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After Pearl Harbor: The Race to Save the U.S. Fleet

After Pearl Harbor: The Race to Save the U.S. Fleet

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Within the first 30 minutes of their surprise aerial assault on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, the Japanese had inflicted significant damage to the fleet of massive American battleships anchored there. By the end of the attack, USS Arizona was completely destroyed and USS Oklahoma had capsized, while the heavily damaged USS West Virginia, USS California and USS Nevada had sunk in shallow water.

In addition to the five battleships sunk outright, three other battleships, three cruisers, three destroyers and other smaller vessels were damaged in the attack, which also claimed 180 U.S. airplanes and inflicted some 3,400 casualties, including more than 2,300 killed. Yet nearly as soon as the devastating attack ended, efforts began to salvage the U.S. fleet and return the damaged ships to the water to fight against Japan and the other Axis powers.

Fortunately for the U.S. Navy, the fleet’s flagship, USS Pennsylvania, had been in dry dock on December 7, and sustained only superficial damage. USS Tennessee and USS Maryland had been moored inboard of the West Virginia and Oklahoma, respectively, and were also largely sheltered from the torpedo assault.

Once Pearl Harbor Navy Yard personnel, assisted by tenders and ships’ crewmen, began recovery work on the damaged ships, it proceeded swiftly. Within just three months, by February 1942, USS Pennsylvania, USS Maryland and USS Tennessee, along with the cruisers Honolulu, Helena and Raleigh; the destroyers Helm and Shaw; the seaplane tender Curtiss; the repair ship Vestal and the floating drydock YFD-2 were back in service or had been refloated and transported by steam to the mainland United States for final repairs. The most heavily damaged of the small ships, the Raleigh and Shaw, were returned to active duty by mid-1942.

As for the rest of the fleet, it was clear that the five other battleships, two destroyers, a target ship and a minelayer suffered more severe damage, and would require extensive work just to get them to the point where repairs could be made. A week after the raid, a salvage organization was formally established to work on these more heavily damaged vessels. Led by Captain Homer N. Wallin, previously a member of the Battle Force Staff, the Salvage Division scored one of its greatest triumphs when it refloated the USS Nevada in February 1942.

With one large and many small holes blown into its hull, USS Nevada had sunk in shallow water, which made salvage work possible but not easy. Navy and civilian divers made some 400 dives and spent around 1,500 hours working on the Nevada alone, and two men lost their lives after inhaling the toxic gases accumulated in the ship’s interior. After being refloated, repaired and steamed to Puget Sound Navy Yard in Washington State for more permanent repairs, the Nevada rejoined the active U.S. fleet in late 1942.

The salvage workers also refloated USS California in March 1942, USS West Virginia in June and minelayer Oglala by July. After extensive repairs, these vessels also rejoined the fleet. The three other heavily damaged ships— Oklahoma, Arizona and the capsized target ship Utah—would not return to service. USS Arizona, which was destroyed after the explosion of an armor-piercing bomb caused a fire in its forward main magazines, remains on the floor of the harbor even today, serving as a memorial to those lost on December 7, 1941. The hull of USS Utah also remains in the harbor. A massive effort raised the Oklahoma, but the ship was ultimately too damaged to return to service.

A naval survey concluded that USS Oklahoma and USS Nevada appeared to have been lost because of design defects, while USS West Virginia had lacked the proper defenses to withstand such an attack. In the case of USS California, later investigation revealed that a number of manhole covers were left off or loose at the time of the attack, and there were not enough pumps onboard the ship to prevent the flooding from spreading and sinking the vessel.

Click here to watch the full episode on Pearl Harbor and more from WWII in HD on History Vault

According to the Naval History and Heritage Command account, Navy and civilian divers spent a total of some 20,000 hours underwater during the salvage operations, making around 5,000 dives. Most of the time, the divers had to wear gas masks to avoid toxic fumes from the oil-fouled ships. In addition to ship cleaning, salvage and repair, their work included recovering human remains, documents and ammunition.

Initially, the Japanese believed they had scored a key victory on December 7, 1941. But thanks to the heroic salvage effort, the great majority of the U.S. battleships and other vessels attacked at Pearl Harbor would survive to take on the Axis in World War II. On D-Day in June 1944, USS Nevada inflicted heavy shelling damage on German emplacements behind the beaches of Normandy, France. Later in 1944, during the U.S. invasion of Philippines, USS West Virginia, USS California, USS Tennessee, USS Maryland and USS Pennsylvania—all supposedly “lost” at Pearl Harbor—joined USS Mississippi in bombarding approaching Japanese naval forces in the Surigao Strait.

Fact check: After Pearl Harbor, Japanese didn't invade US because they feared armed citizens?

After Pearl Harbor, did the Japanese refrain from invading the mainland United States because they feared there were gun-savvy Americans in nearly every home?

That&rsquos the claim of a 20-paragraph post on Facebook that has been shared more than 21,000 times.

The post argues that America is safe from invasion because of gun-owning hunters. It starts its historical claim by stating:

"After the Japanese decimated our fleet in Pearl Harbor Dec 7, 1941, they could have sent their troop ships and carriers directly to California to finish what they started. The prediction from our Chief of Staff was we would not be able to stop a massive invasion until they reached the Mississippi River. Remember, we had a 2 million man army and war ships in other localities, so why did they not invade? After the war, the remaining Japanese generals and admirals were asked that question. Their answer. they know that almost every home had guns and the Americans knew how to use them."

This post was flagged as part of Facebook&rsquos efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

It&rsquos not a new claim. In a video posted in 2012, Ed Emery, a Repubican state senator from Missouri, claimed that it is known that Japan was deterred not by America&rsquos armed services but because "every American was armed."

Four experts told us there is no evidence that Japan ever seriously considered such an invasion and that military limitations, not Americans armed with hunting weapons, were the reasons why.

How U.S. Navy Battleships Came Back from the Dead at Pearl Harbor

America would recover from the shocking attack and six months later would turn the tide.

Key point: Quick action did save some ships. In fact, it helped mitigate the disaster of the surprise attack.

The Pearl Harbor disaster presented the U.S. Navy with a sobering question: how to recover? More than 2,000 men had died. Nearly half as many were wounded. Eighteen ships were damaged or sunk.

“… None Of the Ships Sunk Would Ever Fight Again.”

This first appeared earlier and is being reposted due to reader interest.

“The scene to the newcomer was foreboding indeed. There was a general feeling of depression throughout the Pearl Harbor area when it was seen and firmly believed that none of the ships sunk would ever fight again.” This was a haunting sentiment from Captain Homer Wallin, the man who would lead the salvage effort.

Admiral Chester Nimitz, named Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet (CINCPAC) days after the attack, flew to Hawaii to take command. He landed in Pearl Harbor on Christmas Day. His briefings had prepared him, or so he thought. Awestruck, he remarked, “This is terrible seeing all these ships down.” The ceremony installing Nimitz as CINCPAC was held on the deck of the Grayling, a submarine he had once commanded. Cynics commented that it was the only deck fit for the ceremony.

The days of the Battleship Navy were over. The Japanese made the point again on December 10, sinking the British battleship Prince of Wales and the battlecruiser Repulse off Singapore. Nimitz’s aircraft carriers were now the heart of his strategy. Yet with proper escort, the battleships could still be effective weapons. If they could be saved, Nimitz would give them work.

No Time Wasted For Salvage Effort

The salvage effort began on December 7 when crews manned hoses to fight the fires while the attack was still under way. These firefighters were aided by boats, tugs, and even a garbage hauler. Men from the fleet’s base force brought pumps to battle the flooding. Rescue teams searched for sailors trapped in the capsized battleships Oklahoma and Utah.

On January 9, 1942, Captain Wallin took charge of the Salvage Division, itself a new branch of the Navy Yard. A native of Washburn, ND, Homer Wallin had spent half his life training for this. Like many men raised far from the sea, he sought a naval career. He went to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1913, then served aboard the battleship New Jersey during World War I. He joined the Navy’s Construction Corps in 1918, and studied naval architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. After completing his master of science degree in 1921, he spent the next 20 years in the New York, Philadelphia, and Mare Island Navy Yards, as well as at the Bureau of Construction and Repair in Washington, DC.

Salvage Triage

Wallin’s Salvage Division had three clear goals: Rescue the men who were trapped aboard the ships, assess the damage to each ship, and repair as many as possible. The task was to fix each enough to be able to travel to the larger yards on the West Coast for complete restoration.

The Japanese would come to regret leaving two vital areas of the harbor intact. The first was the fleet’s fuel supply—over 4.5 million gallons. The other was the Navy Yard, whose shops had a vast capacity to fix or build almost anything. “They built liberty boats, 25-foot motor whaleboats, any kind of harbor craft,” recalled Walter Bayer. “They could overhaul a 14- or 16-inch gun. Just pull them around on those big cranes, and handle them like they were toothpicks in those big buildings. They were enormous buildings. They still are.”

Bayer grew up on the Hawaiian island of Kauai. In 1940, he became a civil service employee and went to work in the compressed gases plant in the Navy Yard. He was an assistant supervisor by December 1941. After the attack, demand for his services soared. “When they organized to cut through the bottom of the Oklahoma—she had a double hull—the welders came to us to get acetylene and oxygen for their cutting torches. And they’d use it like water. It would just go in no time.”

Admiral Without Flag Ship Made Yard Commandant

The new commandant of the yard was Admiral William Furlong. He and Nimitz were in the same class at Annapolis. Until December 25, 1941, Furlong had been Commander Minecraft, Battle Force. His flagship, the mine layer Oglala, had been sunk off the yard’s main pier, 1010 Dock. Furlong gave Wallin everything he needed: personnel, equipment, and waterfront work space. With a fleet of small vessels roaming the harbor, Wallin could send men and machinery wherever he needed them. He had experts to remove ammunition and ordnance materiel. He had divers trained to operate inside sunken ships. Plus he had the Pacific Bridge Company, whose men were contracted to build Navy facilities across the Pacific.

One Navy diver was Metalsmith First Class Edward Raymer. He had joined the service to escape the quiet life in Riverside, Calif. In 1940, he trained at the diving school in San Diego. His work clothes were rubberized coveralls with gloves, a lead-weighted belt (84 pounds), lead-weighted shoes (36 pounds each), and a copper Helmet attached to a breastplate. Above water, the suit was awkward. Submerged, the weights counteracted the suit’s buoyancy, permitting the diver to move fairly easily. An air hose ran from the Helmet to a compressor monitored by men on the surface. The diver carefully moved the hose with him while working within sunken ships. He often worked in total darkness. He took directions from the surface via telephone cable and needed heightened senses of touch and balance to work with welding torches and suction hoses.

“Welcome To the Salvage Unit.”

On December 8, 1941, Raymer’s team flew to Pearl. “Welcome to the Salvage Unit,” a tired warrant officer told them. “You will be attached to this command on temporary additional duty, which may not be temporary from the amount of diving work you see before you.”

The team’s first assignment was to determine if men were trapped below the water level in the battleship Nevada. “To accomplish this,” Raymer remembered, “we lowered a diver from the sampan to a depth of 20 feet. Swinging a five-pound hammer, he rapped on the hull three times, then stopped and listened for an answering signal. We took turns for hours. No answering signal was ever heard.” Frustrating as this was, other search parties successfully freed men from the Oklahoma and Utah. The last of them were brought out by December 10.

“Lesser damaged” was the term applied to the condition of the battleships Pennsylvania, Maryland,and Tennessee the cruisers Honolulu, Helena, and Raleigh the repair ship Vestal the seaplane tender Curtiss and the destroyer Helm.

USS Pennsylvania Returned To Duty

Pennsylvania was in Dry Dock Number One during the attack, behind the destroyers Downes and Cassin. One bomb hit the battleship, damaging a 5-inch gun and passing through two decks before exploding. The blast wrecked bulkheads, hatches, pipes, and wiring. Her hull and power plant were sound, though. On December 12, she went to the Navy Yard. The damaged gun was replaced with one from the West Virginia, whose decks were awash after she settled into the mud on the bottom of Battleship Row, the victim of several Japanese torpedoes. On December 20, the Pennsylvania sailed for Puget Sound, Wash.

A bomb had struck the pier beside Honolulu. The blast bent in 40 feet of hull on the port side, causing shrapnel damage and flooding. Yard workers began patching the hull, while Honolulu’s crew worked within.

With them was Seaman First Class Stephen Young from Methuen, Mass. Young had just transferred from the Oklahoma. He had endured 25 hours trapped in the battleship. Having survived that, he was impressed by his new job, helping to remove damaged powder cases from the cruiser’s magazine. Shrapnel had punctured many of them, spilling explosive powder on the decks. “Why they never went off, I don’t know,” Young recalled.

USS Honolulu and Helena Next Up

Honolulu moved to Dry Dock Number One on December 13. On January 2, she went to the yard for further work. Ten days later, she returned to service.

USS Helena took a torpedo on her starboard side, flooding an engine room and a boiler room. On December 10, she entered Dry Dock Number Two, which was still under construction. Pacific Bridge personnel borrowed wooden blocks from the yard for the ship to rest upon. After 11 days, she moved to the yard. On January 5, Helena left for the Mare Island Navy Yard in San Francisco.

Maryland was moored inboard of Oklahoma and had escaped torpedoes, but one bomb hit her forecastle. Another struck her port side at water level. No dry dock was available, so repairs were performed at the quays. ­The yard’s workshops built a wood and metal patch for the rupture in the hull. A barge-mounted crane lowered the patch into the water, and divers fitted it in place. The water was pumped away, and repairs continued inside the ship. On December 20, she left for Puget Sound. Her final repairs were completed there on February 26, 1942.

  • These are the 13 U.S. Navy ships that were repaired after the attack on Pearl Harbor and returned to service
  • The nine battleships in the harbor were the main target for Japanese fighter pilots on December 7, 1941
  • Two were considered a complete loss but the rest were repaired and went on to fight more battles in the war

Published: 19:50 BST, 8 December 2016 | Updated: 13:21 BST, 9 December 2016

After a surprise attack that left Americans across the country reeling, the heroes of Pearl Harbor had no time to sit around and take in what happen.

Instead, they got to work repairing the dozens of boats that were sitting ducks for the Japanese air fleet.

The biggest targets for the Japanese were the U.S. Navy's nine battleships. While three of the battleships were considered a complete lost (the USS Oklahoma, USS Utah and USS Arizona - which still lays at the bottom of the harbor) the rest were resurrected and put to work winning the war.

Scroll down to see the 13 ships that were repaired after the attack on Pearl Harbor and how they contributed to the war effort after their resurrection.

USS West Virginia, battleship

Damage during Pearl Harbor: Seven Japanese torpedos to the port side, hit by two bombs, caught fire from the burning USS Arizona and sank to the sea floor

Repairs: Pumped free of water and patched up so that it could be sent to Washington's Puget Sound Naval Yard for full repairs

Returned to service: July 1944

WWII service: The USS West Virginia took part in the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinama and was present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered after the second atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki

Decommissioned: January 1947

The USS West Virginia is seen in drydock at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard on June 10, 1942, for repair of damage suffered in the Pearl Harbor attack. She had entered the drydock on the previous day. Note large patch on her hull amidships, fouling on her hull, and large armor belt

The USS West Virginia approaches drydock at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard on June 8, 1942. She entered Drydock Number One on the following day, just over six months after she was sunk in the Japanese air raid

The USS West Virginia took part in the Battles of Iwo Jima and Okinama and was present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese surrendered after the second atom bomb was dropped on Nagasaki

The US West Virginia is seen at seen around 1944, after she was repaired and returned to service

The USS West Virginia is seen off Pearl Harbor on April 30, 1943, en route to the Puget Sound Navy Yard, Bremerton, Washington, for reconstruction. The Pearl Harbor Navy Yard had just finished temporary repair of the damage she had received in the Japanese attack of December 7, 1941

Damage during Pearl Harbor: Hit by a pair of bombs and became wedged between its moorings and a sunken ship

Repairs: Underwent two-and-a-half months of repairs in Puget Sound

Returned to service: February 1942

WWII Service: Fought in several battles in the Pacific from Alaska's Aleutian Islands to Iwo Jima.

Decommissioned: February 1947

View of the USS battleship Tennessee as it provides cover from American invasion troops race ashore at Okinawa in amphibious tanks, 1945. The Tennessee was damaged during the Pearl Harbor attack but returned to service in February 1942

After the Attack on Pearl Harbor

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, several things happened. On the isolated island of Nihau, a Japanese plane, crippled in the attack crash landed. A native Hawaiian disarmed the pilot of this plane. A message was quickly sent to the island of Kauai requesting assistance. While being held, the pilot of the plane convinced a Japanese descendant on the island to let him go and give him his weapons back and a rampage started after this.

Petty Officer Shigenori Nishikaichi’s aircraft shown ten days after it crashed on Ni’ihau Island.

Two locals, Benhakaka Kanahelea and his wife, were captured by these two Japanese men. They ended up jumping their captors and getting away. Kanahelea received gunshot wounds to the groin, stomach and his leg. He managed to pick up the pilot and throw him against a wall. This pilot then shot himself and this ended the short “Battle of Ni’ihau”.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the army anticipated that the Japanese were going to land there in force. Around the perimeter of all the main islands, American troops took up positions. They put up barrier son the beaches to deter landings and all of the airports in Hawaii were taken over by the army with all private planes grounded. The ROTC units from the University as well as Hawaii Territorial Guard units were mobilized. Hawaii’s Territorial Governor Poindexter voiced opposition to the declaration of Martial Law. A declaration was made by General Walter C. Short and he announced that the Hawaii Territorial Government would be under his control as the Military Governor of Hawaii. There were blackouts, curfews, and other restrictions in place during the Martial Law. The mail and the news were also censored.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor, many government buildings such as ‘Iolani Palace became military offices. The civil courts were replaced with military law and this impacted both military personnel as well as civilian. The islands became one large military base and businesses owned by Japanese civilians were closed. The FBI, army, and local police arrested anyone they considered to be a threat. Residents were fingerprinted and required to carry identification cards at all times. Businesses and residents could not hold more than $200 cash with them. People thought the Martial Law would only last a short time, but this lasted for almost three years. Curfews and blackouts even lasted to July 1945.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor many people of Japanese descent were taken to detention centers, but these could not hold everyone. A plan was devised to move 100,000 Japanese from Hawaii, but this never took place. In February 1942, shortly after American joined the war, an Executive Order was issued by President Roosevelt which authorized that Japanese-American citizens were to be rounded up and then placed in “relocation centers.” These were located in different states like Idaho, Utah, California, Arizona, Wyoming, Arkansas, and Colorado. Over 120,000 Japanese were impacted by this and about 80,000 of these were U.S. citizens.

There was overcrowding in the camps and poor conditions. The food was rationed and there were no plumbing or cooking facilities there. Detainees were offered to be released if they agreed to join the army. This was not accepted by many and only 1,200 enlisted.

The History of Pearl Harbor Before the Attack

1918 photo of Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, Oahu.

Polynesians have inhabited the Hawaiian Islands for centuries. Hawaii was discovered relatively late by Europeans. The first visit by westerners to the islands was in 1778 when the British Captain James Cook arrived.

The English ship Butterworth, under Captain William Brown, entered Honolulu Harbor in 1793. Captain Cook passed it on his famous voyage in 1778, but did not enter because there was coral at the entrance of the harbor. The coral rock was blasted away in 1902 and sand a rock was dredged to allow large vessels to enter the locks.

The violent interference with the harbor was said to upset the shark goddess Ka’ahupahau and Hawaiians soon predicted trouble. Many tragic incidents followed as work continued in Pearl Harbor.

In 1876, the Kingdom of Hawaii signed a reciprocity treaty with the United States of America, ceding control of Pearl Harbor to the US in exchange for duty-free exportation of raw sugar to the United States.

The Hawaiian Monarchy was overthrown in 1893 and Hawaii was annexed as a territory of the United States in 1898. This was a strategically important event for the United States because Pearl Harbor is in such an important strategic location in the Pacific Ocean.

In 1940, President Roosevelt ordered the Pacific Fleet to be moved to Pearl Harbor from California. Japanese strategists saw this as a threat. The governments of Japan and the US negotiated for peace, but it was unsuccessful and World War Two began when the Empire of Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941.

Not only did the history of Pearl Harbor change drastically after the attack. The history of the entire world changed that day. Read More about the Pearl Harbor Attack

How Navy Hero Dorie Miller’s Bravery Helped Fight Discrimination in the U.S. Military

In a few moments aboard the besieged USS West Virginia, messman Doris "Dorie" Miller became a catalyst for change.

(Naval History and Heritage Command)

Thomas W. Cutrer and T. Michael Parrish
December 2019

Dorie Miller, the first American hero of World War II, helped clear the way for others by doing what he was not allowed to do

AMONG THE PANTHEON of America’s heroes, none is more improbable than the black son of Texas sharecroppers and grandson of slaves, Doris Miller. Miller, known to many as “Dorie,” was born on October 12, 1919, during the darkest days of the lynching epidemic that blighted the South in the 20th century’s first decades. Only three years before Miller was born, his hometown of Waco became the scene of one of the most brutal lynchings on record when 17-year-old Jesse Washington was burned alive on the lawn of the city hall. Miller was compelled to drop out of high school in order to help support his struggling family—“We were a little hungry in those days,” his mother later explained—but when he could not find work, in September 1939, at 19, he joined the U.S. Navy.

At that time, black men serving in the navy were not only ineligible for promotion, they were consigned to the lowly messman branch where they were tasked with making the beds and shining the shoes of their white officers and waiting on them in the officers’ mess. As one of Miller’s fellow messmen said, they were merely “seagoing bellhops, chambermaids, and dishwashers.” By regulation, they could not be trained in or assigned to any other specialty, such as signals, engineering, or gunnery. Their battle station was below decks in the “hole” or magazine, where they passed ammunition up to the gunners. They were not even allowed to wear buttons marked with the navy’s insignia, an anchor entwined with a chain, and had to wear plain buttons instead.

But, said Miller, “it beats sitting around Waco working as a busboy, going nowhere.” After attending a racially segregated boot camp at Norfolk, Virginia, he was assigned on January 2, 1940, to the battleship USS West Virginia—which, due to the rising tensions between the United States and the growing Japanese empire, was soon transferred along with the entire Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor.

Miller's parents, Conery and Henrietta, farmed 28 acres outside Waco, Texas. (Doris Miller Memorial)

There, on the morning of December 7, 1941, the fleet came under attack from carrier-launched aircraft of the Japanese Imperial Navy. When the raid struck, Doris Miller, then 22 and a mess attendant 3rd Class, was below decks, doing the laundry of one of the ship’s ensigns. With the first torpedo’s explosion, he reported to his battle station, the ship’s magazine. He found the magazine already flooded, however, and so went seeking reassignment. He encountered the ship’s communications officer, Lieutenant Commander Doir C. Johnson, who ordered him to the signals deck, where West Virginia’s commanding officer, Captain Mervyn Sharp Bennion, lay mortally wounded. Miller, the ship’s heavyweight boxing champion, was ordered to lift his dying captain and carry him to a place of relative safety, a sheltered spot just aft of the conning tower below the port side antiaircraft guns.

By then the ship had sustained heavy damage from six Japanese torpedoes (a seventh failed to explode) and two bombs, and had taken on a drastic list, silencing the port side guns. Most of its starboard guns were still operational, however, so Lieutenant Junior Grade Frederic H. White ordered Miller to start feeding ammo, packaged in 27-foot-long belts, to one of a pair of .50-caliber Browning machine guns that stood idly nearby, while White fired the gun at incoming Japanese planes. The deck was awash with oil and water, and fires raged. But Miller, finding the second gun unattended, and without orders and with absolutely no training in its operation, took control and opened fire. “It wasn’t hard,” he later recounted. “I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine.”

White later reported that Miller “didn’t know very much about the machine gun, but I told him what to do and he went ahead and did it. He had a good eye.” According to Lieutenant Commander Johnson, who was also present, Miller handled his gun well, “blazing away as though he had fired one all his life.” Miller himself stated that “when the Japanese bombers attacked my ship at Pearl Harbor I forgot all about the fact that I and other Negroes can be only messmen in the navy and are not taught how to man an antiaircraft gun.”

Only when his gun ran out of ammunition and the critically damaged West Virginia began to sink did he cease firing, and only when Captain Bennion was officially pronounced dead did the little group of officers and men abandon the ship’s bridge. Descending to the boat deck, Miller helped pull sailors from the burning water, unquestionably saving the lives of a number of men. By then, the ship was flooded below decks and rapidly settling in the harbor’s shallow water, and its senior surviving officer gave the order to abandon ship.

Doris Miller was one of the last three men to leave West Virginia. He and his shipmates swam 300 or 400 yards to shore, avoiding patches of flaming oil from USS Arizona and strafing from Japanese planes. When he splashed ashore, Miller later told his brother, “with those bullets spattering all around me, it was by the grace of God that I never got a scratch.” Even then, Miller helped scores of injured sailors to safety ashore.

The USS West Virginia, with the USS Tennessee behind it, burns as its keel rests on the bottom of Pearl Harbor. (National Archives)

Of West Virginia’s 1,541 crewmembers, 106 were killed and 52 wounded. Seven of the eight American battleships in the harbor that day were sunk or badly damaged. Miller attributed his survival to divine providence: “It must have been on God’s strength and mother’s blessing,” he later told a newspaper reporter.

Considerable controversy still exists as to how effective Miller’s gunnery had been. Estimates—guesses, really—ran as high as half a dozen planes shot down, and his justifiably proud niece later made the claim that his gunnery had saved the U.S. West Coast from invasion that December. But despite Miller’s best effort, just 29 of the 350 attacking Japanese aircraft failed to return to their carriers—and only one of those fell within the range of any of West Virginia’s guns. Even that one, an Aichi D3A “Val” dive-bomber, was most likely struck by fire from West Virginia’s sister ship, USS Maryland, which was berthed forward of it, on the starboard side of USS Oklahoma. According to an ensign, Victor Delano, who had been beside Miller on West Virginia’s bridge, “everyone else in the bay” had been shooting at the dive-bomber as well. Said Lieutenant White, firing alongside Miller: “I certainly did not see him shoot down a plane.”

However many planes he may or may not have shot down, though, is beside the point: Doris Miller’s heroic actions at Pearl Harbor helped launch a revolution. He deserves his niche in the pantheon of American heroes, for he provided an immeasurably important symbol for black Americans in their struggle for desegregation and equal opportunity—not only in the armed forces, but throughout the breadth of American society.

WITHIN WEEKS OF THE DISASTER at Pearl Harbor, the navy’s public relations officials released a number of stories, based on after-action reports of the attack, of heroism “equal to any in U.S. naval history.” Those reports referenced the activities of an unknown black sailor, and hearsay stories soon began to circulate. On December 22, 1941, the New York Times printed a sketchy description related by an unidentified naval officer who supposedly served on USS Arizona of a black sailor “who stood on the hot decks of his battleship and directed the fighting.” This mess attendant, “who never before had fired a gun,” the story went, “manned a machine gun on the bridge until his ammunition was exhausted.” This messman was added—though not by name—to the navy’s 1941 Honor Roll of Race Relations. On New Year’s Day 1942, the navy released its list of commendations for heroism at Pearl Harbor. On the list was a single commendation for the still-unnamed black sailor.

When Miller’s mother heard the news of the black sailor who manned a machine gun, she was confident it was her son: “That’s got to be Doris they talking about,” she later told Texas historian R. Chris Santos. Not until March 1942 did the Pittsburgh Courier, an influential African-American newspaper, release a story that at last identified the black messman as Miller.

Bills were quickly introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate to award Miller the Medal of Honor, but Georgia Democrat Carl Vinson, the House of Representatives’ Chairman of Naval Affairs, averred that Miller’s deeds were not deserving of the nation’s highest award for valor Secretary of the Navy William Franklin Knox and the congressional delegation from Miller’s home state seconded him. Both at the time and since, numerous historians and political leaders have argued that gallant as were the sacrifices of the 16 men—all of them white and most officers and petty officers—who were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions that day, Dorie Miller’s exploits were at least of equal distinction, and all the more to be honored because of the oppressive racial stigma under which he performed so heroically.

While this controversy raged in the press, Miller, who had been assigned to the heavy cruiser USS Indianapolis on December 13, 1941, was on duty in the South Pacific at a time of great shock and uncertainty. “Mother, don’t worry about me and tell all my friends not to shed any tears for me,” he wrote home, “for when the dark clouds pass over, I’ll be back on the sunny side.” But Miller’s occupational specialty remained in the messman branch and his battle station remained in the “hole,” handling ammunition.

Admiral Chester W. Nimitz awards Miller the Navy Cross a Pittsburgh paper campaigned for him and started the "Double V" campaign, for victory both abroad and for black Americans at home. (Naval History and Heritage Command)

In the States, politicians and journalists charged the navy with foot-dragging and indifference to blacks in the armed forces, with Walter F. White, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, pointing out that no citations had been awarded to black personnel “for acts of gallantry or heroism during the attack,” and urging President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Secretary Knox to grant official recognition to Miller. “Without in any manner detracting from the heroism and gallantry under fire of white Americans who died at Pearl Harbor,” White urged, “the heroism of this Negro mess attendant merits special consideration.”

Due largely to Miller’s inspiration and under growing pressure to provide more equal opportunities for black recruits, Knox announced in April that “Negro recruits who volunteer for general service” would be trained at Camp Robert Smalls—an all-black section of the U.S. Naval Training Station at Great Lakes, Illinois—as gunner’s mates, quartermasters, radiomen, yeomen, boatswain’s mates, radar operators, and other specialties besides messmen.

And on May 11, President Roosevelt approved awarding Miller the Navy Cross—at the time, the third-highest U.S. Navy award for gallantry during combat. It was the first such medal ever awarded to a black sailor. On May 27, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet, presented Miller with the Navy Cross on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise. Nimitz—also a native Texan—said then that Miller’s award “marks the first time in this conflict that such high tribute has been made in the Pacific Fleet to a member of his race, and I’m sure that the future will see others similarly honored for brave acts.”

The Pittsburgh Courier continued advocating for Miller, in June calling for him to be returned to the States for a war bond tour. The paper demanded that Secretary Knox order him home “so that he may perform the same service among his people that the white heroes are performing among their people.” Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican nominee for president, and New York’s popular mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, also urged the navy secretary to allow Miller to return on a war bond tour. Miller himself was eager to make the trip. As he wrote to the Courier on September 26, “I do hope your paper will continue the campaign in my behalf. It would be a great pleasure to get back for only a few days.”

Miller speaks with sailors and a civilian at the Great Lakes, Illinois, Naval Training Station on January 7, 1943, as part of his war bond tour. (National Archives)

The campaign bore fruit and Miller was ordered home. After nearly a year at sea, he arrived at Pearl Harbor on November 23, 1942. Over the course of the next two-plus months, Miller gave talks in Oakland, California in his hometown of Waco, Texas and in Dallas and Chicago, promoting war bond sales and accepting tokens of admiration from black communities.

Perhaps most significantly, on January 28, 1943, Miller addressed the first class of black sailors to graduate from Camp Robert Smalls. The greatest honor that the navy could pay Miller, the editor of the Pittsburgh Courier had written, “would be for it to abolish forthwith the restrictions now in force, so that black Americans can serve their country and their navy in any capacity. This action by the navy would not only reward a hero, but would serve dramatic notice that this country is in fact a democracy in an all-out war against anti-democratic forces.”

The focus of Miller’s talk at Camp Robert Smalls was the tremendous pride he felt in the navy and of the privilege of being a part of it. “It is almost unbelievable just what the perfect coordination and strength of our navy actually is,” Miller told a reporter, and he urged the new sailors to “take advantage of their opportunities.”

WHILE THE REVOLUTION he had helped to inspire unfolded around him, Miller himself was transferred for reassignment. On June 1, 1943, he arrived aboard the newly constructed escort carrier USS Liscome Bay as a mess attendant and was promoted to cook, third class. His new ship was a CVE—a so-called “baby flattop.” Sailors sardonically claimed “CVE” stood for “Combustible, Vulnerable, and Expendable.” Only two-thirds the length of such fleet carriers as the Enterprise, escort carriers were less expensive and more quickly built, but also relatively slow and less well-armed and armored.

The Liscome Bay supported the Marine landings on Makin and Tarawa, pounding Japanese gun emplacements and air bases. With Thanksgiving approaching, Miller wrote to his mother that he did not expect the war to end soon but asked that she “prepare a place at the table for me in 1945. I will eat dinner with you all with a smile. Tell my friends to live the life that I am living.”

But on the early morning of November 24, 1943, the ship’s lookout shouted, “Christ, here comes a torpedo!” A single torpedo from Japanese submarine I-175 struck the carrier on the starboard side. Miller responded to general quarters, but a few moments later the ship’s aircraft bomb magazine exploded. “We were hit just back of midship” and just aft of the engine compartment, recalled a survivor, Fireman Third Class Robert E. Haynes. “From here on back, everything was instantly gone.”

The thinly armored Liscome Bay carried over 200,000 pounds of bombs, 120,000 gallons of bunker oil, many thousands of gallons of aviation fuel, and innumerable quantities of 20mm and 40mm cannon shells, all of which exploded. Most of the crew died instantly, and Liscome Bay sank within 23 minutes.

The casualty list was among the largest of any navy vessel in the war. Only 272 officers and enlisted men survived from the crew of more than 900. Doris Miller was not among them. He was listed as “presumed dead” and after 365 days was reported as killed in action. His body was never recovered.

Called the "Golden Thirteen" (above), the navy's first black officers were commissioned on March 17, 1944. Below: a 2010 postage stamp honoring Miller. (Naval History and Heritage Command USPS)

Doris Miller’s death, however, was not in vain. The memory of his life has burned brightly as an example of how an underprivileged and oppressed young man from rural Texas can rise above poverty and racial discrimination—not only to display great courage, devotion, and patriotism, but to help alter the course of American history. In January 1944, less than two months after his death, the navy opened a modest officer-training program at Camp Robert Smalls for black sailors, commissioning its first 13 black officers on March 17, 1944. Now, wrote one newspaper, “the heroic tradition of Dorie Miller at Pearl Harbor will serve as an everlasting inspiration” to every young man “to more fully serve his country and the navy.”

On June 30, 1973, at the christening of a destroyer escort, the USS Miller—named in his honor—Texas Representative Barbara Jordon predicted that the “Dorie Millers of the future will be captains as well as cooks.” And, indeed, by this year, 2019, the U.S. Navy had eight black admirals in its ranks.

So how should Doris Miller be remembered? Ronald Reagan did not get the facts exactly right when, in a 1975 speech, he regaled his audience with the story of “a Negro sailor whose total duties involved kitchen-type duties,” who shot down four dive-bombers with a borrowed machine gun. According to Reagan, Miller’s heroism single-handedly ended racial inequality in America. “When the first bombs were dropped on Pearl Harbor,” Reagan intoned, “that was when segregation in the military forces came to an end.”

That, of course, was not true important as they were, Doris Miller’s heroic actions on the day of the Pearl Harbor attack did not sound the death knell of racism in America. But Miller’s heroism—and the legend it engendered—were directly responsible for helping to roll back the navy’s policy of racial segregation and prejudice, and served as a powerful catalyst for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s that brought an end to the worst of America’s racial intolerance. As the Pittsburgh Courier proclaimed in 1956, Doris Miller had “died for his country so that his people might rise another notch in dignity and courage. Every blow struck for civil rights is a monument to [Dorie] Miller, citizen.” ✯

It began with my grandfather.

As a young man, Livingston Brizill Sr. served in the U.S. Marine Corps in World War II. He enlisted the year after the Marine Corps first opened its doors to African Americans. It was 1943 and he was 18, and one of the first from Philadelphia to sign on. Decades later, as a curious child who loved history, I constantly picked his brain over games of checkers, or while he devoured the Philadelphia Inquirer on his way to consuming his next cigarette. I was in awe of his encyclopedic knowledge of history, World War II in particular. It was during this well-spent time that my desire to teach history solidified and my interest in the war grew.

As much as my grandfather spoke about the war, though, he did not talk about his service. His modesty and humility would not allow it. I gathered that he had occupation duty in the Pacific islands and worked on water purification. Like most African Americans who served in World War II, he did not see combat. One of my most prized possessions was his 1944 camp yearbook, passed on to me by my grandmother, that detailed the training he received at Montford Point, in North Carolina, before shipping out. This book gave me a window into his training and preparation in a segregated Marine Corps. In the few photos that I have seen from his service, I could tell he was proud to wear the uniform.

Livingston Brizill joined the Marines in 1943 he later helped feed a love of history in the author—his grandson. (Courtesy of Dante R. Brizill)

When I realized my dream of becoming a history teacher, beginning in 2004, I could not help but reflect on our time together. One year, while teaching about the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, I showed a National Geographic documentary, Pearl Harbor: Legacy of Attack—fittingly narrated by Tom Brokaw, author of the book The Greatest Generation. There was a short segment on a young African American mess attendant stationed aboard the battleship USS West Virginia. I had heard about Doris “Dorie” Miller before, but not in this way. I could finally connect a face—a person—with his heroism. He was more than just the white officers’ mess servant he was someone who showed that he had skills beyond those assigned to him.

I paused the clip and mentioned that it’s not too late to award Dorie Miller the Medal of Honor, but that it would have to be demanded by the citizenry. From that day on, I became inspired to make Miller known outside of the four walls of my classroom. I decided to write a book—a brief history aimed at students. One of my purposes in doing so was to inspire among readers an interest in the African American experience in the war, so it would never be forgotten.

Today author Brizill teaches history to high school students. Inspired by the Dorie Miller story, he uses it to inspire his students. (Courtesy of Dante R. Brizill)

Over the years, I’ve discovered that when I show passion and interest in something, it sparks something inside my students, and this was the case again. Throughout the writing process, my students encouraged me, becoming my cheerleaders. “When is that book coming out?!” was a familiar refrain. Finally, in November 2018, Dorie Miller: Greatness Under Fire was released. I knew I had achieved one of my goals when a student emailed me after reading it. “A book never stops once you close it, it stops where you choose,” he wrote to me. “Topics and people like this should be immortalized, never to be lost to time.”

If it wasn’t for my grandfather and his service, I probably would not have taken the interest in World War II that I did and come across one of its first heroes: Dorie Miller. We may think we know all that we need to know about the war, but as we dig a little deeper and uncover stories like my grandfather’s and people like Dorie Miller, we will continue to find ways to be inspired by those men and women who served us honorably. ✯
—Dante R. Brizill has been teaching history at Elkton High School, in Elkton, Maryland, since 2006. His book is available on Amazon.com.

This story was originally published in the December 2019 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.

How the Tanker USS Neosho Helped Save U.S. Carriers in Battle of Coral Sea

Undoubtedly, some types of U.S. Naval ships, past and present, are more recognizable, more famous, more flashy than others. Aircraft carriers and battleships immediately come to mind. Less likely to be noticed or lauded are the behind-the-scenes workhorses of the fleet, such as the humble tanker or fleet oiler.

According to the website American Merchant Marine at War, “During World War II, American tankers made 6,500 voyages to carry 65 million tons of oil and gasoline from the U.S. and the Caribbean to the war zones and to our Allies. They supplied 80% of the fuel used by bombers, tanks, jeeps, and ships during the War.”

Tankers were a valuable commodity, considering each one had a liquid capacity of roughly 6 million gallons. Plenty of thirsty fighting ships depended on them for refueling at sea to carry out their combat missions.

The U.S. Navy fleet oiler USS Neosho (AO-23) refueling the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5), 1 May 1942, shortly before the Battle of Coral Sea

One of these tankers was USS Neosho (AO 23), nicknamed “Fat Girl” and “floating gas station.” Launched in 1939, she was the second of the Cimarron class of fast tankers. With larger engines, these ships could attain a speed of 18 knots to meet the Navy’s specific requirement for faster refueling ships.

Neosho survived Pearl Harbor without a scratch, served a crucial role in the Pacific for several months, and provided one last valuable service to the fleet during her death at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.

When the Japanese infamously attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Neosho was present, located between the battleship USS California and the rest of Battleship Row. Considering the beating that the Japanese gave the occupants of Battleship Row, it is remarkable that Neosho escaped completely unscathed, even from accidental hits.

She got underway, passing so close to the burning USS Arizona that her sailors could feel the heat, but managed to navigate safely past the flames. Her captain, Commander John S. Phillips, later received the Navy Cross for relocating the tanker during the attack. His citation reads, in part:

USS Arizona during the attack

At the time of the attack the U.S.S. NEOSHO was moored alongside the gasoline dock, Naval Air Station, Pearl Harbor, and had just completed discharging gasoline at that station. When fire was opened on enemy planes, Commander Phillips realized the serious fire hazard of remaining alongside the dock as well as being in a position that prevented a battleship from getting underway, [and] got underway immediately.

Mooring lines were cut, and without the assistance of tugs, Commander Phillips accomplished the extremely difficult task of getting the ship underway from this particular berth in a most efficient manner, the difficulty being greatly increased by a battleship having capsized in the harbor.

The U.S.S. Neosho, Navy oil tanker, cautiously backs away from her berth (right center) in a successful effort to escape the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.

That the Japanese did not succeed in destroying the fuel storage tanks at Pearl Harbor is one of the main factors credited for why the Americans rebounded as quickly as they did afterward. It is worth noting that the Japanese likewise missed a golden opportunity to destroy Neosho, the only Cimarron-class tanker in the Pacific at the time, heavily targeting the battleships while allowing another valuable fleet asset to escape scot-free.

Walter Lord, in his book Day of Infamy, recorded that one Zero even held its fire while passing Neosho, which seemed “just a waste of good bullets.”

For the next few months, Neosho stayed busy, generally accompanying the carrier fleets, although sometimes she had to transit alone if there were no escorts to spare. Her sister oilers Platte (AO 24) and Sabine (AO 25), took part in operations against the Marshall and Gilbert Islands as well as the bombardment of Wake Island.

Neosho got in on some action in March 1942 as part of the USS Lexington (CV 2) task force strikes on Salamaua and on Lae on the New Guinea coast.

Sabine (foreground) and the guided missile cruiser Albany in the Caribbean Sea in March 1967

In May 1942, Neosho was assigned to Task Force 17 centered around the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV 5) which was in the Coral Sea hunting for the Japanese fleet that was heading to attack Port Moresby, New Guinea. After Neosho fueled Yorktown and Astoria (CA 34) on May 6, she was detached from the main force along with the destroyer USS Sims (DD 409) as her escort, and was sent southward to await the fleet at their next refueling rendezvous.

Early the following day, scout planes from the Japanese carrier Shokaku spotted the two ships and misidentified Neosho as a carrier. This led the Japanese promptly to launch all the available aircraft onboard Shokaku and Zuikaku to go after her.

78 dive bombers, torpedo planes, and Zeros arrived in Neosho‘s vicinity and, likely to the mystification of the ships’ crews, kept appearing and disappearing for a couple hours as they hunted for the nonexistent American aircraft carrier. However, one plane did drop a bomb near Sims and the ships fired at the planes anytime they got close enough.

USS Neosho

Once the Japanese realized that misidentification of Neosho had sent them on a wild goose chase, most of the planes departed, but not all of them — after all, the ships might as well be sunk first. So it was that “Fat Girl,” ignored at Pearl Harbor, now had the full attention of two or three dozen Japanese dive bombers, with one lone destroyer as backup.

Sims made a heroic effort to protect Neosho, but was hit amidships by three bombs right away. In short order her boilers exploded, tearing the ship in two. Sims sank so quickly that only 15 of her sailors, 2 of them fatally wounded, were able to make it over to Neosho in a whaleboat.

Neosho had not been standing idly by during Sims’s demise. Commander Phillips, in his after-action report, recorded:

“The 20 mm fire of the Neosho [sic] was very effective. At no time during the engagement did the machine gunners falter at their jobs…. However, despite any courageous tenacity on the part of the gun crews, it was quite obvious that if a pilot desired to carry his bomb home, he could not be stopped…. Three enemy planes are definitely known to have been shot down by this ship, of which one made the suicidal run into Gun No. 4 enclosure.”

USS Sims

Once Sims sank and Neosho was left to contend with the swarming dive bombers alone, the assault was brutal. Phillips noted: “In the immediate vicinity of the bridge, three direct hits and a number of near misses occurred.

In the aft part of the ship, two direct hits, a suicidal dive of a plane, and the blowing up of at least two boilers, along with several near misses, occurred.” When the planes departed, Neosho was powerless, drifting, and sinking. It seemed a foregone conclusion that the ship would not survive.

During the chaos, 158 of her sailors either found themselves trapped aft and so driven overboard by fire and escaping steam, or heard garbled versions of Phillip’s order to “Prepare to Abandon Ship but not to abandon until so ordered,” and had abandoned ship anyway with all the intact life rafts. Tragically, the 68 who made it onto the rafts, none of which held food or water, would not be found for 9 days. Of the 158 who went overboard, only 4 were recovered alive.

Neosho burning, 7 May 1942.

Neosho refused to give up and sink, at least not yet. Valiant efforts were made at damage control by the survivors of the attack who remained onboard. 16 officers and 94 enlisted men kept Neosho afloat, even though she was damaged beyond repair, continually taking on more water, and listing 30 degrees in rough seas.

Phillips later submitted eight “outstanding cases worthy of commendation and praise” in his after-action report, including that of Chief Watertender Oscar V. Peterson, who made the ultimate sacrifice to help save his ship and shipmates. Phillips recounted:

“PETERSON was in charge of the repair party stationed in the crew’s mess compartment adjacent to the upper level of the fireroom, with the additional specific duty of closing the four main steam line bulkhead stop valves during the battle, should damage dictate the need for shutting down these valves. When the bomb exploded in the fireroom the iron door leading from the fireroom to the mess compartment was torn open and the force of the explosion from the bomb, steam lines, and boilers knocked PETERSON down and burned his face and hands. In spite of noises indicating further damage being done by bombs to other parts of the ship, personal injury and lack of assistance because of serious injury to other men in his repair party, PETERSON worked his way into the fireroom trunk over the forward end of the two forward boilers, when escaping steam had dissipated sufficiently to permit him to reach the bulkhead stop valves, and closed these valves. By so doing, he received additional severe burns about his head, arms, and legs, which resulted in his death on May 13, 1942.”

A wave breaks over the main deck, engulfing hose crew, as Neosho (AO-23) refuels Yorktown (CV-5) early in May 1942, shortly before the Battle of Coral Sea

The other seven cases detailed by Phillips are equally gallant accounts. As a result of his captain’s recommendation, Peterson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

From May 7-11, Neosho‘s survivors held on, with little choice but to remain on the crippled ship although the captain was certain that at any time she might “sink of her own accord or break in two” as the main deck plating began to buckle. The destroyer USS Henley (DD 391) came to their rescue on the 11th, and after taking the survivors on board, complied with Phillip’s request to scuttle Neosho.

USS Henley (DD-391)

The plucky oiler, just over 3 years after she had first been launched, met her end as usefully as she had lived, for it is possible that had Shokaku and Zuikaku‘s entire complement of aircraft not been distracted in the wrong direction for several hours by an oiler that turned out to be an unintentional decoy carrier, they may have instead attacked the real carriers in full force that morning in the Coral Sea.

Indeed, an hour after Neosho was sighted, other Japanese scout planes actually spotted Lexington and Yorktown. Faced with conflicting information and wondering if the Americans had split their carrier forces, the Japanese decided to proceed with the attack to the south. Thus the fate of Neosho was sealed, but the carriers were saved from the onslaught that sank both Neosho and Sims.

After Pearl Harbor, The Navy Learned What Horrors Awaited The Crew Of The USS West Virginia

In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, recovery crews made a grisly discovery aboard the USS West Virginia.

During the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 the primary target was Battleship Row. These capital ships had to suffice since the American carriers were away. Among the battleships lined up alongside Ford Island was the USS West Virginia, a 20-year-old warship with a crew of over a thousand. During the battle the ship took seven torpedo hits along the port side along with two bomb strikes around its superstructure. The ship rapidly flooded, settling on the floor of the harbor with her superstructure above water.

In the aftermath of the attack frantic efforts were made to save survivors trapped below decks on the sunken and damaged ships. Hulls were cut open and divers darted beneath the waves in desperate attempts to save them. The minesweeper Tern lay alongside the “Weevee,” as the battleship was nicknamed, playing water over the fires burning aboard her. When the fires were extinguished at 2PM, the Tern moved over to the Arizona. Commander D. H. Clark, the Fleet Maintenance Officer, reported on December 9 the West Virginia was “doubtful,” estimating 12 to 18 months for repairs if she could be saved at all.

Stripped for Useful Items

Since the ship couldn’t be quickly salvaged, it was stripped for useful items. Guards were posted on the ship starting on December 8 to protect against looting, theft or espionage. Sentry duty aboard the half-sunken wreck of their former home was a sad time for them. During the quiets times some sailors reported hearing tapping noises coming from below decks. They believed the noise came from trapped crew members signaling desperately for help. There were some 70 men missing from the ship’s complement. Their officers told them it was only the sound of wreckage and loose items floating in and around the ship, banging into the hull.

Not As Bad as First Suspected

Several 5-inch guns were removed and installed on other ships and shore batteries. Weeks later divers inspected her damage and learned it was not as bad as first suspected the ship could be refloated and repaired sooner than expected. On December 23 inspectors went through the upper decks, finding burn damage and opened lockers as if someone looted the ship in the aftermath. Larger items such as the main guns, masts and stacks were removed, lightening the ship in preparation for refloating her.

Next began the process of sealing her hull. As diver’s inspected the ship, they found a previously unseen torpedo hit at her stern. The ship had suffered extensive damage whole compartments were essentially open to the sea. Painstakingly, these holes were patched and covered in order to refloat the ship so permanent repairs could be made. Eventually, these efforts paid off and they were ready to return the battleship to life.

Disturbing Discoveries

Pumps began to slowly send water flowing out of the ship. Decomposed bodies were found and carefully placed into waiting body-bags. Valuables were collected and cataloged. If the owners could be identified the items were returned the rest were auctioned for the crew’s emergency fund. On 17 May West Virginia was floating again after over five months. Work went on to prepare the ship for dry dock and finish cleaning out the flooded decks. Even a few .50-caliber machine guns were mounted in case of another Japanese air attack.

It was only on May 27 the most disturbing discoveries of the salvage operation were made. In the aft engine room, several bodies were found lying on steam pipes. They had evidently been able to survive a short time in an air pocket, suffocating when the oxygen finally ran out. Worse still was found in compartment A-111, a storeroom. When the door to this compartment was opened, only three feet of water was inside. On the shelves of the storeroom lay the bodies of three sailors, Louis Costin, 21, Clifford Olds, 20, and Ronald Endicott, 18. With them was a calendar with the dates December 7 to 23 marked off in red pencil. There were emergency rations and access to a fresh water tank in the compartment.

Each man had a watch, enabling them to mark the passage of time. The crew was horrified by the news, especially divers that had sounded the hull and listened for replies but heard nothing. The sentries who reported hearing banging below were angry, though whether anything could have been done at the time is debatable. The matter was a subject of quiet discussion among crew members for years after.

West Virginia was rebuilt and served out the war mainly as a fire support vessel for amphibious landings. She did serve at the Battle of Surigao Strait, the last big-gun ship battle. West Virginia was also present at the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay. Decommissioned after the war, she was sold for scrap in 1959.

The U.S. Navy's Battleships Wanted Revenge After Pearl Harbor—This Is How They Got It

Key point: Hiroshi Tanaka of Yamashiro described survivors as saying that Nishimura’s strategy was that of a warrant officer, not an admiral.

In the distance, they could see the jagged flashes of lightning, an incoming squall in the dark. Just before the rain arrived, so did St. Elmo’s Fire, and the gun barrels and radio antennas on the PT boats crackled with blue sparks and streamers of static electricity.

Then there was another lightning flash, and suddenly Lieutenant (j.g.) Terry Chambers, the executive officer of PT-491 saw them—a column of seven Japanese warships advancing in the dark, headed for Surigao Strait and the waiting U.S. Seventh Fleet. It was the extremely early morning of October 25, 1944, and two battleships and a heavy cruiser of the Imperial Japanese Navy were steaming toward what would become one of the most one-sided battles in naval history, and the last duel between battleships of the line.

The Battle of Surigao Strait was a major portion of the titanic Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest and last major naval battle ever fought, an epic engagement that saw the use of every type of naval warfare except the mine.

The Leyte Gulf battle began with the American decision on July 27, 1944, to target the Philippines instead of Formosa as their next invasion site. General Douglas MacArthur would redeem his pledge to return to the Philippines. The initial objective was the invasion of the island of Leyte to secure air and sea bases for the next stages: seizing Mindoro and the climactic assault on the main island of Luzon.

Codenamed King II, the invasion of Leyte would involve two U.S. fleets, the 7th, under Vice Admiral Thomas Cassin Kinkaid, and the 3rd, under Vice Admiral William F. Halsey, Jr.

Sho-1: The Imperial Navy Strikes Back

The 3rd Fleet was the offensive arm of the invasion, with nine fleet carriers, eight light carriers, and six fast battleships at its heart. The 7th Fleet was the amphibious force, with more than 100 transports and other vessels (including the British minelayer HMS Ariadne), protected by a swarm of cruisers, destroyers, and escort carriers for close air support, backed by six old battleships configured for shore bombardment, in a Fire Support Force, headed by Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf, flying his flag in the heavy cruiser USS Louisville. Among his ships were the Australian cruiser HMAS Shropshire and the destroyer HMAS Arunta. A-day for the invasion was to be October 20, 1944.

The invaders were not spotted by the Japanese until October 17, when the whole American armada appeared at the mouth of the Gulf of Leyte. When they did so, Admiral Soemu Toyoda, who headed the Imperial Japanese Navy, ordered their long-planned response, Victory Operation One, or Sho-1, into operation.

Sho-1 was one of four plans the Japanese had prepared in anticipation of America’s next offensive move, and they all called for the same reaction: the bulk of the Imperial Japanese Navy steaming forth to attack and destroy the U.S. fleet, regardless of losses to themselves.

Sho-1 was like most Imperial Japanese Navy plans of World War II: a decoy force would lure the Americans in one direction, while the real punch would come from other directions in a complex series of coordinated movements. This time, the decoy force was Japan’s surviving aircraft carriers, under Vice Admiral Jisaburo Ozawa, steaming down from the home islands. With barely 100 planes between them, these carriers lacked offensive punch, but the Japanese believed the aggressive Halsey would race after them with his entire 3rd Fleet.

While Halsey was drawn off, the powerful battleships and heavy cruisers of the Imperial Navy, mostly based at Lingga Roads near Singapore and the Borneo fuel stocks, would strike east and ravage the 7th Fleet’s amphibious forces while they lay in Leyte Gulf. The surface ships would pound the 7th Fleet to death with torpedoes and shells, isolating the American invaders on shore. The combination of a trapped army in the Philippines and a smashed navy in the Pacific might at least buy Japan time, or even persuade America to make peace.

The Task Forces of Kurita and Nishimura

The battlewagons at Lingga were commanded by Vice Admiral Takeo Kurita and consisted of a powerful force. They were headed by two immense dreadnoughts, the Yamato and Musashi, sister ships that packed the heaviest armament ever loaded on a battleship, 18.1-inch guns. They were supported by five more dreadnoughts and a screen of cruisers and destroyers, all of which brandished the legendary Type 95 Long Lance torpedo, one of the best in the world. The Imperial Japanese Navy may have been worn down by hard war, but it was still a powerful force with highly skilled sailors and officers well trained in night fighting.

Toyoda and Kurita planned a pincer attack on Leyte Gulf with their battleships. Kurita would take one force, with five battleships, including Yamato and Musashi, through the San Bernardino Strait to hit Leyte Gulf from the north. A second force, under Vice Admiral Shoji Nishimura, a veteran seadog, would steam through the Surigao Strait and smash into Leyte Gulf from the south, the anvil to Kurita’s hammer, just before dawn.A Naval War College graduate of 1911, Nishimura had commanded destroyers in the invasion of the Philippines and the Dutch East Indies in 1941. His son, Teiji Nishimura, a naval aviator, had been killed in the former invasion. In 1942, Nishimura commanded cruisers in the grueling struggle for Guadalcanal, suffering some bad luck but displaying skillful planning and “lion-like fury” in battle.On September 10, 1944, Nishimura was given command of Battleship Division 2, which consisted of the dreadnoughts Fuso and Yamashiro and their destroyer escorts. The two battlewagons, sister ships, dated back to 1911 and were known throughout the fleet for their tall pagoda masts—44 meters above the waterline—and for having sat out most of the war in home waters, mostly as training vessels. The emperor’s brother had served on Fuso twice.

These battleships had never fired their guns in anger. They were the first battleships built with Japanese engines and guns, the most powerful dreadnoughts in the world at the time. But Fuso and Yamashiro were slow and outdated by 1944’s standards, armed with six 14-inch guns each. They were sister ships, but not twins, and regarded as the “ugliest ships in the Imperial Navy.” Both had crews of about 1,600 officers and men. Yamashiro flew Nishimura’s flag.

To support Nishimura’s force would be four destroyers, Michishio, Yamagumo, Asagumo, and Shigure, and a veteran heavy cruiser, the Mogami.

Failed Coordination With the Second Striking Force

Studying his war maps, Toyoda did not think that Nishimura had quite enough punch, so he added a second task force to the southern wing, under Vice Admiral Kiyohide Shima, swinging down from the Pescadore Islands off Formosa. The second striking force would consist of the heavy cruisers Nachiand Ashigara, both veteran ships the light cruiser Abukuma, which had escorted Japan’s carriers to Pearl Harbor and four destroyers, Shiranuhi, Kasumi, Ushio, and Akebono.

Unlike Nishimura, Shima was a desk sailor. Like Nishimura, Shima had graduated from the Naval War College in the class of 1911. He had served in a variety of shore posts, mostly in communications.

Neither force commander coordinated his movements with the other—nor were any orders given to do so. Neither commander was fully briefed about the other’s operations. As far as historians could tell, Nishimura was to clear a path with his battleships so that the cruisers and destroyers behind could finish off the transports with torpedoes. Nishimura’s group was to be called the Third Section, while Shima’s group was the Second Striking Force.

With the Americans moving on Leyte, the Japanese launched their intricate countermoves. Ozawa sortied from Japan, Shima from the Pescadores, and Kurita and Nishimura from Lingga Roads, headed for a refueling stop at Brunei.

On October 20, the Americans invaded Leyte with massive power. Landings began at 10 am, and General MacArthur strode grimly ashore four hours later, making his famous “I have returned!” speech from the invasion beach amid a steady downpour.

Spotted in the Sulu Sea

The next day, Kurita summoned his senior officers to a conference on his flagship, the heavy cruiser Atago. Kurita explained his plans to the assembled admirals, including the decision to split off Nishimura’s force to head for the Surigao Strait. If the complex ship movements worked, the two forces would slam into the American 7th Fleet just before dawn on October 25. The next morning, the Imperial Japanese Navy’s battle line headed out for sea for the very last time, with Kurita and his five dreadnoughts steaming north to the Sibuyan Sea and the San Bernardino Strait.

At 3:30 pm, Nishimura’s ships put to sea. Shima’s ships were already en route. All through the afternoon and night, the two forces steamed along unimpeded into the Sulu Sea. Not so Kurita’s force, which was spotted by two American submarines, which slapped torpedoes into three of Kurita’s cruisers, sinking two—including his flagship Atago—and damaging the third. Kurita shifted his flag to the battleship Yamato and sailed on.

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