December 7, 1941. Seventy-two years ago. I was twelve, and vividly remember lying on the living room floor on the following morning, reading the morning paper. I still see the pictures; smoke, basket masts, water lapping at the base of the turrets, small boats tiny among the sunk and burning battleships. There are not many of us left who were alive on that day, not many of us left who remember.
Guts and valor are words not usually associated with inanimate objects, but ships are not inanimate objects. Ships are live, living things. Ships, as well as men, can be tough and resilient. Such were the ships of Battleship Row.
0755 SUNDAY, 7 DECEMBER 1941
A quiet, peacetime Sunday morning. Seven battleships swung gently at their moorings; Maryland, Oklahoma, Tennessee, West Virginia, Arizona, Nevada and California. Pacific Fleet flagship Pennsylvania was in drydock. When the attack came, half their crews were ashore, and most of the officers. None had steam up, for it was Sunday, and all was at peace. Except Nevada. Nevada had steam. Nevada could move. At the height of the attack, with burning and exploding ships all around her, already severely hurt by a torpedo to her port side, Nevada, under Lt. Commander Francis J. Thomas, senior officer aboard, broke out her big battle ensign and stood down the channel, heading for the open sea. Sailors on the burning ships cheered and threw their caps in the air, but Nevada’s gallant sortie was short lived. Five Japanese dive bombers laid her low, beaching her.
The battleships were ultimately raised and rebuilt, those that were salvageable. They rejoined the fleet, but the war had passed them by. It was a carrier war now, and the World War 1 era battleships were too slow, could not keep up with the fast carriers. They were relegated to fire support, and accompanied the Marines in their march across the Pacific, bombarding the beaches, their 14 and 16 inch guns trained on palm trees instead of dreadnoughts, declared unfit to do the job for which they were built. Until Surigao.
SURIGAO STRAIT, 0351 TO 0409, 25 OCTOBER 1944
Vice Admiral Nishimura, with a force of battleships, cruisers and destroyers, came steadily down the strait, headed for the Leyte beaches and the soft-skinned, vulnerable transports, still loaded with troops. Standing across his path was Admiral Oldendorf, and six old fire support battleships, all but Mississippi on Battleship Row that Sunday morning in December. The other five were California, Tennessee, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. Oldendorf put his weary old battleships in line ahead, a Battle Line, as battleships had fought since the 17th century, and waited for Nishimura. At 0351 the big guns lit the sky. Oldendorf brought his big ships across the Japanese front, crossing the T, the dream of every admiral down the centuries, doing to the Japanese what Togo had done to the Russians at Tsushima nearly forty years earlier. The Japanese fought back, but when Nishimura turned away his battleships were gone, along with most of his heavy cruisers.
Surigao was the last battleship to battleship action of WWII, and very likely the last big gun surface action battleship fight the world is likely to see, and it was fought by ships that had been sunk at Pearl Harbor and returned to life. Ships, like men, can be judged by their deeds, and some, like the ships of Battleship Row, by their sheer stubbornness, their refusal easily to die. Ships, like men, are alive, and though it took the ships of Battleship Row almost three years, they gained their revenge in the only way they knew how. With their guns.
Torn by bombs, wracked by fire
They settled slowly to the harbor floor
Breathing their last, or so some thought
But not they
Rising, they joined their kind
Who scorned them now
As the young scorn the old
They did their job
Plodding the vastness of the central sea
Island to island
A supporting cast
Gaining no praise
No, that was for the young
That blessed night
When called upon to be themselves
Themselves and more