Eight battleships rested in apparent safety at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941; nearly half of America’s 17 battleships were gathered in one place. By afternoon, all eight were crippled, and two of them would never see conventional service again. Six, however, were eventually repaired, including two that had been sunk. The attack on Pearl Harbor was devastating, but it fell short of its mark; the U.S. Navy was fully capable of recovering.
On that morning, seven battleships were lined up between Ford Island and the main naval base: BB39 Arizona, BB44 California, BB46 Maryland, BB36 Nevada, BB37 Oklahoma, BB43 Tennessee and BB48 West Virginia. The eighth, BB38 Pennsylvania, was not with the others in “Battleship Row,” but waited instead in drydock. Half of these vessels had been built in 1916, but the other half were from the interwar years, and the older vessels had been modernized since.
The Oklahoma and Nevada began service in 1916, but both were upgraded to modern specifications by 1929. These two vessels hold the distinction of being the first battleships in the world to sacrifice lighter grades of armor entirely in favor of weight reduction; the most important areas would be protected by the heaviest grade of armor plating, while the remainder of the ship would would go without protection in order to reduce weight. The desire to reduce weight also manifested itself in the creation of turrets with three main guns, rather than two.
Also entering service in 1916, the Pennsylvania and Arizona were built with even heavier armor plating than the Oklahoma Class battleships. They both underwent modernization after the Oklahoma Class, beginning in 1929 and being finished in 1931.
The Tennessee and California made their debut in the interwar period, in 1920 and 1921. Built largely to the same pattern as the New Mexico Class, they had not yet received any significant improvements.
The Maryland and West Virginia, which entered service between 1921 and 1923, differed from the Tennessee Class largely in the size of their main guns. The other three classes here carried 14” guns (10 of them in the Oklahoma Class, 12 in the Pennsylvania and Tennessee Classes), while the Maryland Class was built with 16” guns, following the lead of the Queen Elizabeth Class in Great Britain. With the larger guns, however, the Maryland Class was built with only 8 main guns, two each on four turrets.
There was also a ninth vessel at Pearl Harbor that might be mistaken for a battleship, and in fact it might have been so mistaken by the Japanese: the Utah. The Utah had been built as a battleship in 1911, but it was decommissioned in accordance with a 1930 treaty for naval arms reduction. Its presence in Pearl Harbor was strictly as an auxiliary vessel, but it retained the general appearance of a battleship, and the Japanese pilots selected their targets largely on the basis of their appearance.
In any event, the Japanese attack made a priority of incapacitating battleships. All of the battleships took significant damage. Three were sunk: Arizona, California and West Virginia. The Oklahoma capsized, as did the Utah. Only one battleship, the Nevada, managed to break free of its position and attempted to sail to safety. Noting that the Nevada was taking serious damage along the way, its captain chose to run it aground rather than risk bottling up the harbor.
The Arizona was left in place to serve as a memorial. The Utah was also left in place, while the Oklahoma was raised before it was determined that repair was impractical; it was thereupon scrapped. All of the other battleships were eventually repaired, modernized and placed back in service, including the sunken California and West Virginia. The Pennsylvania returned to active duty as early as 1942, while the West Virginia and California did not resume service until 1944, by which time battleships were largely reduced to a support role.
The attack at Pearl Harbor was not the first of its kind. The British had launched a similar attack on the Italian Navy at Taranto in 1940, albeit on a lesser scale, and the Japanese had made a strictly surface-based surprise attack on a Russian fleet in 1904. Battleships continued to give admirable service throughout the war, although the scope of their operations dwindled during the last two years. Pearl Harbor did not render the battleship obsolete at a stroke, as some contend; it did, however, demonstrate graphically that the dominant role in naval combat had shifted to carrier-based airpower, as both the American and Japanese navies had anticipated. Today, carriers rule the waves, and of the battleships of Pearl Harbor, only one continues to serve: the U.S.S. Arizona, which functions as a memorial and military cemetery.
Ellis, John. World War II: The Encyclopedia of Facts and Figures. Military Book Club, 1993.
Parrish, Thomas ed. The Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. Simon and Schuster, 1978
Smith, Carl. Pearl Harbor 1941: The Day of Infamy. Osprey Military, 1999.
Wheal, Elizabeth-Anne, Stephen Pope and James Taylor. A Dictionary of the Second World War. Military Book Club, 1990.
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