In early 1942, the USS Oklahoma, which had capsized during the Pearl Harbor attack, was deemed a navigational hazard and targeted for salvage despite the associated high costs.

Under the guidance of Captain F. H. Whitaker and a Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard team, an intricate operation spanning several months successfully righted the ship, using a combination of air injections, derricks, and hydraulic winches.

Although the Oklahoma was refloated and underwent essential repairs, the US Navy decided against returning her to service due to her age and extensive damage.

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Design of the USS Oklahoma

The USS Oklahoma (BB-37), a battleship of the United States Navy, was a significant vessel belonging to the Nevada-class. Launched on March 23, 1914, and commissioned on May 2, 1916, the Oklahoma was a marvel of early 20th-century naval engineering.

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She had a standard displacement of approximately 27,500 tons, which could exceed 32,000 tons when fully loaded. With an overall length of 583 feet and a beam of 95.2 feet, her size was complemented by a draft of 28.5 feet.

A notable feature of the Oklahoma was her propulsion system, which utilized geared turbines for enhanced efficiency, a first for US battleships. This system generated 24,800 horsepower, allowing the ship to reach speeds of up to 20.5 knots. Although initially powered by both coal and oil, oil quickly became the preferred fuel source, reflecting the evolving practices of naval propulsion.

USS Oklahoma pictured in 1916.

The Oklahoma’s armament was formidable, featuring ten 14-inch/45 caliber guns in twin turrets as her main battery. These guns could launch 1,400-pound shells up to 20 miles away. For closer threats, her secondary armament consisted of 21 5-inch/51 caliber guns. Throughout her service, the battleship’s anti-aircraft defenses were continually upgraded to counter the increasing threat of aerial attacks.

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Armor protection was a critical aspect of the Oklahoma’s design, with belt armor ranging from 8 to 13.5 inches thick and deck armor at 3.5 inches, extending to 2 inches on the slopes. The turrets and barbettes boasted up to 18 inches of armor, with the conning tower protected by 11.5 inches of steel. This robust armoring was designed to withstand significant enemy fire, ensuring the vessel’s survivability in combat.

Crewed by approximately 864 officers and enlisted men during peacetime, this number increased in wartime conditions to accommodate operational demands.

Service History

The USS Oklahoma (BB-37) had a notable service history before the tragic events of Pearl Harbor. Commissioned in 1916, she was part of the United States Navy’s Nevada-class battleships, which were innovative for their time, introducing features like oil-fired boilers and the “all or nothing” armor scheme.

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After her commissioning, the USS Oklahoma served in various capacities, primarily focusing on training exercises, fleet maneuvers, and showing the flag as a demonstration of American naval power.

During World War I, although the United States Navy played a relatively limited role compared to the ground and air forces, the Oklahoma was involved in protecting convoys across the Atlantic, safeguarding them from potential German U-boat threats. Her presence was part of the broader effort to secure sea lanes for Allied shipping, ensuring troops and supplies could reach Europe safely.

USS Oklahoma wearing an experimental camouflage, 1917.

Following the end of World War I, the Oklahoma continued to serve actively in the Navy. She participated in numerous exercises, including those aimed at refining battle tactics and naval maneuvers. These exercises were crucial for the development of naval warfare strategies in the interwar period. Additionally, the Oklahoma was involved in training missions, helping to prepare the next generation of sailors and officers for their roles in the fleet.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Oklahoma, like many ships of her era, underwent modernization efforts. These upgrades aimed to improve her combat efficiency, defensive capabilities, and overall operational readiness. Despite these improvements, by the late 1930s and early 1940s, she and her sister ships were increasingly overshadowed by newer and more advanced battleship designs.

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The USS Oklahoma also played a role in “showing the flag” missions, which involved diplomatic visits to various countries. These missions were part of the United States’ efforts to project its naval power and foster good relations with other nations, demonstrating the reach and strength of the American fleet.

By the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, the USS Oklahoma was considered somewhat outdated, but she remained an integral part of the Pacific Fleet.

Pearl Harbor

On the morning of December 7, 1941, the USS Oklahoma was moored at Battleship Row, outboard of the USS Maryland, at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Just as the day was beginning, at about 7:55 a.m., the first wave of Japanese aircraft initiated their attack. Within a few short minutes, the USS Oklahoma became a primary target, with multiple aerial torpedoes striking its port side.

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The effects of the torpedoes were devastating. The ship began to flood rapidly, causing it to list heavily to its port side. Within 12-15 minutes of the initial torpedo impact, the Oklahoma was overwhelmed by the influx of water. This led the battleship to capsize almost completely, turning nearly upside-down with just a small portion of her starboard side remaining above water.

In the chaos and darkness, hundreds of crew members found themselves trapped inside the overturned hull. A few fortunate ones managed to navigate their way to the surface through portholes and other openings.

USS Oklahoma lays capsized after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Over the subsequent hours and days, rescue operations were in full force. Through the determined efforts of fellow sailors and workers, they cut through the ship’s hull, managing to save 32 men in a daring and meticulously coordinated effort.

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However, the tragedy was profound. Of those onboard the USS Oklahoma, 429 officers, sailors, and marines lost their lives that day, a consequence of the initial explosions, entrapment within the ship, or drowning. This marked one of the most significant losses of life among the ships attacked at Pearl Harbor. In the aftermath, the USS Oklahoma lay capsized in the harbor for nearly two years before salvage operations began in 1943.

Salvaging The Oklahoma

By early 1942, the decision was made to salvage the Oklahoma due to its position obstructing the harbor’s navigational channel. Despite the high costs associated with the salvage, the operation began on 15 July 1942, led by Captain F. H. Whitaker and a dedicated team from the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard.

The intricate process to upright the capsized hull took less than eight months. To achieve this, air was injected into the ship’s interior chambers and specially constructed airlocks, expelling approximately 20,000 tonnes of water from the ship via the torpedo-inflicted holes.

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To prevent the ship from sliding, about 4,500 tonnes of coral soil were positioned at its bow, and two barges were strategically placed at both ends to regulate the ship’s ascent.

To assist in the righting process, 21 derricks were anchored to the overturned hull. These derricks utilized high-strength steel cables connected to hydraulic winches on the shoreline. This comprehensive righting operation, termed “parbuckling”, started on 8 March and successfully concluded by 16 June 1943. Following this, naval experts meticulously explored the once submerged sections of the ship to retrieve the remains of the fallen.

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Subsequent repairs were initiated by surrounding the hull with cofferdams, enabling the ship to be refloated by November. On 28 December, the Oklahoma was ushered into Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard’s drydock No. 2. There, essential components such as the main guns, machinery, and remaining munitions were extracted. Any severe structural damages were mended to ensure the ship’s watertight integrity, but the US Navy concluded she was too outdated and extensively damaged to reenter service.

Remaining munitions removed from the Oklahoma.

The Oklahoma’s service officially ended when she was decommissioned on 1 September 1944. Subsequently, any remaining weaponry and the superstructure were dismantled. She was auctioned at the Brooklyn Navy Yard on 26 November 1946, with her engines, boilers, turbo generators, steering mechanisms, and about 24,000 tonnes of structural steel identified as recoverable. The Oklahoma was ultimately purchased by the Moore Drydock Co. of Oakland, California for a sum of $46,127.

USS Oklahoma in 90 degrees position during the ‘parbuckling’ process.

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A view of the Oklahoma after reaching 40 degrees as she is righted by the derricks,
USS Oklahoma after being successfully righted, now undergoing pumping operations.

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Aerial view of the Oklahoma after being refloated.