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Pearl Harbor resurrection: the warships that rose to fight again (+video)

The attack on Pearl Harbor 71 years ago left a tangled mess of burning and shattered warships. But in 'one of history's greatest salvage jobs,' many of the sunken ships rose to fight the Axis.

By Staff Writer / December 7, 2012

The bow of the Arleigh-Burke class destroyer USS Michael Murphy passes by the USS Arizona Memorial Friday, Dec. 7, at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Many of the Pearl Harbor Veterans gathered at the World War II Valor In The Pacific National Monument remembering the 71st anniversary of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in Honolulu.

Eugene Tanner/AP

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The attack on Pearl Harbor was a shocking defeat for the United States military. Japanese aircraft left a wrecking yard of burning and shattered warships in their wake. It’s a story every US school child still learns today.

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Peter Grier is The Christian Science Monitor's Washington editor. In this capacity, he helps direct coverage for the paper on most news events in the nation's capital.

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On the 71st anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, veterans and their families will gather at the World War II Memorial in Washington. CBS news Chip Reid reports.

But it’s not the whole story. Even as the smoke cleared the US Navy was hard at work untangling the mess and salvaging the fleet. Many of the sunken warships rose again to fight the Axis. Only three were damaged beyond repair.

“The salvage and restoration of those ships is a saga of expertise, tenacity, hard work, and invincible optimism,” wrote University of Maryland historian Gordon Prange in his classic history of Pearl Harbor, “At Dawn We Slept.”

When the waves of Japanese torpedo planes and aerial bombers swept over the US Hawaiian naval base their primary targets were seven battleships berthed alongside quays in Pearl Harbor proper and the Pacific fleet flagship USS Pennsylvania, which was in dry dock at the time.

Five of these battleships were sunk outright. That does not mean they were all blown apart by a rain of Japanese munitions.

“The available documentary evidence suggests that, of those five, the Oklahoma and Nevada were lost because of design defects, the West Virginia was simply overwhelmed by force her defenses were not meant to thwart, and the California was sunk because of the performance of her officers and crew,” wrote Thomas C. Hone in a Naval History Magazine survey of the damage republished in 2012.

The USS Arizona was destroyed by an explosion in its forward magazine that thoroughly wrecked the vessel. It lies on the floor of the harbor to this day, serving as a memorial to those who died on Dec. 7, 1941.

Three US cruisers, three destroyers, a target ship, and a minelayer were also sunk or heavily damaged.

Recovery work started immediately. Within three months most of the smaller ships and three of the battleships – the USS Pennsylvania, the USS Maryland, and the USS Tennessee – were either returned to service or refloated and steamed to the continental US for final repairs.

Resurrection of the rest of the fleet took longer. The shallow water of the anchorage made work on the battleships possible, but not easy. The USS Nevada, for instance, had one large and many small holes in her hull. Her interior was full of water and many compartments were burned out.

“Most significantly, her deficiencies in watertight integrity, which had led to her sinking in the first place, now had to be made good under very difficult circumstances,” notes the official Navy History and Heritage Command account of the effort.

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