Story of the USS Oklahoma and her lost servicemen


On Dec. 7, 1941, the USS Oklahoma was sunk during a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor entombing hundreds of service members. In 2015, Project Oklahoma began in an effort to identify 388 service members who were unaccounted for. Since then, 355 have been individually accounted for.

One of those service members, Seaman 1st Class Maurice Spangler, born and raised in Defiance, Ohio, will be buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, or “Punchbowl,” in Hawaii on Jan. 4.

Dec. 7, 2021, in a ceremony at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (NMCP), the 33 sailors who could not be identified by DNA were laid to rest with full military honors. In attendance were families of both unidentified and identified sailors

Here is the story of the USS Oklahoma and her lost service members:

In 1911, Congress authorized the building of two battleships — the Nevada and the Oklahoma. They were to be a modern symbol of the power of the United States. The New York Shipbuilding Company of Camden, New Jersey, laid the keel for the USS Oklahoma in October 1912.

These two battleships were to be the first to burn oil as fuel instead of coal. The USS Oklahoma was commissioned at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on May 2, 1916. The commissioning statement of the Oklahoma stated “That it was hoped that the Oklahoma might never become a mere instrument of destruction nor of strife, but a minister of peace and a guardian of rights and interests of mankind, protecting the weak against the strong.”

Attending the commissioning was the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Franklin D. Roosevelt. As president, Roosevelt would declare war on Japan in 1941 after the attack at Pearl Harbor.

Following is a timeline of the Oklahoma’s service:

* Aug. 13, 1918: Sailed with her sister ship, the USS Nevada, to protect and escort allied convoys in European waters in World War I until the war was over.

* December 1918: Participated as an escort to President Woodrow Wilson traveling to France to negotiate the Versailles Treaty. In June 1919, returned to France to escort the president home.

* 1919-1926: Part of the Atlantic Fleet for two years and then the Pacific Fleet for six years. Participated in the Peruvian Centennial and the unveiling of the San Martin Monument. The USS Oklahoma became one of the first ships to have bunks instead of hammocks.

* 1927-1929: Modernized at Philadelphia, then rejoined the Scouting Fleet.

* July 1929: Maneuvers were reduced during the Depression due to the lack of fuel oil.

* 1933: An earthquake hit Long Beach, California while the Oklahoma was docked there. Her crew deployed ashore to help maintain order.

* 1933: She participated in a civil defense drill in Tacoma, Washington, using the ship’s generators to provide all electrical power to the city for 24 hours.

* July 1936: Sailed to Spain to rescue American citizens and refugees of the Spanish Civil War. While en route to France, a woman gave birth, the first time a baby was born aboard an American battleship.

* Dec. 6, 1940: Based at Pearl Harbor for patrol and exercises.

* Dec. 7, 1941: Pearl Harbor attacked by the Japanese.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the USS Oklahoma was among almost half of the U.S. Pacific Fleet — consisting of 150 vessels — laying at anchor at Naval Base Pearl Harbor Hawaii when attacked by air forces of the Japanese Empire. Moored in Battleship Row beside the USS Maryland, the Oklahoma was among the first vessels hit.

The ship was actually supposed to be out to sea patrolling the Hawaiian Islands, but along with the other eight battleships at Pearl Harbor, the Oklahoma crew was advised there was to be an admiral’s inspection Monday.

When the attack began just before 8 a.m. Sunday morning, many of the crew were sleeping in their racks below decks and never made it up to the main deck.

At approximately 7:55 a.m. the first wave of Japanese aircraft struck the Oklahoma with three aerial torpedoes.

The U.S.S. Oklahoma began capsizing as the Japanese planes strafed the deck with machine gun fire. After being struck by six more torpedoes, the Oklahoma’s port side was torn open and within 15 minutes of the fist torpedo strike, she had rolled completely over, trapping those crew members not fortunate enough to escape within her hull.

Amidst the chaos, several sailors displayed their courage and comradeship, saving the lives of their shipmates at the cost of their own. For their efforts in saving their fellow sailors, Ensign Francis C. Flaherty and Seaman 1st Class James R. Ward received the Medal of Honor, the highest military award for valor. Chief Warrant Officer John A. Austin, who perished saving his shipmates’ lives, was awarded the Navy Cross. Lieutenant Commander Hugh Alexander, the ship’s dental officer, died helping sailors to safety.

Lt. Junior Grade (chaplain) Aloysius Schmitt was conducting church call when battle stations sounded. His assigned position was below decks at a medical station where he could tend to wounded sailors. He could have made it to safety, but he was assisting junior sailors scrambling to safety when the ship capsized. Alexander and Schmitt received Navy and Marine Corps Medals, eventually upgraded to Silver Stars.

Men trapped inside started banging on the bulkhead trying to get the attention of passing small boats. On the Dec. 8 and 9, after cutting holes in the exposed bottom of the ship, 32 men were pulled out alive.

Banging continued through Dec. 10, but nothing could be done. The sound was coming from below the water line and the helpless sailors standing watch over the Oklahoma could only wait and listen until the banging stopped.

In total, 429 USS Oklahoma sailors lost their lives.

The USS Oklahoma received one battle star for her service in World War II.

When the ship was righted in 1944, 429 sailors’ remains were recovered. Of these, only 35 were able to be identified. The remains of 388 unidentified sailors and marines were first interred as “unknowns” in two cemeteries. All were disinterred in 1947, in an unsuccessful attempt to identify more personnel.

In 1950, all unidentified remains from Oklahoma were buried in 61 caskets in 45 graves at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as “Punchbowl.” In April 2015, the Department of Defense, as part of a policy change that established threshold criteria for disinterment of unknowns, announced that the unidentified remains of the crew members of Oklahoma would be exhumed for DNA analysis, with the goal of returning identified remains to their families.

The process began in June 2015, when four graves (two individual and two group graves) were disinterred. Identifications have been made by scientists of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency. Once identifications are made, the Navy Casualty Office, located at Navy Personnel Command in Millington, Tennessee takes control of the process, notifying and visiting with the families, coordinating the return of their loved ones and providing escorts and honors details for the reinternments.

Salvage efforts at Pearl Harbor concentrated on the least damaged ships first — the Oklahoma and Utah were the last ships to receive serious attention.

Salvage of the USS Oklahoma began in March 1943. She was the most difficult and largest of the Pearl Harbor salvage jobs. Preparations for righting the hull took eight months to complete. During the Oklahoma salvage, divers made 1,848 dives involving 10,279 man hours under pressure. Air was pumped into interior chambers and improvised airlocks built into the ship, forcing 20,000 tons of water out of the ship through the torpedo holes.

Four thousand, five hundred tons of soil were deposited in front of her bow to prevent sliding and two barges were posted on either end of the ship to control the ship’s rising. Twenty-one derricks were attached to the upturned hull. Each carried high-tensile steel cables that were connected to hydraulic winching machines ashore. The operation began on March 8, and was completed by June 16, 1943.

Teams of naval specialists then entered the ship to remove any additional human remains. Cofferdams were then placed around the hull to allow basic repairs so the ship could be refloated. The Oklahoma was eventually floated using 20 10,000 gallon-per-minute pumps during an 11-hour period on Nov. 3, 1943.

On Dec. 28, 1943: Oklahoma was towed into dry dock and repaired enough to make her watertight. It was decommissioned in September 1944 and sold to Moore Drydock Co. of Oakland, Ca., for $46,127. In May 1947, two tugs, Hercules and Monarch, began towing the Oklahoma to California.

On May 17, 1944, the tugs entered a storm more than 500 miles from Hawaii. Hercules put her searchlight on the former battleship, revealing that she had begun listing heavily. After radioing Pearl Harbor, both tugs were instructed to turn around and head back to port. Without warning, Hercules was pulled back past Monarch, which was being dragged backwards at 17 mph. The Oklahoma had begun to sink straight down, causing water to swamp the sterns of both tugs.

To save themselves, the crews released her. The Oklahoma’s plunge to the bottom of the Pacific was recorded at 1:40 a.m., but her exact location is unknown.

The ship’s wheel and a section of her deck are now on display at the Oklahoma Historical Society Museum. The anchor is located in downtown Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Inscribed on its base: “Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Liberty.”

Submitted by Megan Brown, Navy Office of Community Outreach, Media Outreach Department.

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