Fit to Fight: American Shipbuilding and Salvage Comes Through in the Wake of Pearl Harbor

USS West Virginia approaching drydock, June 8, 1942. After six months under 40 feet of water, she was finally afloat. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

USS West Virginia approaching drydock, June 8, 1942, at Pearl Harbor. After six months under 40 feet of water, she was finally afloat. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

 This is the final chapter in a 3-part series about the salvage operation that brought USS West Virginia (BB 48) back to the fleet 70 years ago Sept. 23, 1944. She had been hit by seven torpedoes and two bombs during the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. Click for Part 1 and Part 2.

Lessons noted, lessons learned

The Pearl Harbor Salvage Division worked virtually non-stop to get 10 of the 19 ships sunk or damaged after the Dec. 7, 1941 attack back into the fleet by mid-1942. The Pearl Harbor ship salvage effort through most of 1942 was directed by Capt. Homer A. Wallin, Material Officer for Commander, Battle Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet. USS West Virginia would prove the most challenging.

Capt. Homer N. Wallin (left), Salvage Officer, and Lt. Cmdr. W. White, commanding officer of USS West Virginia, on board the ship while she was under salvage at Pearl Harbor in 1942. They are wearing the "tank" suit coveralls and knee-length rubber boots used by Pearl Harbor salvage team members when engaged in particularly dirty work. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, NHHC Collection.

Capt. Homer N. Wallin (left), Salvage Officer, and Lt. Cmdr. W. White, commanding officer of USS West Virginia, on board the ship while she was under salvage at Pearl Harbor in 1942. They are wearing the “tank” suit coveralls and knee-length rubber boots used by Pearl Harbor salvage team members when engaged in particularly dirty work. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, NHHC Collection.

Seeing it to completion required Navy and civilian divers to spend about 20,000 hours underwater among 5,000 dives. Two destroyers, Cassin (DD 372) and Downes (DD 375), were stripped of their serviceable weapons, machinery and equipment, which was all sent to California, where it was installed in new hulls. Still, both ships returned to service in late 1943 and early 1944.

Within two years, the Salvage Division refloated five ships and removed weapons and equipment from the other two. Among its accomplishments were the refloating of the battleships Nevada (BB 36) in Feb. 1942; California in March 1942, and West Virginia (BB 48) in June 1942, plus the minelayer Oglala (CM 4). After extensive shipyard repairs, the four ships were back in the active fleet in time to help defeat Japan.

The Salvage Division also righted and refloated the capsized battleship Oklahoma (BB 37), partially righted the capsized target ship Utah (BB 31) and recovered materiel from the wreck of the battleship Arizona (BB 39). Those three ships did not return to service, and the hulls of Arizona and Utah remain in Pearl Harbor.

Off the Puget Sound Navy Yard, Washington, July 2, 1944, following reconstruction. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

USS West Virginia off the Puget Sound Navy Yard, Washington, July 2, 1944, following reconstruction wearing her camouflage paint. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives.

All this represented one of history’s greatest salvage jobs, Wallin pointed out in his publication Pearl Harbor: Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal.

Although only 19 ships of the almost 100 that occupied berths at Pearl Harbor were sunk or damaged, an important part of the fleet was immobilized for many months, Wallin states in the publication.

“The shortage of ships prevented decisive action against a superior foe. It was only after new ships joined the fleet from building yard or the Atlantic that offensive warfare could be pursued in earnest,” he said.

And it’s not like Pearl Harbor was prepared to pull 18 ships out of the harbor and refloat them. They were already noted for shortages, Wallin pointed out. Lumber and fastenings were acutely in short supply, along with a lack of manpower, especially electric welders, carpenters, mechanics and engineers.

But they were ahead of the game in one aspect. The Great War had taught fleet officials where fire hazards are on ships, and many had already been removed from the combatant ships. Those included items like rubber sheeting, paints, canvas, oakum and linoleum. Paint had been chipped off down to bare metal and replaced with latex or water paints, which are better in resisting fire and high temperature.

But of all shortages, the lack of ordnance presented the worst problem, particularly for the defense of Pearl Harbor, Wallin said. No temporary batteries had been installed and 30-caliber machine guns were the main ones at the air bases.

During the salvage, at the top of the list was building up the base’s anti-aircraft defense by taking batteries and ammunition from disabled ships to points of vantage around the Navy Yard and air stations. Divers worked “assiduously in saving range finders, directors, small arms and fine ordnance instruments from various sunken ships. After initial care and preservation, the material was soon ready for use against the enemy,” Wallin noted in the publication.

Wallin also pointed out a fair proportion of Japanese bombs and torpedoes failed to explode, and strafing by the Japanese did little to do major harm to the ships or even deter Sailors from their duties.  But the close-range anti-aircraft batteries on the U.S. Navy ships were limited in their scope. From 1942 on, Sweden-made 40-millimeter Bofors guns, mounted in twos and fours, and the 20-millimeter Oerlikon gun from Switzerland, were installed on newer American ships.

In a war that lasted nearly four years, all 19 of the Pearl Harbor victims, except Oklahoma, Arizona and Utah, saw action against the Japanese Navy. The marvel of salvage surprised not only the Japanese but also our own forces. The Salvage Operation had lived up to its motto: “We keep them fit to fight.”

“We learned that sunken or damaged ships can be put to work again and with greatly increased potential,” Wallin noted in the publication. “Enough cannot be said in praise of the salvage crew. They worked hard and earnestly. They soon saw that the results of their efforts exceeded the fondest hopes of their supporters and they were urged on by their successive achievements.”

Rear Adm. William R. Furlong, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, and Capt. Homer N. Wallin inspecting the salvage operations at Pearl Harbor.

Rear Adm. William R. Furlong, Adm. Chester W. Nimitz, and Capt. Homer N. Wallin inspecting the salvage operations at Pearl Harbor.

Wallin, who retired in 1955 as a vice-admiral, received the Navy’s Distinguished Service Medal due to his “tireless and energetic devotion to duty, and benefiting his past experiences, Capt. Wallin accomplished the reclamation of damaged naval units expeditiously and with success beyond expectations, thereby sustaining the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service…”

…And “for being an undying optimist,” Fleet Adm. Chester W. Nimitz added upon presenting the award to Wallin.

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