Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Pearl Harbor: What Wasn't Lost

Last Wednesday, we marked the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The cost to the United States Navy was great, but of the eight battleships sunk or damaged during the attack, six returned to service later in the war, some after not much time at all.

In addition to the battleships, seven major ships were sunk or damaged. Of those seven, all but one returned to active service:

USS Utah (AG-16, ex-BB-31) - Utah was no longer a first-line battleship, instead finding use as an anti-aircraft gunnery training ship. She was mistaken by the Japanese attackers as an active capital ship and was struck by numerous air-dropped torpedoes. She capsized and like Arizona, still rests in Pearl Harbor today as the grave for 54 of her crew.

USS Raleigh (CL-7) - Raleigh, an Omaha-class light cruiser, was struck by a single Japanese torpedo and listed severely to her port side, in danger of capsizing. Her valiant crew saved the ship, and destroyed five enemy planes with determined anti-aircraft fire. She was repaired and served with the Pacific Fleet for the duration of the war. Raleigh was decommissioned on November 2, 1945 and scrapped in early 1946.

USS Honolulu (CL-48) - Honolulu, a Brooklyn-class light cruiser, received only minor damage during the attack. She served throughout the war in the Pacific, earning eight battle stars and surviving a Japanese torpedo attack during the Battle of Leyte on October 20, 1944. Her major repairs were completed at Norfolk in early 1945. She decommissioned to reserve status on February 3, 1947 and was scrapped in 1959.

USS Helena (CL-50) - Helena, a St. Louis-class light cruiser, was struck at Pearl by one torpedo. Her crew's outstanding damage control prevented major damage to the ship, even though one boiler room and one engine room were flooded. Helena returned to service after repairs in 1942, participating in the Guadalcanal campaign. On July 5-6, 1943, Helena was sunk by three Japanese torpedoes during the Battle of Kula Gulf. 168 sailors of her nearly 900 crew were killed in action. She was the first ship to receive the Navy Unit Commendation, the unit-equivalent of the individual Silver Star medal.

USS Cassin (DD-372) - Cassin, a Mahan-class destroyer, was dry docked with fellow destroyer USS Downes (DD-375, below) and battleship USS Pennsylvania (BB-38) during the attack. An incendiary bomb strike caused Downes' fuel tanks to explode, and uncontrollable fires spread to both destroyers. Originally assumed to be a total loss, Cassin was eventually repaired and returned to service on February 5, 1944. She contributed to many of the late 1944-early 1945 offensive operations in the Pacific. Decommissioned at Norfolk on December 17, 1945 she was scrapped in 1947.

USS Shaw (DD-373) - Shaw, also of the Mahan-class, was also dry docked on December 7th. She was struck by three bombs setting her afire. At 0925 the order to abandon ship was given, and her forward magazine exploded about five minutes later causing heavy damage. She was repaired, however, and rejoined the fleet after receiving a new bow in the summer of 1942. Shaw eventually earned eleven battle stars for her contributions to winning the war in the Pacific. Decommissioned at New York City in October 1945, she was scrapped in 1946.

USS Downes (DD-375) - Downes, a third member of the Mahan-class, was struck as previously mentioned by an incendiary bomb and the ensuing fires destroyed both herself and Cassin. Her wreck was eventually salvaged and towed to the mainland for repairs. Downes left the Mare Island Naval Shipyard on November 15, 1943 and rejoined the war in the Pacific in early 1944. After earning four battle stars for her Pacific service, she was decommissioned on December 17, 1945 and scrapped in 1947.

One destroyed, six damaged to varying degrees, six returned to combat. Certainly the cost of repairs and time to complete them affected these vessels' contribution to the war, but they were not destroyed. They all ultimately helped to defeat Japan. But what of the other things the Japanese didn't destroy?

The Japanese raiders did not attack three key infrastructure resources at Pearl Harbor. The loss of or severe damage to any one of the three could have vastly altered the course of World War II in the Pacific.

First, the above-ground fuel storage tanks were not struck. These tanks contained the entire fuel supply for the US Pacific Fleet. One Japanese bomb could have started a chain reaction explosion wiping out the entire supply of naval fuel oil. The closest "filling station" for our ships would have been San Diego.

Second, the Pearl Harbor Submarine Base was left untouched. The story of US and allied submarines' contributions to winning World War II in the Pacific is one of the great under-appreciated efforts of the war. The only long-range offensive capability of the US Navy was our submarines, well into 1943. Without the forward support provided by the submarine base at Pearl, the ability of the fleet to seize the initiative against Japan would have been severely hampered.

Third, the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard was also undamaged. The shipyard executed salvage and repair operations for the units damaged on December 7th, plus altered the course of future battles by being able to complete quick battle damage repairs in 1942 and beyond. The Battle of Midway in June 1942 would likely have had a very different outcome had the shipyard not been capable of repairing the heavily damaged USS Yorktown (CV-5) in just three days after the Battle of the Coral Sea (the Japanese had thought her sunk there!)

All significant. All war-changing assets. They pale in comparison though to the three most important things not at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941: the three Pacific Fleet aircraft carriers.

USS Lexington (CV-2)

Lexington was originally laid down as a battlecruiser. The world's first attempt at preventing war via arms control, the Washington Naval Conference, placed restrictions on capital ships (then battleships and battlecruisers) but allowed for prohibited ships already under construction to be converted into aircraft carriers. She entered service on December 14, 1927 - 84 years to the day of this writing.
USS Lexington pre-war in October 1941
Lexington departed Pearl Harbor on December 5, 1941 to transport USMC aircraft to Midway. She learned of the attack on December 7th by radio, and immediately commenced searching for the Japanese task force. It's lucky that she didn't find them - and escaped Japanese detection - because the much larger Japanese force was only about 400 miles away at the time and Lexington would have come under heavy attack.

1942 saw Lexington as a key member of the force keeping essential sea lanes to Australia and New Zealand open. During the Battle of the Coral Sea on May 8, 1942, she received three hits from Japanese dive bombers and one torpedo strike.
USS Lexington burning and sinking, 5/8/1942
Her heroic crew tried to save her and had gotten both flooding and fires under control. Their damage-control efforts were for naught when the ship was shattered by an explosion thought to be caused by fuel vapors. Afire and sinking, Lexington was abandoned. She was scuttled by two torpedoes fired by the destroyer USS Phelps and sank, taking with her at least 300 of her crew. Lexington's contribution to winning World War II was short, but invaluable.

USS Saratoga (CV-3)

Saratoga was Lexington's sister ship; another battlecruiser conversion required by treaty. She actually entered service about a month earlier than her sister, commissioning on November 16, 1927.
USS Saratoga on Navy Day (Oct. 27) 1932
She had left Pearl Harbor on November 26, 1941 for maintenance at the Navy's west coast shipyards. As the Japanese bombs were falling on Pearl Harbor, Saratoga was sailing into San Diego. After a quick turn-around, she sailed for Wake Island carrying USMC aircraft reinforcements. This mission was ultimately recalled as Wake fell to the Japanese on December 23, 1941.

Saratoga was damaged by a Japanese torpedo southwest of Hawai'i on January 11, 1942. After quick repairs at Pearl Harbor, she sailed for the mainland for permanent repairs and complete modernization of her anti-aircraft guns. She rejoined the fleet immediately after the Battle of Midway.

From 1942 on, Saratoga participated in many of the major Pacific campaigns: Aleutians, Solomon Islands, Guadalcanal, Savo Island, Bougainville Island, Makin, Tarawa, the Marshall Islands, and Iwo Jima. She survived battle damage throughout her service, including a kamikaze strike on February 21, 1945.
Saratoga underway, February 1944
Throughout her service lifetime, Saratoga recorded 98,549 aircraft landings. World War II earned her eight battle stars. Her wartime service ended by transporting over 29,000 American servicemen in several trips back home to their peacetime lives and families. Old, worn, and obsolescent at the end of World War II, she was used as a target for and sunk by an atomic bomb test at Bikini Atoll on July 25, 1946.

USS Enterprise (CV-6)

Enterprise, the second carrier of the Yorktown-class, was commissioned on May 12, 1938. She sailed from Pearl Harbor on November 28, 1941 to deliver aircraft to Wake Island. She returned to the harbor still in flames on December 8th, replenished, and got back to sea lest another Japanese attack catch her in port.

On April 8, 1942, Enterprise sailed from Pearl for her first offensive operation of the war. She rendezvoused with USS Hornet (CV-8) for the Doolittle Raid on Japan. Enterprise handled the defensive air cover for the task force as Hornet's planes were stowed to accommodate the Army bombers on deck.

Enterprise and her planes were decisive at the Battle of Midway in June, 1942. Her dive bombers attacked and sank both the Japanese carriers Akagi and Kaga - two of the six that had launched the Pearl Harbor strike.
Torpedo bombers of squadron VT-6 on board Enterprise during the Battle of Midway
From Midway on, there was no other ship of the United States Navy that fought in more battles or had more of an effect on the outcome of the war. The remainder of 1942 through mid-1943 sent the "Big E" to fight in the Battle of the Eastern Solomons, Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, Guadalcanal, and the Battle of Rennell Island.

At one point during the fight for Guadalcanal, Enterprise was the sole remaining operational carrier in all the Pacific. Her crew, ever fearless, put up a sign that read: "Enterprise vs. Japan" - in other words, bring it on.
Near miss of a Japanese bomb dropped against Enterprise, Santa Cruz, 1942
After several months of heavy combat, Enterprise returned home for refit in the summer of 1943. Returning for the Battle of Makin Atoll in November 1943, she attacked the Caroline Islands, Emirau Island, New Guinea, Saipan, Rota, Guam - Enterprise and her planes were key to the "island hopping" strategy.

In 1944 and 1945, Enterprise fought in the four decisive battles of the final phase of the war: the Battle of the Philippine Sea, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. During the attack on Okinawa, she suffered her last major battle damage when a bomb-laden Japanese kamikaze struck her on May 14, 1945.
Enterprise hit by kamikaze attacker, 5/14/1945
On V-J Day, Enterprise was wrapping up her repairs back in the United States. She was used like Saratoga for transporting Americans back home from war, which Enterprise did in both oceans. Enterprise was decorated for her service unlike any other ship in the war, receiving twenty battle stars, a Presidential Unit Citation, and a Navy Unit Commendation. The citation for her Presidential Unit Citation read:
For consistently outstanding performance and distinguished achievement during repeated action against enemy Japanese forces in the Pacific war area, 7 December 1941, to 15 November 1942. Participating in nearly every major carrier engagement in the first year of the war, the Enterprise and her air group, exclusive of far-flung destruction of hostile shore installations throughout the battle area, did sink or damage on her own a total of 35 Japanese vessels and shot down a total of 185 Japanese aircraft. Her aggressive spirit and superb combat efficiency are fitting tribute to the officers and men who so gallantly established her as an ahead bulwark in the defense of the American nation.
During one of her post-war trips to Europe, the Royal Navy's First Lord of the Admiralty came aboard to present Enterprise with a Royal Navy Pennant, that service's highest decoration for a ship and her crew, in recognition of her service to the cause of liberty. In the 400-plus year history of the Royal Navy, Enterprise is the only non-British ship to receive that recognition.

I shudder to think what the course of World War II would have been without Enterprise there from beginning to end. She could have been replaced, but as the war was fought, we couldn't have won it without her.

The greatest warship of World War II was decommissioned at New York City on February 14, 1947. Several efforts were made for the next ten years to preserve the "Big E" as a museum and memorial, but none could raise the money to sustain the vessel. Enterprise was sold to be scrapped on July 1, 1958 and perhaps the greatest heroine of World War II was lost.

Concluding Thoughts on Pearl Harbor

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a defeat. The strategic and tactical surprise Japan achieved stunned the United States, crippled (for a time) our Pacific fleet, and threw a nation on the defensive. Ultimately though, Pearl Harbor was a pyrrhic victory for the Japanese because they did not press their tactical and strategic advantage, nor did they completely destroy the major US capital ships they so desperately needed to. Consider:

One, just one, follow-on attack against Pearl Harbor later in the day of December 7th or on the 8th or 9th could have destroyed the US Pacific fleet's fuel supply, its ability to repair ships close to the battle areas, conduct submarine operations, sunk or damaged either Lexington or Enterprise, or some combination of those devastating outcomes.

World War II spanned 1,347 days from Pearl Harbor to V-J Day. How many days longer the conflict would have raged had the United States lost more on the first day of the war we will never know, but ultimately our Nation's recovery from the Day of Infamy to victory got its resolve and fighting spirit because of the attack, and we were left by the enemy with resources that ultimately would destroy them.

I'm tempted to look at Pearl Harbor not only as the first defeat but also the first victory because of what the Japanese failed to do. As was true of ten years ago brave men and women of United 93 shining through the darkness on 9/11, the courageous servicemen seventy years ago who doused the flames and salvaged the wreckage at Pearl Harbor did the same for the morning of December 7, 1941.

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