Exposed at its mooring next to the USS Maryland on Battleship Row, the USS Oklahoma suffered three immediate torpedo hits as the attack on Pearl Harbor began.
The battleship began to list severely while continuing to be hit by torpedoes, bombs and strafing.
In his report on the attack to the ship’s captain, Cmdr Jesse L. Kenworthy Jr. described struggling to get on the boat’s oil-covered deck amid massive explosions.
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“By this time the ship was listing from 25 to 35 degrees and was continuing to list further. It was now obvious that the ship was going to continue to roll over, and I climbed over the boat deck toward the starboard side. Men were beginning to come up from below through hatches and gun ports, and from them it was learned that the ship was filling with water in many spaces below,” he wrote. “The word was passed for all hands to abandon ship, and the men were directed to leave over the starboard side and to walk and climb over the ship’s side and onto the bottom as it rolled over. … The men went over the starboard side, climbing over the side and bottom, and many went into the water to swim to the Maryland.”
The Oklahoma was overwhelmed and sank too quickly for its crew to put up much of a fight. Still, tales of heroism abound as sailors and civilians alike risked their lives to rescue those injured and trapped.
Two — Ensign Francis C. Flaherty, 22, of Michigan and Seaman James R. Ward, 20, of Ohio — were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for sacrificing their own lives as they helped guide fellow trapped sailors to safety from the hull of the capsized ship.
Likewise, the Navy Cross was posthumously awarded to Chief Carpenter John A. Austin, age 36, of Alabama, who died saving fellow trapped men. The award citation commended him “for exceptional courage, presence of mind, and devotion to duty and disregard for his personal safety. … By his efforts, a porthole which was under water was located and he assisted fifteen of the crew to escape.”
Shipyard worker Julio DeCastro of Oahu was credited with organizing a rescue team of fellow civilians who saved 32 trapped men from the sunken ship.
The ship was later salvaged, but sank in 1947 as it broke free of its tow line on its way to the West Coast.
Often overshadowed by the USS Arizona, which had a much higher death toll and remains the foremost Pearl Harbor memorial, the USS Oklahoma still suffered the second-worst loss of life, 429 men, on that Day of Infamy. It wasn’t until Dec. 7, 2007, that the USS Oklahoma Memorial was dedicated on Ford Island not far from where the ship sank.
Sources include Naval History and Heritage Command, Honolulu Advertiser, Honolulu Star-Bulletin.