Commemorations were held across the nation Tuesday to memorialize the 80th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese air attack on the U.S. Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor, and I am devoting my column today to the astonishing 32-year history of the battleship USS Nevada, which was heavily damaged during the attack as well as new information about the discovery of the underwater wreck of the ship off the southwest coast of Hawaii.
I was two months shy of my 6th birthday that terrible Sunday morning when nearly 250 Japanese carrier-based bombers, torpedo planes and fighter aircraft attacked Pearl Harbor, and I remember joining my family around the living room radio to hear reports of death and destruction that befell our fleet, military installations and airfields in Honolulu and throughout the island of Oahu.
At 7:55 a.m. on Dec. 7, the Japanese aircraft had descended on Oahu in two consecutive waves, managing to destroy or damage 20 American naval vessels, including eight battleships and over 300 airplanes. More than 2,400 Americans died in the attack, including civilians, and another 1,000 were wounded. The day after the assault, President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress to declare war on Japan, which it promptly did.
The 593-foot, 27,500-ton, 25-year old USS Nevada was one of those eight battleships moored or anchored at Pearl Harbor, and although it had suffered extensive aerial and torpedo damage, it managed to get up steam and escape the unfolding catastrophe. The noted naval historian Gordon W. Prange wrote of the escape, “Out of the pall came a sight so incredible that its viewers could not have been more dumfounded had it been the legendary Flying Dutchman.”
Ensign Joseph W. Taussig Jr., the son and grandson of Navy admirals who had graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy just three months before the attack and was the USS Nevada’s officer of the deck when the Japanese attacked, lost a leg during the battle, but stayed in the Navy, retiring as a captain at the age of 35. In the early 1980s during President Ronald Reagan’s first term in office, he was appointed civilian aide to the Secretary of the Navy. I had met him in Washington, D.C., in the late 1980s, and told him I was writing a book to be titled “Battleship Nevada: The Epic Story of the Ship That Would Not Sink.” I asked him to write a few words that I would use in my chapter on the Pearl Harbor attack, and he immediately consented. A week later, I received in the mail his comments: “We of the old Battleship Nevada manned the best ship in the fleet. No ship, before or since, was awarded more Congressional Medals of Honor and Navy Crosses. One Navy Cross went to a lieutenant commander. All the other awards went to ensigns or below. The average age of our crew was 19.5!” Taussig, one of the Navy Cross awardees, died in 1999 at the age of 79, seven days after the 58th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, which had cost the lives of 50 USS Nevada crewmembers and the wounding of more than 150.
Although the USS Nevada, aflame and listing, was able to move past the other immobile battleships and enter the main channel which led to the open sea, its fuel tanks had also been set afire and Navy authorities, fearing that the giant ship may sink in mid-channel, thus closing it to shipping, ordered two tugboats to assist the Nevada to purposely run aground on the hard bottom at Hospital Point opposite the southern end of Ford Island.
At 9:10 a.m., the Nevada was beached there, its antiaircraft batteries still blazing away at the Japanese, and downing at least three enemy aircraft. An hour or so later, the ship broke free as the tide rose. The tugs reappeared and moved the burning Nevada to the sandy bottom of Waipio Point, with its bow firmly aground. Navy officials decided the ship could be saved, and in early February following temporary repairs, the USS Nevada slowly sailed under its own power to the Navy Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, where it underwent an eight-month $23 million refitting, permanent repairs and modernization before returning to action, using its big guns to support U.S. Army landings on Japanese-held islands in the western Aleutian Islands, and the Normandy and Okinawa invasions.
Following the surrender of Germany in May 1945, and Japan’s surrender four months later, the old and obsolete USS Nevada, which had been built at the Boston Navy Yard in 1916 and served in combat against Germany during World War One, was decommissioned, painted a bright orange, renamed “Scarlet Fever” and served as the bullseye target ship for the “Operations Crossroads” June 1946 atomic testing at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Surrounded by approximately 100 other target vessels, the Nevada incredibly survived the bomb delivered by an Army B-29 and several underwater explosions connected with the atomic testing. But the aging ship’s superstructure had been hopelessly damaged and lingering radioactivity posed a potential risk. Two years later, the USS Nevada was towed 65 miles southwest of Hawaii, and heavy explosives were detonated throughout the ship to sink it. But the Nevada still floated despite the giant explosions. The big guns of the Battleship Iowa and three cruisers, as well as Navy dive bombers, were brought into play, but they, too, were not effective. As a last resort, Navy torpedo bombers dropped bombs on the ship. They proved to be effective: At 2 p.m. on July 31, 1948, an aerial torpedo hit the USS Nevada amidship and she began a starboard list. A half hour later, the 32-year-old warship, which had served heroically in two world wars and had been named “the ship that wouldn’t sink,” capsized and sank, stern first, in five miles of water. The New York Times the following day carried the headline, “Old Unsinkable Comes to Her End in the Pacific,” and the Los Angeles Times headline read, “It Takes An Entire Task Force to Sink Nevada.”
As for the discovery of the USS Nevada wreckage: In mid-May 2020, the news media reported that scientists and maritime archeologists from two U.S. companies, Search Inc. and Ocean Infinity, who had joined together aboard the search vessel, the Pacific Constructor, to hunt for the Nevada, had hit pay dirt. During their quest, James Delgado, Search’s senior vice president, said that, “Out of the darkness appears something, and there was the stern,” he exclaimed when parts of the wreckage came into view. Cameras aboard a submerged robotic immersible also showed the number 36 painted on the stern, which indicated the battleship was designated “USS Nevada (BB-36)” because Nevada was the 36th state to join the Union (in 1864).
It was just five months ago, however, when Delgado and two other scientists who had been aboard the search vessel, gave more complete information concerning their discovery of the Nevada. The three men, in a nautical journal article, wrote that the battleship “lay at roughly defined coordinates in a 100 square-mile ‘search box’ in those 3-mile deep waters 60 miles off Oahu,” and the wreck was located with “autonomous underwater vehicles that covered the 100 square miles of uncharted seabed in a matter of hours. Over the course of a 24-hour period, the wreck site was mapped, revealing a scattered debris field that included the intact, overturned hull of the veteran battleship.
“Among the debris field lay the superstructure, turrets and portions of the ship that had fallen from the surface during five days of prolonged naval gunfire and torpedoes to sink Nevada, a ship which already had the reputation of ‘being too tough to die,’” the men wrote.
Although several photos of the Nevada’s scattered wreckage were available for reproduction, I felt they were too muddied and dark to be published here, and I advise those interested in seeing the photos as well as videos of the wreck to utilize “Google” for their search.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard.