunition magazine and killing about 50 men.

USS California BB-44

After three days of flooding, the California settled into the mud with only her superstructure remaining above the surface. She was later re-floated and dry-docked at Pearl Harbor for repairs. USS California served many missions throughout the wart, and was eventually decommissioned in February 1947.

USS West Virginia BB-48

USS West Virginia BB-48 was sunk by six torpedoes and two bombs during the attack on Pearl Harbor, but in May 1942, was salvaged from the seabed by draining the water from the hull.

USS Cassin DD-372 and USS Downes DD-375

USS Cassin DD-372 and USS Downes DD-375 were Mahan-class destroyers. The two destroyers were in dry-docking at Pearl Harbor during the attack, when an incendiary bomb exploded Downes’ fuel tanks. Cassin slipped from her keel blocks and rested against Downes which were both destroyed by uncontrollable fires. Both ships were considered lost, and Cassin was decommissioned as of 7 December 1941 but their machinery and equipment were salvaged and sent to Mare Island Navy Yard where entirely new ships were built around the salvaged material and given the wrecked ship’s names and hull numbers.

USS Downes DD-375

USS Oglala ID-1255/CM-4/ARG-1

USS Oglala ID-1255/CM-4/ARG-1 was a minelayer and was the flagship of the Pacific Fleet Mine Force. Japanese torpedo planes of the first attack surge hit the cruiser with a single torpedo, and the Oglala rapidly took on water and sank. It was later salvaged in 1942 and continued service until 1965 (after being redesignated as an internal combustion engine repair ship ARG-1).

Many other ships were damaged in the attack, and many lives were lost. The salvageable ships that were recommissioned all played a big part in the remaining years of World War II and many missions after that.

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