U.S. Navy Announces Names of Two New Fast-Attack Submarines

Credit: US Navy

Published Dec 25, 2019 5:26 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy will name its two newest Virginia-class fast-attack nuclear submarines after the American Sailors who perished in the former USS Oklahoma and USS Arizona.

The move brings the names back into active-duty service after more than three quarters of a century.

Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly announced the manes for SSN-802 and SSN-803, respectively, on December 23. “It is my fondest wish that the citizens of the great states of Arizona and Oklahoma will understand and celebrate our Navy’s desire to memorialize the 1,177 heroes who perished in USS Arizona (BB-39) and the 429 more in USS Oklahoma (BB-37) in Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941.”

The Pearl Harbor National Memorial in Oahu, Hawaii, comprises the USS Arizona, USS Oklahoma and USS Utah memorials.

History of USS Oklahoma (Battleship # 37, later BB-37) (Source: U.S. Navy)

USS Oklahoma, a 27,500-ton Nevada class battleship, was built at Camden, New Jersey. She was commissioned in May 1916 and generally operated in the Atlantic over the next five years. In mid-1918, Oklahoma went to European waters to help protect convoys. Late in that year and in June 1919 she escorted President Wilson during his voyages to and from France. 

In 1921, the battleship moved to the Pacific, visiting the west coast of South America prior to joining the Pacific Fleet. During most of the rest of the decade, Oklahoma served with the Battle Fleet during its many exercises, drills and Fleet Problems. She participated in the Fleet's trans-Pacific cruise to Australia and New Zealand in mid-1925. In the summer of 1927, she transported Naval Academy Midshipmen from the east to the west coast during their annual training cruise.

Oklahoma was modernized at the Philadelphia Navy Yard in 1927-29, emerging with a greatly altered appearance and notably improved battleworthiness. After brief service with the Scouting Fleet, she returned to the Pacific in mid-1930, and renewed her participation in the Battle Fleet's activities. In July 1936, Oklahoma was sent to Europe to help evacuate U.S. citizens and others during the Spanish Civil War. She rejoined the Battle Fleet in the Pacific later in the year.

In 1940, Oklahoma's base was shifted from the U.S. west coast to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. She was at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked on December 7, 1941. Moored outboard of USS Maryland (BB-46), she was hit by a great number of Japanese Type 91 aerial torpedoes. With her port side torn open over much of its length, Oklahoma rapidly rolled over and sank to the harbor bottom, with the loss of over 400 of her crew. Many of the men trapped in her upturned hull were cut free through the intense efforts of Sailors and civilian Navy Yard employees.

During 1943, Oklahoma was the subject of a massive salvage undertaking, involving turning her upright, patching her damages and refloating her. She was drydocked late in the year to be stripped of guns and other equipment and repaired sufficiently to make her relatively watertight. Too old and badly damaged to be worth returning to service, Oklahoma was formally decommissioned in September 1944. She was sold for scrapping in December 1946, but sank while under tow from Hawaii to California in May 1947.

USS Arizona (BB-39) (Source: U.S. Navy)

The Pennsylvania-class battleship Arizona (BB-39) was launched June 19, 1915 at the New York Naval Shipyard, and commissioned to the United States Atlantic Fleet under the command of Captain J. D. McDonald on 17 October 1916. Arizona spent World War I patrolling the waters of the Northeast as part of Battleship Division 8 out of Norfolk, Virginia, where her fuel oil requirements would not tax the short supply in Britain. 

On 18 November 1918 Arizona made her first trip across the Atlantic Ocean from Hampton Roads, Virginia, to England. From there, she supported the escorting operations of George Washington who carried President Woodrow Wilson to the Paris Peace Conference. Arizona departed the Atlantic Fleet in 1921, and was transferred to the Pacific fleet where she found her new homeport in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. During her time in the Pacific fleet, Arizona carried President Herbert Hoover to the West Indies and performed routine missions and training.

Arizona, as well as much of the Pacific Fleet, was in port when Pearl Harbor suffered a surprise attack by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, propelling the U.S. into World War II. During this raid, Arizona was hit by one torpedo and eight bombs, one of which passed through a magazine and lit cordite, causing an expansion of gases followed by a massive explosion. The ship quickly sank to the bottom of the harbor along with 1,177 of the 1,512 personnel on board, representing about half the total number of Americans killed that day.

Since the ship was moored in relatively shallow water when attacked, much of the superstructure continued to protrude out of the water. On May 5, 1942, the Navy began to disassemble and cut off the protruding parts, beginning with the foremast, then the mainmast on 23 August 1942. Number 1 and 2 gun turrets were removed from Arizona and placed at Army outposts along the Hawaiian coast for defensive support. The Navy recovered 105 crewmembers’ remains from the wreckage. 

The last of the salvaging evolutions occurred in October 1943. Arizona was removed from the commissioned list December 1, 1942. In the end, only the hull and main deck remained at the bottom of the harbor. 

Throughout the rest of World War II, Arizona remained untouched and unnoticed. It was not until 1950 that a flagpole for ceremonial visits was established on the boat deck of the wreck (Tilburg 2003). This salute to the fallen began to raise awareness about the importance of Arizona and the rest of the ships that were attacked in Pearl Harbor. Due to this attention, in 1958 legislation was passed that the Navy would be allowed to erect a memorial for the fallen and receive contributions for funding it. 

Construction of the memorial began in 1960 and finished in 1962. At the completion of construction, the site was dedicated on Memorial Day to all of those who had fallen during the attack on Pearl Harbor.