David C. Henley: ‘Old unsinkable:’ USS Nevada survived Pearl Harbor and then some
Today marks the 76th anniversary of the Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor which plunged the United States into World War II against Japan and its allies, Germany and Italy.
More than 2,500 U.S. service members and civilians were killed and nearly 1,500 were injured at Pearl Harbor, and eight battleships, three cruisers, three destroyers and four other warships were sunk or heavily damaged that terrible early morning on Dec. 7, 1941.
The 583-foot battleship USS Nevada was one of those ships that was almost lost, but the dramatic story behind its deliverance from the jaws of death by a 100-foot wooden Navy tugboat has received scant attention from most military historians.
Moored in Pearl Harbor’s “Battleship Row,” the 29,000-ton, 25-year-old Nevada received direct hits from the carrier-based Japanese bombers and torpedo aircraft shortly after the attack began at 7:55 a.m. Despite heavy damage and raging fires that enveloped the ship, it managed to get up steam, slip its moorings and inch up the narrow channel in an effort to run for the open sea.
But the Nevada soon developed a dangerous list and was in danger of sinking or capsizing, which would have bottled up the harbor entrance. So it changed course and headed for Hospital Point, where it could be run aground and beached.
As continuing waves of low-flying Japanese aircraft further crippled the Nevada and brought it to a standstill during its struggle to reach Hospital Point, the 325-ton tug USS Hoga, which also doubled as a fireboat, came to its rescue. Playing streams of water from its four hoses onto the Nevada’s burning decks and nearly-destroyed forward section, the Hoga’s 10-man crew, despite billowing flames and smoke, maneuvered their little ship alongside the Nevada and pushed it to Hospital Point where it was beached.
But soon the tide rose, the Nevada floated free and, once again, was in danger of sinking or capsizing. For the second time, the Hoga came to the battleship’s assistance, pushing the disabled ship to Waipio Point adjacent to a cane field where it was beached for good.
Fifty members of the Nevada’s crew were killed and 109 were wounded that morning, but its gunners were able to shoot down at least three Japanese planes. Days later, the Nevada was refloated, patched up and sailed under its own power to the Puget Sound Navy Shipyard in Washington state where it underwent a year-long, $23 million repair, refitting and modernization.
Then it went back into action, providing gunfire support for U.S. landings in the Japanese-held Aleutian Islands, the June 6, 1944 Normandy landings and the invasion of Okinawa, where 12 of its crew were killed by Japanese suicide or “kamikaze” aircraft that crashed onto the Nevada’s decks.
Following Japan’s surrender in early September, 1945, which ended World War II, the aging and obsolete USS Nevada served as a target ship during the U.S. atomic tests on Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. Despite heavy damage, it refused to sink, giving it the nickname “old unsinkable.”
But on July 31, 1948, life ended for the 32-year-old USS Nevada, which had been commissioned at the Charleston Navy Yard near Boston, Mass., on March 12, 1916. Hopelessly damaged and still radioactive from the earlier atomic test blasts, the old battleship was sunk by U.S. Navy gunfire approximately 65 miles off the southwest coast of Oahu in the Hawaiian Islands.
As for the tugboat USS Hoga, which had been commissioned and assigned to Pearl Harbor duty less than six months before the Dec. 7, 1941 attack:
In 1948, it was decommissioned and transferred on indefinite loan to the Port of Oakland to serve as a fireboat. Renamed the Port of Oakland and, later, the City of Oakland, it spent nearly 40 years combatting shipboard and waterfront fires and rescuing passengers and crewmen from stricken pleasure craft and commercial ships. It also carried President Jimmy Carter when he toured the Oakland Harbor in 1980. One highlight of Carter’s visit was his playful aiming of the Hoga’s main fire nozzle at the accompanying press boat.
In 1994, the obsolete, 53-year-old Hoga was returned to the Navy and moved to the U.S. Maritime Administration’s reserve or “mothball” fleet at nearby Suisun Bay.
But in 2015, it began a new career, when it was carried by a cargo ship from Suisun Bay to New Orleans via the Panama Canal. It was then towed up the Mississippi River to the Arkansas River and onto the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum at North Little Rock, Ark., where it joined the World War II submarine USS Razorback as the museum’s prime attractions. Both vessels may by toured by the public, and the museum’s web site lists its hours and days of operation as well as histories of the Hoga and Razorback.
Today, the USS Hoga and the Coast Guard cutter Taney, which was moored in Honolulu Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 and now serves as a museum ship in Baltimore, are the only still-surviving warships present at Pearl Harbor 76 years ago.
David C. Henley is publisher emeritus of the Lahontan Valley News and Fallon Eagle-Standard. His book “Battleship Nevada: The Epic Story of the Ship That Wouldn’t Sink” is for sale at the Nevada State Museum in Carson City.