From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Part two on a 3-part series about the salvage operations that brought USS West Virginia (BB 48) back to the fleet Sept. 23, 1944 after being sunk in the attack at Pearl Harbor.
“We keep them fit to fight”
When the smoke cleared after the attack Dec. 7, 1941, 19 ships berthed at Pearl Harbor were severely damaged and in various stages of sinking or had sunk. Battleship West Virginia (BB 48) was among the worst of those to be salvaged. The hulls of USS Arizona (BB 39) and USS Utah (BB 31) remain in the harbor. USS Oklahoma (BB 37) was brought up, but determined too damaged for repair. She was salvaged of her armament and whatever other materials that could be reused on other ships.
Perhaps West Virginia’s saving grace was that she remained upright from where she sank in around 40 feet of water. The action reports filed by her surviving commanding officers were grim. The ship had been struck by seven 18-inch torpedoes on her port (left) side, blowing out a series of gashes. Bombs caused one deck to collapse. The rudder had been torn asunder by a torpedo. The ship had burned 30 hours before sinking, causing the bottom of the ship to “wrinkle” after settling on the harbor floor.
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.
The battleship’s multi-layered, anti-torpedo side protection system had been completely broken through, making it impossible to raise the ship without the use of extensive external patches. These structures, called cofferdams, were huge wooden sections braced with steel, attached to the ship by divers working inside and out to attach them to the ship and each other. Then 650 tons of special concrete that hardens in water, called tremic, was poured down hoppers to seal the bottom. It hardened around the cofferdam, making the ship watertight.
In order to help the ship float, the salvage operation removed 800,000 gallons of fuel oil, projectiles and powder for 16-inch guns, and other supplies. With excess weight gone water was pumped out of the ship, inch-by-inch, a fresh ring of fouled oil marking the progress on the cofferdam.
On June 9, 1942, a little more than six months after she was sunk, “Wee Vee” entered Pearl Harbor Navy Yard’s Drydock No. 1. From there began the task of clearing away and replacing the torpedo and fire-damaged structure, including large plates of heavy side armor. It took small sticks of dynamite to remove the cofferdam that got her afloat.
“The spectacular salvage is re-floating. The hard work is cleaning up, then the repair,” according to Rear Adm. William R. Furlong from a New York Times article in 1943 about the restoration West Virginia and the other Pearl Harbor ships. The 6-part series, never published due to wartime censors, is now part of the archives of the Library of Congress.
Furlong had even more reason to hope West Virginia could be salvaged. He had served as the ship’s commanding officer from 1936-37.
That job would prove to be incredibly difficult. Much of the weight removal, as well as recovery of nearly 70 human bodies found in the ship and the immense task of cleaning her oily and filthy interior, was undertaken by the ship’s residual crew of around 370, including 60 Marines. Although 800 men had been requested for the “beggardly” job of cleaning, Wallin said it was rare to have more than 500.
The filthy oil-soaked water left a residue on every surface of the ship. Their first job was the removal of wreckage, then wash it down with a high pressure hose, followed by a caustic solution that cut the oil coating, and finished with a fresh-water rinse. Much of this work had to be carried out in gas masks to guard against the ever-present risk of toxic gasses from rotten food and the refrigeration tanks and hydrogen sulfide that was created by polluted water on paper products. It was found in every compartment of the larger ships, often in lethal doses. Two men had died during the refloat process for USS Nevada (BB 36). From then on, each salvage worker wore litmus paper on his tank suit to reveal the presence of gas.
The cleaning crew also removed ammunition from turrets and magazines. West Virginia yielded a reservoir of powder that was suitable for re-blending and may have been used to finally return fire at the Japanese upon her return to the fleet.
As for repairing the electric-propelled ships, Wallin quoted the saying “necessity is the mother of invention and the mainspring of action.”
The ship’s turbo-electric drive powerplant underwent painstaking disassembly, drying and preserving as the water was removed from the machinery spaces, and then reassembled. Alternators and motors were salvaged and rewound and their iron elements restocked.
After three months in drydock, West Virginia was again watertight. Work continued pierside until April 1943, when the battleship left Pearl Harbor under her own power for Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Wash., where she received permanent repairs and extensive modernization. USS West Virginia rejoined the active fleet in July 1944, arriving back in Pearl Harbor on Sept. 23, 1944. She took active part in the battles of Leyte Gulf, Palau Islands, Iwo Jima and Okinawa in the Pacific War’s final year, a stronger, better ship than she had been Dec. 7, 1941.
“We built her new from the inside out,” Adm. Furlong said in the unpublished New York Times article. “We went right to the bottom, like a dentist drilling out a rotten tooth, and we burned away all the damage, then renewed the hull and decks.”
The final part of this 3-part series will reveal how the salvage operation foritifed the base, and lessons learned from the Great War helped reduce the damage caused by the attack on Pearl Harbor.