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The Myth That “Eight Battleships Were Sunk” At Pearl Harbor

Every year as December 7 approaches we hear and read that eight battleships were sunk at Pearl Harbor. That is even repeated in a 2001 article by HNN staff on the HNN website debunking movie myths about Pearl Harbor.

It didn’t happen.

Eight battleships were there. Two were “lost in action,” the Navy’s term for damage that permanently destroys a ship’s usefulness. None were “sunk,” which means disappearing below the sea surface (the most obvious but not the only way to become lost in action). Pearl Harbor is shallow, with only a few feet of water separating the battleship’s bottoms from the harbor bottom. No capital ship could disappear below the waves in a shallow harbor.

Here is what happened to each of the eight battleships during and after the attack: Pennsylvania was in dry dock when the attack began and suffered only superficial damage caused when a destroyer in the same dry dock exploded. (Sinking a capital ship in dry dock is physically impossible, even if the dry dock is flooded.) Maryland was also lightly damaged. Both ships were seaworthy later that month. Tennessee suffered more damage, but was seaworthy early in 1942. California and West Virginia were torpedoed and settled onto the bottom of the harbor, their main decks well above water. If they had suffered the same damage at sea, they would have been sunk, but the shallowness of the harbor saved them — illustrating the foolishness of attacking ships in port. Both were repaired, with many improvements, and went to sea again. Nevada was the only battleship in motion during the attack. Her crew ran her aground to prevent sinking. Oklahoma capsized, and the forward magazine of Arizona exploded. These are the two battleships that actually were lost in action. Visitors to the Arizona memorial see nothing above water, but that is because the Navy removed the ship’s superstructures, guns and turrets, which would otherwise be mostly above water today.

The six surviving battleships fought in decisive battles later in the war. On D-Day, Nevada shelled German emplacements behind the Normandy beaches, with devastating effect. The other five survivors shelled many Japanese-held Pacific islands before the Marines and Army landed on the beaches. When the U.S. invaded the Philippines, the Japanese sent three naval forces to ambush American troop ships. One of them, with two Japanese battleships, came up the Surigao Strait, where West Virginia, Tennessee, California, Maryland, and Pennsylvania (all allegedly had been “sunk” three years earlier at Pearl Harbor) were on shore-shelling duty, together with Mississippi. After U.S. destroyers sank one of the Japanese battleships with torpedoes, the U.S. battleships sank the other one with gunfire. This was only time in history that U.S. battleships ever crossed an enemy’s “T” — the maneuver for which battleships were originally designed and built. And it was the last time that any battleships of any navy fired on each other in battle.

Despite initial appearances, the attack on Pearl Harbor was an abject strategic failure. The Japanese attacked a fleet in port, where it is hard to cause permanent loss of a capital ship and where repair facilities are already nearby. They attacked obsolete ships and in so doing taught the U.S. Navy from the very beginning to rely on aircraft carriers rather than battleships. The Japanese attacked without any guarantee that the most valuable U.S. ships — the carriers — would be present, and all the U.S. carriers were safely elsewhere on December 7. At Midway six months later, those same American carriers sank two-thirds of the Japanese carrier fleet, inflicting a wound from which the Japanese navy never recovered. And the Japanese ignored the unglamorous target that truly would have crippled the U.S. Navy for perhaps a year or more: the oil tanks next to Pearl Harbor. Without the ability to refuel at Pearl, the U.S. Navy would have had to retreat to San Diego, San Francisco Bay, and Puget Sound.

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