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NEWS | Dec. 7, 2021

NNSY Ships Played Pivotal Role in Defending Pearl Harbor Attack

By Michael Brayshaw, Deputy Public Affairs Officer Norfolk Naval Shipyard

It was only a day later when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared it “a date which will live in infamy.” 

This December 7th marks the 80th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor which changed the course of world history, thrusting the United States into World War II and by extension transforming the size, workforce, and capacity of Norfolk Naval Shipyard (NNSY).  But in fact, NNSY played a pivotal part in our national defense from the opening moments of the attack, having built many ships stationed at Pearl.  

Norfolk Navy Yard, as NNSY was then known, built the first three of eight Bagley-class destroyers which were all present during the attack.   The lead ship USS Bagley (DD-386), forced into wartime action less than five years after commissioning, was fortunate to have a particularly intrepid and quick-thinking Sailor onboard.  While leaving the mess decks, Radioman Robert Coles saw Japanese planes attacking the valuable concentration of Army airplanes at adjacent Hickam Field.  Manning the .50 caliber machine gun at forward port, Coles was credited with taking down two Japanese bombers before being relieved—all despite no prior training on the gun.  During the two phases of the attack, Bagley is believed to have taken down as many as six planes.  While Bagley was in the thick of the action, another of the NNSY-built destroyers, USS Blue (DD-387) was able to safely slip out to sea.  Meanwhile, USS Helm (DD-388) was the only ship already underway during the attack, and thus took up the defensive helm sailing to the head of the harbor.  The destroyer shot down a plane before engaging a small Japanese submarine only minutes later. Helm endured fire and narrowly avoided direct hits by two 100-lb. bombs that still caused structural damage and flooded compartments.  The destroyer managed to be repaired and get underway only a week later, going on to earn 11 battle stars during the war.     

The NNSY-built USS Tucker (DD-347), commissioned in July 1936, was in the midst of overhaul during the attack, but that did not deter the Mahan-class destroyer from fighting back.  The ship was already firing its .50 caliber machine guns by the time the ship’s general quarters alarm sounded.   According to Tucker’s commanding officer in his report recounting the attack, “it is believed from numerous reports and comments by personnel of this and other ships that [Tucker] fired the first shot fired by the American Forces in Pearl Harbor.”  The commanding officer added Tucker shot down “three or four enemy planes.” 

Another NNSY-built Mahan-class destroyer, USS Downes (DD-375) served as a testament to the indomitable American spirit following the Pearl Harbor attack.   Bombed in drydock and ravaged by fires fed from a rupturing fuel tank, the ship was destroyed and decomissioned June 20, 1942.  However, machinery and equipment were salvaged to form the basis of the new Downes built at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, which retained both the name and hull number.   The recommissioned ship’s first mission was escorting convoys to Pearl Harbor in March 1944, before moving on to blockading Japanese strongholds, bombarding enemy islands, and returning servicemen home from Iwo Jima.  

Of the eight battleships comprising Pearl Harbor’s “Battleship Row,” NNSY had completely modernized USS Arizona (BB-39) from 1929 to 1931.  The ship’s modernization was so thorough and significant it had even attracted President Herbert Hoover for a shipyard visit.  Tragically, mere minutes into the attack, an 1,800-pound bomb penetrated the battleship’s deck and landed in her forward ammunition magazine, triggering a massive explosion and sinking the ship with more than 1,000 crewmembers trapped inside.  Arizona was one of two battleships, along with USS Oklahoma (BB-37), and among the nearly 20 U.S. Navy ships destroyed in the onslaught that cost the lives of more than 2,400 Americans.  While the sunken ship stayed in place to become the famous USS Arizona memorial, three 14-inch guns were salvaged from the wreckage which NNSY installed on USS Nevada (BB-36) during that battleship’s 1942 modernization. 

The memory of Pearl Harbor continued to reverberate in NNSY’s work during World War II.  As the ninth destroyer escort built at the yard, USS Barber (DE-161), commissioned in fall 1943, was named for the three Barber brothers who died at their battle stations when the Oklahoma sank at Pearl Harbor. The ship was sponsored by their mother, Mrs. Peter Barber.

While Roosevelt was accurate in his assessment of a “date which will live in infamy” 80 years ago, he made another prescient declaration toward the end of his Day of Infamy speech.  He said, “no matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.”

Thanks in part to the efforts of the people of NNSY throughout the war in ship construction, maintenance and modernization, Roosevelt proved right once again.