Navy Divers in the Pacific Theater after Pearl Harbor

Divers in the Navy played a significant role in the U.S. military’s salvaging efforts in the Pacific theater after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor during World War II.

Pearl Harbor Map

The National Park Service has a great map, illustrated by Zack Anderson, that shows where the Arizona was berthed during the attack. If you take a close look you can also see the vantage point of Dr. Eric Haakensen (aboard the USS Solace) as he filmed the Arizona exploding.

There were 101 ships in the harbor resting quietly on that fateful day before torpedoes tore through many of them. By mid-morning on December 7, 1941, divers were already “cutting through the hull of the overturned battleship USS Oklahoma to rescue trapped soldiers.”1

Nine torpedoes slammed into the Oklahoma, tipping it over and causing it to capsize. The USS Oklahoma was the largest and most difficult undertaking of the salvage projects. The project required turning it upright and ensuring that the ship would refloat.2

It took more than two months – 72 days – to turn the ship over in 1943. Afterward, the hull was patched in different places before the ship was able to refloat.Two other battleships, the USS Utah and Arizona were not salvageable.

Interestingly enough, some of the salvage work techniques that divers used today were developed during the work that was done at Pearl Harbor during World War II, including “welding underwater with 440 amps and using hydraulic jets to excavate tunnels beneath sunken hulls.”4

U.S. Navy WWII Seabee 1943 diving gear

U.S. Navy WWII Seabee in full deep-water diving gear used by the combat demolition units and deep sea construction divers, 11 December 1943.
Photo: US Navy

Besides the Navy divers playing a significant role in World War II, the Underwater Demolition Teams (UDT) formed with the SeaBees to fight the Germans in 1943. The first UDT combat mission was near Saipan in 1944, also in the Pacific theater. One of the teams even removed 1200 underwater obstacles in two days without any causalities.5

The Underwater Demolition Teams were successful in other parts of the Pacific, including Guam, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. Their success of gathering intelligence and removing obstacles later contributed to the formation of the elite Navy Seals program.6

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Article by Irene Hsiao for Scuba Professionals of Arizona

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