Sunken ship remembered
Monday, May 29th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6
OKLAHOMA CITY, Okla. (AP) -- When the USS Oklahoma, in its death throes, rolled over and slowly sank to the muddy bottom of Pearl
Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, it marked one of the saddest moments in the Sooner State's proud history of association with the nation's Armed
Fred Holloway, an old Navy man originally from Ponca City, remembers seeing the once proud battleship lying in ruins in the harbor when he first arrived in Hawaii in 1944.
"It was laying there on its side, capsized, when I arrived," he said. "It was a tragic scene to say the least. It was one of the few ships that they just left until the war was almost over."
Holloway was visiting the USS Oklahoma exhibit at the State Museum of History in Oklahoma City. Curator Michael Bell said
hundreds of people, including a few who served aboard the Oklahoma, have stopped in to see the exhibit since it opened. Among other things, visitors can look over dozens of old photographs of the ship and its sailors, handwritten letters, trophies won by the
Oklahoma's crew in athletic competitions against crews of other ships -- even a brief film featuring rare footage taken during the
actual attack on Pearl Harbor by Japanese warplanes.
"This brings back a lot of memories," Holloway said, looking over old Navy uniforms and other artifacts.
The USS Oklahoma had been one of the Navy's most stalwart ships before World War II, Bell said.
Built beginning in 1912 by the New York Shipbuilding Co., it took its first crew to sea in 1916. According to her commissioning
statement, 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."
The commissioning was attended by a young Franklin D. Roosevelt, who at that time was an assistant secretary of the Navy. In 1941, he would declare war on Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack, which he described as "a day that will live in infamy."
The Oklahoma, 583 feet long and 95 feet wide, was a modern giant when it was young. Even with an armor belt measuring 131/2 inches
thick, it was capable of maintaining a speed of 21 knots and its 10 14-inch guns were to be feared.
Though the battleship never fired a shot at another ship, it escorted troop transports headed to Europe in World War I and
accompanied President Woodrow Wilson's ship when he went to France to negotiate the Treaty of Versailles.
In its career, the ship named to honor Oklahoma also saw waters off Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Peru, steamed through the Panama Canal and toured several European countries. In 1936, its crew members helped deliver a baby born to a woman who had been
evacuated from Spain during that country's civil war.
By 1941, the Oklahoma was clearly showing its age, Bell said, but it no doubt would have seen action in the war had it not been for Japan's sneak attack.
Among exhibit artifacts is a uniform blouse once worn by Ensign Herbert Rommel, who sounded battle stations on Dec. 7.
"He was on watch that morning," Bell said.
There's also a rare Japanese newspaper with pictures and an article detailing the empire's great victory over the United States. In one of the photographs, a white streak is believed to
indicate a torpedo striking the Oklahoma, Bell said.
The Oklahoma was two ships ahead of the USS Arizona on "Battleship Row." At 7:55 a.m., just as the ship's band was assembling on deck and others were beginning their Sunday morning routines, the first of two waves of a Japanese strike force of 350
bombers, torpedo planes and fighters descended on Pearl Harbor and the nearby Hickam air field.
The Oklahoma was struck almost immediately with three torpedoes and listed heavily to its port side. A short time later, it was struck again by four torpedoes. By 8:15 a.m. it was upside down in the water, flooding fast.
Hundreds of men were trapped below decks when the ship rolled over and went down with only its hull sticking partially out of the
water. Many climbed through portholes or had to swim to safety from the ship's flooding interior. Others were trapped in pitch black as
the oily water rose to cut off pockets of air.
Some 32 eventually were saved by rescuers who used torches to peel away portions of the ship's hull that remained exposed.
Three men were posthumously awarded medals for heroism. Among them was the ship's chaplain, Aloysius Schmitt, who was said to have pushed several sailors to safety through a porthole before finally being overwhelmed by seawater pouring into the sinking ship. Two others, Ensign Frances Flaherty and Seaman James Ward refused to abandon their posts, holding flashlights so others might see to escape. They, like their chaplain, eventually succumbed to the rising water and drowned.
In all, 448 members of the ship's 1,100-man crew perished.
"Everybody remembers and talks about the Arizona, but the Oklahoma took down a third of its crew. Those men deserve to be
remembered and talked about, too," Bell said.
The once-glorious battleship eventually was raised and was to be towed to California and sold for scrap. However, it parted from its tow lines May 17, 1947, and sank for good in the Pacific.