A Day of Infamy, Two Years of Hard Work

By Robert Trumbull, (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 07/12/06):

Here, 64 years late, are edited excerpts from a dispatch sent to The New York Times by Robert Trumbull, the paper’s correspondent at Pearl Harbor. It details a triumphant but mostly forgotten story of World War II: the salvage effort that rebuilt the Pacific Fleet after the Japanese attack.

A city of seamen, engineers, divers, carpenters, welders, pipe fitters and other industrial workers arose overnight at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard. Its slogan was “We keep them fit to fight,” and within two years the yard raised or salvaged all the damaged ships except the Arizona and the Utah.

One year after the attack, with the harbor still choked with wreckage, Trumbull wrote a 15,000-word, three-part series about the round-the-clock operation. But wartime censorship killed the articles. Like the civilian rescue workers and hardhats at ground zero, the shipyard workers dispersed, unheralded, when the job was done. Trumbull died in 1992.

PEARL HARBOR, Dec. 13 (Passed by naval censor) —

TWO of the great stories of world naval history concern Pearl Harbor. First is the stunning blow dealt the United States Pacific Fleet in the Japanese sneak attack here Dec. 7, 1941. The second, which may well be the more significant story when the world returns to the ways of peace, deals with the miracle of reclamation and repair accomplished here to undo the incredibly complex destruction wrought by the Japanese bombers.

Undoing of the Pearl Harbor damage is a story that continues today; as this is written its climax is still in the future. Its first full telling in this series of articles reveals the greatness of American industrial ingenuity, which has reached at Pearl Harbor a historic flowering.

What has been done here to put back into fighting trim the once proud warships that were unmercifully rent and shattered by bomb and torpedo, the ships pounded and broken into an unholy mess and then jammed by their own great weight into the muck of the harbor bottom, could scarcely be grasped by anyone who has not seen it.

To understand adequately the staggering problem that faced the naval engineers Dec. 7, 1941, one must go back and survey Pearl Harbor as it lay in the silence of death and ruin after the attack.

The battleship Nevada, staggered by a number of heavy bomb hits and punctured by a torpedo that struck near the bow, was able to get underway and leave the hell that was Battleship Row. It beached itself in the channel and sank back to rest with water lapping its quarterdeck.

The California, its bow burned and its insides horribly scrambled by torpedoes amidships, sank at its moorings, settling in the mud with a list of five to seven degrees. Only its high turrets poked above the water, which swirled over its stern and quarterdeck, and rushed inside the torn hole to add its own vast weight to the mass pressing into the soft harbor bottom.

Also sunk at its moorings in Battleship Row was the West Virginia, terribly wounded by both bombs and torpedoes. Like the California, it remained in an upright position. This circumstance made reclamation more readily workable, although discouragingly complicated problems remained.

The Arizona, the only battleship listed as lost — and rightfully so, as will be seen — rested on the bottom near Ford Island, devastated by fire within as well as wrecked by bombs and torpedoes.

On the opposite side of Ford Island, the Oklahoma lay capsized, 150 degrees from the vertical, its ravaged port side turned under. It was anchored to the bottom by its own masts and superstructure, which were pushed down through layers of harbor mud that closed over the masts with uncounted tons of downward pressure.

Sunk by a heavy bomb hit was the big floating dry dock, which contained the destroyer Shaw at the time. The minelayer Oglala was sunk on its side at its dock, and the two destroyers Cassin and Downes were lost in the dry dock. The Downes was literally blown in two by the explosion of its magazine. The Cassin, which lay alongside the Downes to starboard in the dry dock, also caught fire and, its hull mottled like wetted paper, fell off its blocks and leaned over wearily against the Downes.

Rear Adm. William R. Furlong, a gray, stocky Pennsylvanian, was commander of the Pacific Fleet mine force on Dec. 7, 1941. He rose early, as is his custom, that Sunday morning. He was on the deck of his flagship, the ungainly Oglala.

Admiral Furlong’s amazed blue eyes saw the first Japanese bomb dropped in the Pearl Harbor phase of the attack strike a seaplane ramp on Ford Island. He saw the second bomb hit a Ford Island hangar, setting it afire. This plane, having done its share in nullifying the fleet’s air power, circled, turned and flew back by the Oglala at eye level to the admiral. “I could have hit the plane with a potato,” Admiral Furlong said.

Thus Admiral Furlong saw the terrible damage done. Shortly, as commandant of the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, he was assigned to get it undone. He had the entire Pearl Harbor establishment at his call for a job that was heroic in its broad proportions, and which in detail was often seemingly impossible, frequently discouraging and always physically arduous, filthy, stinking and dangerous.

Nowhere in the world, according to Navy officers here, have Navy and civilian workers toiled together in such close coordination and harmony on a monumental task. Their joint achievement has never been equaled, either as a feat in mechanics or as an example of cooperation between military and nonmilitary men.

When the subject of the West Virginia is mentioned to the men who worked on its salvage, they seldom say anything. They just whistle.

The Japanese left this $27 million beauty a model for destruction. It will be amazing and disheartening to them now to learn that it will return to the war a better ship than it was before.

The West Virginia’s 32,600-ton mass lay deep in the water when the Japanese flew away. It listed far to port, its starboard bilge hooked into the adjacent battleship Tennessee.

Seven torpedoes had hit its port side, blowing out a series of gashes above and below the armor belt 120 feet long and so wide from lip to lip that two tall men could stand, one on the other’s shoulders, in the vent.

The boat deck was a shattered mass. Bombs laid open four decks that way an earthquake might tear away the wall of a four-story building, leaving the rooms indecently exposed. Up on the bridge, Capt. Mervyn S. Bennion had lain grievously wounded, refusing to be moved, and there he died. Posthumously he was awarded his country’s highest honor, the Congressional Medal.

Japan’s dive bombers did their work well on the West Virginia. The heavy bomb abaft the bridge that had damaged all the upper works had pushed one deck clear down upon another, and a five-inch gun in a rended casemate fell a full deck below, as if sprung from a trapdoor.

The heavy armor belt showed the marks of six torpedoes. Another tore into its vitals under the stern, breaking the rudder.

Inside, the West Virginia looked as if she had been crumpled like paper in a giant hand. When the engineers went to work on the West Virginia, almost the only point in its favor was that the ship was not capsized. The great slash in its port side was too large for any patch. Delicate matching of the timber frames to the lines of its hull was out of the question, for the sides of the ship had writhed in their agony, and it no longer fitted its blueprints.

The engineers decided to use cofferdams, watertight chambers that could be built and attached to the ship. So huge cofferdams were built, their wooden sections braced with steel. They were lowered, bolted to the hull as on other ships, and meeting so as to form one tremendous outwall. The cofferdam was further secured by long steel rods running vertically upward from their attachments inside the timber structure to A-frames fastened to the deck above.

The support from the top was given by frames of steel I-beams, from which the cofferdams hung as from a coat hanger.

Now for the troublesome problem of sealing at the bottom, where a snug fitting of the wood was impracticable: Hundreds of tons of tremie concrete were poured from hoppers into funnels high above the water. This quick-setting cement, which hardens under water, oozed through thick pipes and formed about the West Virginia’s uneven crevasses far below. It hardened and made the cofferdam part of the ship watertight.

As the pumps strained to suck out the fouled sea inside, the West Virginia rose, inch by inch. Each new day disclosed a new surface ring of oil and black muck from the harbor bottom marking on the cofferdam the laborious progress of the ship’s flotation.

During this time, the workers lived close ashore in rude huts built for them so they could stay near the job. They came to work on foot, over a bridge laid on floats. These were sailors all. The “yard workmen,” civilians, had their customary quarters elsewhere, and were taken to and from the ship by boat.

When the time came to nurse the West Virginia over the sill and into dry dock, the engineers held their breath, for the battleship now was in great danger of striking some small obstruction that would rupture it again.

On the keel blocks, the West Virginia had to take rough treatment to remove the concrete. The only workable way was to blast it out with small sticks of dynamite.

This done, the job before Admiral Furlong’s big and hard-bitten organization could be stated simply, but the implications were staggering. They just had to rebuild a large portion of the ship. The compartments below decks were half-filled with rubble — rotting stuff that exuded an overpowering stench. Discoveries odd and gruesome were frequent as the men set about righting and cleansing the charnel. This work was arduous and discouraging, but the work crews, supervised by the West Virginia’s own officers and men who treated the maimed battleship as a mother would tend a sick child, carried on.

There were instances of heroism in the salvage that deserve to go permanently into the annals of Dec. 7. One day an unexploded 1,750-pound bomb was discovered, held in a section of steel that it had penetrated. An officer risked his life to unscrew the live fuses.

Another time the workers came upon the uninjured air flask of a Japanese torpedo. The officers spent an uncomfortable time searching for the warhead. They came to the conclusion that it had dropped off before the fish entered the ship. This torpedo, weirdly, was encircled, when found, by one of the ship’s barber chairs.

Workmen prowling the ruins below decks made several tragic discoveries of the type that can only be expected when a city of more than a thousand men is hurled to the bottom of the sea in a space of minutes.

An incidental point of interest is that the West Virginia yielded to the cleanup crews a fine reservoir of powder that conceivably will be used to propel missiles at the Japanese. The powder was not in usable condition when recovered, but was suitable for re-blending.

The electrical equipment, with its hundreds of miles of wiring, was also brought on deck and cleaned preparatory to overhaul. Some 50 specialists from General Electric, which had built the motors and generators, were brought from the mainland for the complex rewiring. The taxpayer may rest assured that the Navy isn’t throwing away anything that can be fixed.

Summing up the West Virginia job, Admiral Furlong said: “We built her new from the inside out. We went right to the bottom, like a dentist drilling out a rotten tooth.”