Entombed, But Never Truly Gone: The USS Oklahoma

One of the great perks of my job with the National Personnel Records Center is working with records for those who took part in major historical events. Earlier at the office, I received a request for records on a World War II U.S. Navy veteran. Pretty standard operating procedure for me since they are a routine request. While glancing at the veteran’s information, I paused: Date of Death – 12/7/1941. A Navy veteran dying on December 7th? My mind instantly assumed this veteran was killed in the attack on Pearl Harbor. I cracked open the ‘brick’ [named for the small brown service jacket holding the documents] and slowly absorbed the mountain of historical information. My assumption was proved correct as I found several Naval speed letters and telegrams from the War Department informing the family that he had been killed in the attack. At least that was the assumption in 1941 since he last duty station was the battleship USS Oklahoma. The family didn’t receive official confirmation until February 1942 as he was still unaccounted for after three months. He was one among the nearly four hundred unidentified sailors recovered from the ship. His fate was not uncommon with many Pearl Harbor casualties, especially if they were trapped inside vessels. Between December 1941 and June 1944, the Navy recovered hundreds of remains from the USS Oklahoma and other ships and interred them in Hawaii. Colleagues came by my desk looking at the record and were astonished at the story. The veteran re-enlisted on the USS Oklahoma in 1940 where it was moored on Ford Island in Pearl Harbor. What a twist of fate for him and hundreds more as they were the first target in the infamous attack. On top of asking for his service record, they requested all his awards as well, which were many given any veteran who died at Pearl Harbor automatically qualifies for several awards, including the Pearl Harbor Commemorative Medal. You receive a unique sense of satisfaction when handling something like this. It’s hard to describe; intrigue, humility, astonishment, sadness? Me personally, it’s all the above.

“Sailors mill about on the rolling deck of USS Oklahoma during heavy seas” (Image courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command and the USS Oklahoma Association)

The story of the USS Oklahoma begins on October 26, 1912 when the keel was laid down in Camden, New Jersey. It was the first of a new class of battleships, coded Nevada-class. It was quickly pressed into service following its commission on May 2, 1916 as World War I ravaged Europe. At first it patrolled the Eastern Seaboard, but in August 1918, it joined Battleship Division Six in protecting shipping convoys across the Atlantic. The USS Oklahoma never saw combat action in the Atlantic; the only casualties were six sailors who died from the Spanish flu pandemic. Between 1918 and 1941, the USS Oklahoma jumped from training exercises, remodeling, and state visits in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. During the Spanish Civil War in 1936, it evacuated stranded U.S. and European refugees off the coast of Bilbao in northern Spain. A series of structural and engineering accidents in the late 1930s brought it to Pearl Harbor where it would remain permanently moored until all upgrades and repairs were made. By then though, the decision was made the retire the battleship by the spring of 1942.

The U.S. Navy battleship USS Oklahoma (BB-37) passing Alcatraz prison, San Francisco Bay, California (USA), during the 1930s (Image courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

The USS Oklahoma was one of eight battleships hit during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Torpedo bombers from the Japanese aircraft carriers Akagi and Kaga hit the ship three times, almost rupturing the hull. Sailors scrambled to the main decks to return fire, but ammunition was locked in the armory. Boiler rooms and the aft bulkhead were then destroyed. This resulted in the ship capsizing. Two more torpedoes hit the ship as it continued to sink into the harbor. The ship’s large masts prevented it from completely exposing the keel. As the attack progressed, hundreds of sailors desperately tried to escape the capsizing ship. Sailors and officers like John C. England, James R. Ward, and Francis C. Flaherty helped get men to safety at the expense of their lives from the USS Oklahoma. They were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor with the exception of England who only received a Purple Heart. Another sailor, John A. Austin received a posthumous Navy Cross for his actions rescuing fifteen sailors. While reading the story of the USS Oklahoma, I’m trying to picture the veteran whose record I read struggling to survive and make it off the sinking battleship. What was going through his mind we’ll never know, but he probably offered up a sundry of prayers and let his survival instincts take over as the sounds of explosions and the buzz of warplanes was deafening. A fire broke out from the boiler rooms and engulfed the ship’s stern undoubtedly killing more sailors.

Fast forward months later, the clean-up of Pearl Harbor was still in progress. Navy officials determined that the USS Oklahoma was salvageable and began work in July 1942. The capsized ship was a navigational hazard and it required twenty-one derricks to parbuckle the ship and through it all a Navy crew was tasked with pulling out human remains. Many of the bodies decomposed after months in saltwater and were unidentifiable based on forensic techniques at the time. The unidentified bodies were turned over to the American Graves Registration Service and buried in Hawaii. By November 1942, basic repairs to the hull were completed and its armaments and guns were removed. in September 1944, the decision was made to de-commission the USS Oklahoma and in 1946, the hull was sold at auction to the Moore Drydock Company in California. It was here that the ultimate fate of the battleship came to fruition. A storm on May 17, 1947 finally sank the USS Oklahoma as it was being tugged from Hawaii to California. The wreck has not been located and the USS Oklahoma remains lost to this day. The crew that served on the ship though are not lost to time and their remains continue to be identified.

Salvage operations, USS Oklahoma (BB-37), sunk during the Pearl Harbor attack. A piece of structural wreckage, cut away by divers at about frame #70 port side, is hoisted out of the water (Image courtesy of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)

Ever since the end of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the federal government has carried out numerous programs aimed at identifying the missing and dead servicemembers. In the nine years since Pearl Harbor, only a few dozen sailors from the USS Oklahoma were positively identified. The remaining were interred in unmarked graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific. In 2015, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency began utilizing DNA analysis to identify the unknown remains. By the time the program ended in September 2021, 396 sailors and Marines were positively identified from the USS Oklahoma, with the remaining reinterred in Hawaii. Programs such as this help to not only bring closure to families who lost someone in the attack, but to honor those who died in the the country’s momentous entry into the Second World War. Some are lost forever, but their memories are kept alive by the historical research and forensic work carried out by the Armed Forces, historians, and survivors’ families.

For the sailor whose record landed on my desk, Fireman 1st Class Andrew Schmitz was accounted for on September 18, 2019 and returned home to Amelia Court House, Virginia.

U.S. Navy Fireman 1st Class, Andrew Schmitz (Image courtesy of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency)

2 thoughts on “Entombed, But Never Truly Gone: The USS Oklahoma

  1. Pingback: Unbreakable Navajo Marines: WWII Code-Talkers | History Here and now

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