Salvage at Pearl Harbor
The attack on Pearl Harbor
left the Pacific Fleet in a state of chaos and impotence. Japan's goal
had been achieved: The U.S. Navy was unable to oppose the Japanese
invasion of Southwest Asia, the Philippines and islands of the South
Twenty-one ships of the
Pacific Fleet had been sunk or damaged. Of that number, eight
battleships were casualties, five sunk and three damaged. The main
battle line of the fleet was out of action.
Divers emerge from the sunken wreck of USS Arizona, May 25, 1943. U.S. Naval Historical Center photo
Of growing concern was the
location and intention of the Japanese navy. Fleet commanders at Pearl
Harbor ordered their officers to assemble a priority list of ships that
could be put back into service. This could then allow the fleet the
opportunity to prepare for battle and form strategies.
Fortunately, the fleet had
sunk in shallow water, a circumstance that made salvage operations
feasible. On December 14, 1941, Commander James Steele began to direct
salvage operations. On January 9, 1942 he was relieved by Captain Wallin,
who formed a salvage organization consisting of Navy officers and
civilian contractors, such as Mr. Matthew Dillingham, Pacific Bridge
Company and Morrison-Knudson.
Divers standing in front of a decompression chamber, while they were
working to salvage ships at Pearl Harbor.
U.S. Naval Historical Center photo NH63921.
The civilian groups provided
Wallin with the necessary tools and expertise to get the job done. In
particular, the Pacific Bridge Co. recommended the use of underwater
concrete to seal the holes of the ships in lieu of building sheet-steel
As salvage began, Wallin's
first priority was the recovery of antiaircraft guns and directors from the
stricken ships. This armament and equipment were then used to bolster
the island's defenses as well as being provided to other ships. With the
priorities for salvage set, work schedules around the clock were set in
motion for the ships' crews and the Navy shipyard workers.
As he wrote about the
salvage operation, there was "a dire shortage of pumping equipment,
lumber and other materials. . . . However, the spirit of the times was
to do the best with what we had."
The hazards for such an
operation were high. Poisonous gas and unexploded ordnance were
ever-present dangers that could result in fire, explosion and death.
Hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous and highly flammable gas, was a particular
problem, reportedly causing at least one fatal explosion. Sticking to a priority list, Captain Wallin began work on the less
damaged ships so they could return to service as soon as possible.
By late 1944, Captain Wallin
and his salvage teams had completed their task. The greatest maritime
salvage operation the world had ever witnessed was history. Eighteen of
twenty-one vessels had been returned to service. Supposedly insurmountable
obstacles had been overcome by courage and skillful engineering. Lack of
materials, fire and gas hazards, removal of explosives, extensive diving
in hazardous waters and the removal of bodies were but a few of the
major problems facing the salvage workers. In a cooperative effort, the
civilian companies and the military authorities had achieved what others
had deemed impossible. Overshadowed often by the disastrous day of
infamy, it is a small footnote of history yet to be fully explored.