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NEWS | Dec. 7, 2021

Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard remembers USS Oklahoma

By Marc Ayalin Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility

A ceremony honoring the Sailors of the USS Oklahoma (BB 37) was hosted on Ford Island today as part of a joint Navy and National Park Service multi-event commemoration of the 80th Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

During the ceremony, Sailors assigned to Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility (PHNSY & IMF) escorted families of USS Oklahoma Sailors and invited guests as they viewed a historic photo display that recounts the history of the Oklahoma from the day of the attack until the ship entered dry dock in 1944.  These photos were selected by PHNSY & IMF and the National Park Service to highlight the difficult task of salvaging the heavily damaged battleship.

For Carol Sowar of Albuquerque, N.M. her visit to the USS Oklahoma Memorial was emotional, yet redeeming. Sowar is the niece of Harold and William Trapp, two Sailors who died when the Oklahoma was torpedoed and sunk. This summer, the Trapp brothers’ remains were positively confirmed through DNA analysis by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) forensic laboratory and were subsequently honored with a full military burial.

“We are here to pay respects to all the men on the Oklahoma,” Sowar said. “We were one of the very fortunate families whose relatives were identified. Meanwhile, I think it’s important for younger generations to remember what was sacrificed for them and to remember what people have done so they can live free.”

Additionally, two members of the American Rosie the Riveter Association came to honor their friend’s brother, Charles Harris who also lost his life on the Oklahoma. For the two “Rosies,” Marian Wynn and Mae Krier, attending this year’s event was also about a tribute to the women who worked in factories and shipyards during World War II. Wynn was a pipe welder at Kaiser Shipyard in Richmond, Calif., and Krier was a riveter who built aircraft bombers for Boeing in Seattle.

“We still remember vividly the day Pearl Harbor was bombed,” Krier said. “It was terrible and of course we were young and naïve but it didn’t take long for us to realize what had happened to our country. All our boys were enlisting immediately and it just took the heart out of our small communities.”

After the onset of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the legacies of both PHNSY & IMF and the foundered Oklahoma became intrinsically linked as shipyard workers were among its first responders. Pearl Harbor Navy Yard civilian workers, organized by Julio DeCastro, were credited with rescuing 32 Oklahoma crew members from the capsized battleship, by cutting and chipping through the bulkheads to reach the men inside. 

In the months following, the shipyard righted and refloated the ship in one of the most challenging salvage operations in U.S. naval history. Oklahoma was struck by at least nine torpedoes in the opening moments of the attack, subsequently capsizing within twelve minutes.  Given the extent of the damage inflicted on the nearly 30-year old ship, the Navy decided Oklahoma was too badly damaged to return to active service.  There was, however, a significant amount of material that could be reclaimed and reused on other ships. 

Considered one of the most difficult salvage jobs in the history of Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard, reclamation efforts began in the latter part of 1942, during which a 40-foot-high wooden support structure was erected on the bottom of Oklahoma’s hull. An intricate system of 21 winches, hauling blocks and pulleys were constructed along the coastal edges of Ford Island adjacent to Oklahoma. Over the course of three months, from March to June 1943, the ship was finally righted in the water, where divers and civilian workers installed a series of patches and cleared away wreckage to refloat the ship.

The ship was successfully refloated on Nov. 3, 1943 and on December 28, she entered the Navy Yard’s recently completed Dry Dock Number Two for additional repairs necessary for her to be seaworthy.  Oklahoma was officially decommissioned Sept. 1, 1944 and the ship’s hull was later sold for scrap in 1946. In May1947, Oklahoma’s final voyage began, under tow, heading for California. While enroute, the ship and her escorts encountered foul weather and she sank, approximately 500 hundred miles southeast of Pearl Harbor.

One of the guest speakers at the ceremony was Capt. Richard Jones, the 48th Commander of PHNSY & IMF. During his speech, Jones explained how the Navy will continue to honor all three ships lost during the attacks, USS Oklahoma, USS Utah and USS Arizona, when they return to active duty as three new Virginia-class submarines, inspiring the next generation of Sailors. Yet, despite this rebirth from ship to submarine, Jones emphasized the importance of honoring the memories of those who lost their lives 80 years ago along with the shipyard workers who responded tirelessly during and after the attacks, as it holds an enduring effect as to why the shipyard must always do its best in keeping ships fit to fight.

“The legacy of the Sailors, Marines and civilians are not confined to physical artifacts, memorials or ships,” Jones said. “Their lives, their sacrifice, their honor, courage and commitment are alive and thriving in each of us. This is why we wake up each morning and seek to bring our best – our Nō Ka ‘Oi spirit.”

PHNSY & IMF is a field activity of NAVSEA and a one-stop regional maintenance center for the Navy’s surface ships and submarines. It is the largest industrial employer in the state of Hawaii, with a combined civilian and military workforce of approximately 7,100. It is the most comprehensive fleet repair and maintenance facility between the U.S. West Coast and the Far East, strategically located in the heart of the Pacific, being about a week’s steaming time closer to potential regional contingencies in the Indo-Pacific.

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