Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ship History 7

USS Arizona BB-39


Kevin Scott Bolinger

    Welcome aboard, my friends. Seeing as it is the month of December, I though I would delve into a dark history of the United States. This month brings the anniversary of an attack on the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. So, to honor those lost during the attack, I am bringing to you the story of the ship that went on to symbolize the losses on that fateful day of December 7th, 1941 , a ship stationed in paradise, yet consumed by the fires of war, the USS ARIZONA.

    Her story begins, as all ships do, in a shipyard, where all great hulls are knocked together with the sweat and brawn of simple men, men skilled at willing iron into the shape of a ship. Though many ships are built for civilian service, some are built for war. These ships get special attention, being made stronger and heartier than their civilian cousins.
Her hull, ready for launching.

    Battleship design has always been a state secret, in all countries around the world that would build such machines. Around the turn of the century, a new type of battleship, known as a dreadnaught, named after the first ship with this radical new design, the HMS DREADNAUGHT, had taken to the waves. These ships were far larger than their wooden predecessors. Instead of fixed deck guns, they had rotating turrets, as well of gun of multiple calibers. Heavily armed and armored, and taking advantage of the new turbine engines developed by Charles Parsons, they were fast and deadly, at least until the rise of the airplane a few decades later. As technology advanced, and ships grew larger, there came the super-dreadnaughts. These were the ships that would slug it out in the Great War. 
ARIZONA taking to the water for the first time.

    The keel for the ship that would carry the weight of history upon her shattered hull, was laid on March 16th, 1914, at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. In attendance that day was the Assistant Secretary to the Navy, at the time, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Seems he and the ship would be linked in an interesting way. Originally estimating it would take 10 months to go from keel to launch, the actual launch occurred on June 19th, 1915, nearly 15 months after the keel was laid. Nearly 75,000 lined up to watch her launch, and it was here that she was given her name, by Secretary of the Navy, Josephus Daniels, who proudly named her ARIZONA, after the newest state to enter the union.

    She was the second and last ship in the PENNSYLVANIA class, a super-dreadnaught type, larger than the NEVADA class that had preceded her. Her official designation was BB-39, or, the 39th battleship to be commissioned by the Navy. At 608ft long, and 97ft wide, she was smaller than the largest ocean liners in the world at that time, yet she was tougher, and built for a much grander purpose. Powered by four steam turbines, each connected to 12ft diameter propellers, she could make a modest speed of 21 knots, due mainly to her great displacement. Her armor, at its thinnest, was 5in and at its thickest, mainly the massive turrets, was 18in. Her main armament consisted of four turrets, two forward and two aft, housing three 14in guns each. She also had mounted upon her, 22 5in guns, three 4in AA guns, and two 21in torpedo tubes. She carried a crew of about 900 officers and men. In later years this would see an increase to about 1400 total.

    She was officially commissioned on October 17th, 1916, and by November 10th, she was ready to sail on her first shakedown cruise. She headed south, yet on December 7th of that year, one of her turbines was stripped, and she was forced to limp back to New York for repairs. She was near Guantanamo when the engine failure occurred. It does seem ironic, in hindsight, that she would have something like this occur on a date that many years in her future would have so much more significance. It took the shipyard nearly four months to complete the repairs on the ship.
Leaving New York for the first time.

    When the First World War broke out, in April, 1917, the ARIZONA was assigned to Battleship Division 8, though sadly she would be relegated to simple training missions for the gunners of merchant vessels deployed in the Atlantic Convoys. She would spend most of the was stateside, since she was an oil burner and coal was easier to obtain in England than oil. However, as the war was ending, she was sent overseas. She was part of the grand fleet that escorted President Woodrow Wilson, on board the liner GEORGE WASHINGTON, to the Paris Peace Accords. Upon her return, she was docked in New York yet again, along with many other ships from the fleet, and was opened to the public for several days.

    The 1920’s started off slow for the ship, with her yet again being relegated to training. When the Greco-Turkish war broke out later that year, she was sent to Greece to represent American interests.  As the conflict grew, many Americans in the area fled to her for safety. After the conflict ended she once again returned to New York for an overhaul. Some minor improvements to her armament were made, as well as some minor repairs and maintenance. In August of that year she was made the flagship of Battleship Division Seven, but it was not until the end of the year that she was upgraded to be an admiral’s flagship.

    In January of 1921, she joined several ships that were to transit the Panama Canal. There she would participate in battle maneuvers near Peru , before making the trip back through the canal and to New York for another brief refit. Once that was completed, it was back to the Pacific, where she would spend the rest of her life. Her new home port would be San Pedro, near Los Angeles. Here she would remain until 1940. The rest of the 1920’s consisted of more battle training, more refits, and more back and forth through the canal. One highlight was on July 27th, 1923, when she was part of the Naval Review for President Warren G. Harding, who would pass away a week later. August 3rd would see her join the Pacific fleet in firing a shot in his honor.
Post 1929 refit, looking like a new ship.

    In 1929, she went in for her first major refit. The ship would emerge looking completely different. Her old latticework conning towers would be removed, replaced by a more modern tripod design. Most of her machinery was removed, with new boilers installed, and four new geared turbines, increasing her horsepower. The extra power was needed, because the refit would significantly increase her displacement. A new torpedo blister was added under the water line to protect her sides,  and many of her 5in guns were replaced by higher caliber AA guns.

    The ship returned to active duty in 1931, but before her new systems could have a proper trial and break-in period, she was assigned to host President Herbert Hoover, bringing him to the Caribbean for a vacation. She brought the President to both Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Finally, on March 29th, she was to return to her home port where she would have a trial run of her new modern systems.
Going through the Panama Canal.

    She was in port, in San Pedro, when an earthquake struck Long Beach, California, on March 10th, 1933. Sailors on board helped many on the mainland, providing food, helping the injured, and most importantly, providing much needed security to discourage looters. In 1934, she was to host James Cagney and a film crew from Warner Brothers, as they made the film Here Comes the Navy. Many scenes were filmed both on board and within the ship itself. Sadly, on July 26th of that year, she would collided with a fishing trawler that was under tow, killing two on board. Her Captain was later court-marshaled , where he was found guilty and replaced. The rest of the decade was spent much like the previous one, training, maneuvers, and refits.

    With war breaking out in Europe, and ever increasing hostility from Japan, the ARIZONA was moved with mush of the Pacific Fleet, to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. The time there was spent drilling over and over, to the point where many of the men at the base were getting a bit jaded to it all. Throughout the war, the United States had remained neutral, but all that was soon about to change.
Hull maintenance.

    On the evening of December 4th, 1941, the ARIZONA, along with the NEVADA, and OKLAHOMA, was out at sea, doing firing drills. The three ships returned that evening and were tied up at Battleship Row, near Ford Island, in the harbor. On December 6th, the repair ship VESTAL tied up next to her and began to assist the crew in some minor repairs.  No one had yet realized that in a few short hours, all hell would break loose.

    The Japanese government had been choked by blockades, and oil embargoes by the United States. As their animosity grew, Admiral Yamamoto came up with the brilliant plan to attack the Pacific fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor. His main goal was to take out the three main carriers stationed there, ENTERPRISE, LEXINGTON, and  SARATOGA. He was a man ahead of his time. He had the foresight to realize that the age of the battleship had come to an end, and that the airplane and the carriers that carried them were the superior tools of modern naval warfare. He had hoped to use surprise, yet the timing of the attack must coincide with the delivery in Washington, on Japans official declaration of war by her ambassador. As history will tell us, the ambassador, due to problems with his encryption machine and translation, was late delivering the declaration, it arriving a few hours after the attack had ended.

    The morning of December 7th, 1941 dawned bright and clear, another beautiful day in paradise. As the time approached, the Japanese launched hundreds of planes from their six carriers, AKAGI, KAGA, SORYU, HIRYU, SHOKAKU, and ZIRKAKU. he planes were armed with torpedo’s and bombs. The crews had spent months training on how to use the  torpedoes, which were given special wooded rudders, to help them stay nearer to the  surface, ensuring they would have a better chance of striking their target. All pilots and bombardiers had pictures of aerial reconnaissance of battleship row and the ship moored there. 
Torpedoes in the water, notice the shock wave from a hit.

    The Japanese also used midget submarines, mainly launched from their larger cousins. These played a very minor roll, and none were effective. At around 6:30 am the USS WARD, a destroyer, spotted and sunk one of them. Another might have entered the harbor, but her attacks were unsuccessful. Two others were used, one being sunk at 8:43am, the other grounding twice. In total, five midget subs were used, but none returned.

    A new radar installation had been installed on the island, and crews were still learning how to use it properly. This was compounded by the fact that a flight of B17’s was due in about that time, and as the warplanes from Japan approached, it was believed to be the B17’s. With it being a Sunday, everyone was caught off guard. All the constant drilling had made some not even react at first as bombs and bullets began to fall on the base. The Japanese were smart and thorough, taking out many of the airfields first, then heading towards the ships. Many American planes were destroyed on the ground, crippling the response.

    Torpedo bombers began to swarm the harbor, the streaks of many torpedoes visible in the water. Many of the battleships were quickly crippled. The OKLAHOMA began to capsize where she was berthed, trapping men in her sinking hull. The VESTAL, moored next to ARIZONA was hit and was in flames. Then, the bombers began to target the battleship herself. One bomb bounced off turret number four, to detonate harmlessly in the water. Several others exploded near the ship, but there was no damage. Rear Admiral Russell Wilson was on the bridge, Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh was just entering himself, after helping to get injured crewmen away from the AA guns so they could be replaced by other sailors. The time was 8:06 am, and one bomb was about to find its mark. 
Destruction of the ARIZONA.

   From up high, a bomb began its downward spiral. Where it hit is still a matter for debate, though the most likely place was just aft of turret number two. Either way, it did not explode on impact, instead piercing the lighter deck armor and ending up in the armory. The resulting explosion was catastrophic, to say the least. The forward hull was blown outward, the bridge collapsed, and all those on it, including th4e Captain and Admiral, were killed instantly. The ship quickly settled to the bottom of the harbor, where she would burn for two days. One side effect of the explosion, however, was that it put out the fire on the VESTAL. At the time of the attack, the ship had 1400 crewmen aboard,  1177 were killed instantly in the explosion, accounting for nearly half the dead from the entire attack. In less then ten minutes, the Japanese had nearly obliterated the fleet, and this was only the first wave of fighters they had sent.

    There would be a brief respite, then the second wave would approach. Though far more prepared, the men at the base were in no shape to truly mount a defense. Ships that still had functioning AA guns took aim, some successfully shooting down the enemy. More ships were sunk where they were moored, even a few in dry dock were not spared. On the other side of Ford Island the USS UTAH, a former battleship now used for training, was sunk, killing 58 men. In all 2,402 would be killed, both military and civilian, as well as another 1,247 wounded, mostly burns from the ships on fire.
Battleship row, after the attack.

    As the attack ended, chaos still reigned supreme. Hundreds of men were in the water, now burning from all the oil. As these men were grabbed to be pulled into lifeboats, their skin would just slough off, and they would scream in pain, many dying from the shock. Others were coated with oil, and it was blinding them. Fires were being fought valiantly from both shore and water based equipment. Cutting torches were brought to the upturned hull of the OKLAHOMA in an attempt to free those trapped inside.  In all, 18 ships had been either sunk or heavily damaged, with 150 aircraft destroyed, mostly on the ground.  Of all the ships sunk and damaged, only two would never be re-floated and returned to service, the UTAH and the ARIZONA.

    The next day, President Franklin Roosevelt, the very same man that had been there the day the ARIZONA’s keel had been laid, gave his now famous speech:

Mr. Vice President, Mr. Speaker, Members of the Senate, and of the House of Representatives:
Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 -- a date which will live in infamy -- the United States of America was suddenly and          deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
The United States was at peace with that nation and, at the solicitation of Japan, was still in conversation with its government and its emperor looking toward the maintenance of peace in the Pacific.
Indeed, one hour after Japanese air squadrons had commenced bombing in the American island of Oahu, the Japanese ambassador to the United States and his colleague delivered to our Secretary of State a formal reply to a recent American message. And while this reply stated that it seemed useless to continue the existing diplomatic negotiations, it contained no threat or hint of war or of armed attack.
It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days or even weeks ago. During the intervening time, the Japanese government has deliberately sought to deceive the United States by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace.
The attack yesterday on the Hawaiian islands has caused severe damage to American naval and military forces. I regret to tell you that very many American lives have been lost. In addition, American ships have been reported torpedoed on the high seas between San Francisco and Honolulu.
Yesterday, the Japanese government also launched an attack against Malaya.
Last night, Japanese forces attacked Hong Kong.
Last night, Japanese forces attacked Guam.
Last night, Japanese forces attacked the Philippine Islands.
Last night, the Japanese attacked Wake Island.
And this morning, the Japanese attacked Midway Island.
Japan has, therefore, undertaken a surprise offensive extending throughout the Pacific area. The facts of yesterday and today speak for themselves. The people of the United States have already formed their opinions and well understand the implications to the very life and safety of our nation.
As commander in chief of the Army and Navy, I have directed that all measures be taken for our defense. But always will our whole nation remember the character of the onslaught against us.
No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.
I believe that I interpret the will of the Congress and of the people when I assert that we will not only defend ourselves to the uttermost, but will make it very certain that this form of treachery shall never again endanger us.
Hostilities exist. There is no blinking at the fact that our people, our territory, and our interests are in grave danger.
With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph -- so help us God.
I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.

A very powerful speech it was.

    Admiral Yamamoto was congratulated for the success of his plan, but, as he would answer “I fear that all we have done is awaken a sleeping giant, and fill him with a terrible resolve.”  His words would be prophetic. America would gear up for war in a way no other country could.  However, there is actually very little evidence that he spoke these words, yet even if he did not, he still had thoughts similar to them.
ARIZONA in flames.

    However, that would be in the near future, back in the present, things at Pearl Harbor were a mess. One lucky stroke was that all three carriers had been out on maneuvers and had escaped the attack. Admiral Halsey would return to Pearl aboard  ENTERPRISE a few hours after the attack, disgusted by what he saw.

    The ARIZONA herself was a total loss. After the fire was finally put out, two days after the attack, a decision had to be made. It was decided to salvage her turrets, and scrap her superstructure. The turrets from the rear would go to coastal defense of the island, though never used. The forward turrets were left in place, for now, but the guns from turret two were salvaged, straightened, and installed on the USS NEVADA.
Another view of battleship row after he attack.

    I am not going to go to heavily into the events of the Pacific campaigns of World War II, however,  it should be noted that America would get some revenge for the attack. Four of the Japanese carriers used in the attack would be sunk during the battle of Midway, the following year. The United States would beat the Japanese back to their home islands, finally ending the war with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, claiming far more civilian lives than any single attack by any other country during the entire war. Finally, in September of 1945, the Japanese signed the official surrender aboard the IOWA class battleship, USS  MISSOURI.  I will have more on that in a moment.
USS BENINGTON saluting the ARIZONA while memorial is under construction.

    After the war, the Navy needed to figure out what to do with the wreck of the ARIZONA.  Ultimately it was decided to leave  her where she lay, and a beautiful memorial was built, straddling the hull. Eventually, in the 1970’s, a similar, though less elaborate memorial would be built near the UTAH’s wreck, also left in place. The forward number two turret was finally removed, but number one is still in place. The ARIZONA  was declared a gravesite, and is fiercely protected. Small drops of oil escape from her wreck, almost like tears. Form above, the slick it creates is almost hypnotic.
The ships hull visible under the memorial.

    The attack on Pearl Harbor is a very poignant moment for most Americans. Some feel it is the point where our nation lost it’s innocence, being the first time another nation had successfully attacked our soil by surprise. Many correlations have been made between this attack, and the September 11th 2001 attacks. On this, I must disagree, the Pearl Harbor attack occurred while most of the world was engaged in a bloody and widespread war. We knew at some point that we would have to enter the fray. September 11th, though tragic, is far more disturbing, since civilian aircraft were used in such a heinous way, and yet the world was mainly at peace before those attacks. Both, however, do speak volumes for being prepared for anything.
USS MISSOURI and the memorial.

    Now, as I said before, I have an addendum on the USS MISSOURI. In recent years, following her official de-commissioning, she was moved to Pearl Harbor, and permanently anchored just a few hundred feet from the wreck of the ARIZONA. The two ships stand as memorial bookends to the United States involvement in World War II. One represents the beginning of the war for America, while the other, marks the official end, upon her mighty decks. Thousands flock to Oahu every year to see the two ships, it is very fitting.
A view from the bow of the MISSOURI.

    For the men that served on her and survived, and even those who had served on her earlier, many are given the option to have their ashes interred in her hull upon their passing. It is said that when the last survivor leaves this world, the oil will stop flowing from the hull, for she will have no more tears to shed.  I think I will end this upon that sentiment. Where our voyage will take us next time, I do not yet know, but let the wind be at our backs as we sail on. Bon voyage, my friends, until next we meet.

The harbor from the air, notice the oil slick from the ARIZONA.             


  1. Beautifully done piece. On a side note, about the Japanese mini subs: Angel Island (The state park I live and work in) housed POWs during WWII. One of those POWs was the commander of that first mini sub to go down. He went on to a successful career with Toyota Brazil and passed away just a couple years ago in Japan.

  2. So glad you posted the link to this. This blog will be a Sunday afternoon project for me now. I love this stuff!