The War Years

Building 1 and the water tower, two shipyard landmarks that still stand today.

Photo: Courtesy of Pearl harbor naval shipyard

By the evening of Dec. 7, 1941, more than 2,300 men were dead, eight ships sunk and 13 additional vessels crippled in the oil-blackened harbor. While Japanese planes still flew overhead, Navy Yard employees joined sailors and Marines to save men trapped in burning ships.

Wilbert Ho was only 12 years old at the time, but he remembers the radio announcement that called all Pearl Harbor employees to the shipyard after the attack. His father, William, worked as a machinist there.

“I didn’t see him for several days after that,” says Ho, now 80. “They worked their asses off, only taking breaks to eat and sleep. When he finally came home, he was exhausted.”

The next three years at the Navy Yard were a nonstop race to return as many of the ravaged ships as possible to war. “How do you salvage 21 vessels that were sunk or damaged? No one had ever done it before,” says Daniel Martinez, historian for the USS Arizona Memorial. “Their task was to clean up the carnage of that day and to move the Navy forward, and that’s what happened. A number of men and women turned this symbol of defeat into one of resurrection, but they’ve been forgotten in my view.”

Under the direction of Capt. Homer Wallin, workers repaired, overhauled or salvaged 7,000 ships during the war. Civilian employment at the Yard peaked in the spring of 1945, with nearly 25,000 employees, who worked an average of 62.1 hours per week.

 The Cleanup

A diver on the USS Arizona

Photo: courtesy of the State Archives Furlong Collection

Oil-covered divers emerge from the wreck of the USS Arizona, one of the few ships that workers could not repair after the attack. Divers performed some of the most dangerous salvage work, descending into the darkness of submerged ships to survey damage and secure valves and oil tanks, among other tasks. Tom Cary, a diver working on the USS Utah, died in 1943 after reporting that his air supply had been cut off.

Other employees worked under less life-threatening conditions, but their jobs were still dirty and demanding. Workers removed debris from sunken ships and gathered human remains into canvas bags. They drained fuel from broken ships and stripped weapons systems and ammunition from their decks for reuse.

Photo: courtesy of the State Archives Furlong Collection

But even tedious salvage work could turn deadly. In February 1942, Lt. James Clarkson was checking the water pressure of a compartment of the USS Nevada when he collapsed and died. It was hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas caused by the decomposition of bodies, clothing and other organic matter. Machinist Peter Devries, who entered the compartment to help, also died within minutes.


Righting the Oklahoma

Photo: courtesy of Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard


One of the most disturbing images of the attack is the capsized battleship Oklahoma. Its mast is buried in the harbor floor; its hull is exposed like the belly of a whale. At least five torpedoes had blasted the Okie, which rolled over within 12 minutes of the first hit, taking 500 crewmembers with it. Twenty men from the Navy Yard’s Shop 11 rescued 32 trapped crewmembers over the next two days, prying them out of five separate ship compartments. Guided by tapping within the ship, Shop 11 continued to search for survivors for several more days, but 429 men couldn’t be saved.

In March 1943, after a year of planning by contract engineers from the Pacific Bridge Co., workers began the painstaking process of righting the battleship, which measured 543 feet in length—twice as long as a modern 777 airliner. The feat of engineering involved connecting 21 cables to a network of shore winches, anchored by huge concrete blocks on Ford Island, to 40-foot-high wooden A-frames that ran across the hull’s bottom. Workers monitored the careful pulling of the ship over the next three months, as the Oklahoma gradually, almost imperceptibly, became upright again. By Dec. 28, 1943, the ship had made it to dry dock, where workers removed its guns and superstructure. The Oklahoma was sold to a San Francisco company for scrapping, but sank while being towed to California.

Shipyard workers on the battleship West Virginia, which suffered heavy damage to its decks and hull (photo at left).

Photos: courtesy of the Hawaii State Archives

USS West Virginia

The USS West Virginia (at left and at right) burned for more than a day after the attack, with only its main deck visible above the water’s surface. In a Dec. 9 report, Capt. Homer Wallin wrote that the battleship appeared nearly as lost as the Arizona: “So far as the ship proper is concerned, these vessels may be considered total wrecks.”

Navy Yard workers patched the West Virginia’s damaged hull and refloated the ship. In dry dock, plumbers, carpenters, electricians and others went to work on the ship’s ravaged hull and decks. By April 1943, the ship was strong enough to depart for Puget Sound Navy Yard in Washington for a complete rebuilding. In the coming years, the West Virginia would participate in critical battles around the Philippines and Japan, rightfully earning a position near the USS Missouri when the Japanese formerly surrendered at Tokyo Bay.

“Pearl Harbor became the center for defense and offense of the Pacific. Facilities went on a 24-hour basis, in blackouts and uncertainty. Men worked long, hard hours, with little sleep and little recreation. Battleships came from the bottom of Pearl Harbor; new warships from the Mainland shipyards came in for supplies and ammunition; repair records were broken as the work of keeping the fleet ‘fit to fight’ went into high gear.” —Adm. William Furlong, commandant, Navy Yard Pearl Harbor in 1945

A Fighting Chance

On May 27, 1942, the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (below) limped into Pearl Harbor with severe damage from the Battle at Coral Sea. Engineers projected that it would take months to repair the ship, but Adm. Chester Nimitz needed work done within a few days. Cryptanalysts at Pearl Harbor had learned from broken Japanese code that the enemy fleet was headed for Midway, with four carriers. Without the Yorktown, the U.S. Pacific Fleet would have only two. When Yorktown entered dry dock, workers swarmed the carrier and labored day and night to patch up what they could.

Photo: courtesy of Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard

On May 30, with shipyard workers still aboard, the Yorktown departed for Midway—often called “the turning point of the war in the Pacific.” The Yorktown’s planes played a role in taking out all four enemy carriers, severely weakening the Japanese navy and derailing its advance in the Pacific. But the Yorktown, which sustained devastating torpedo damage during the battle, would be the only American carrier not to return home from Midway.

Workers in the woodshop contribute to the salvage effort.

Photo: courtesy of Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard


Untold Stories

Of the 18 warships damaged during the attack on Pearl Harbor, shipyard workers raised or salvaged 16 of them. But wartime censorship prevented most their stories from reaching the public. On Sept. 6, 1942, Nimitz presented the Navy “E” pennant to the Navy Yard for its production efficiency, telling workers, “The tireless devotion of the civilian workers to the tremendous task imposed upon them with the outbreak of hostilities will make one of the proudest memories of this war when it can be told.”

Photo: Courtesy of Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard

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