Robert Trumbull: A Day of Infamy, Two Years of Hard Work

Roundup: Talking About History

Here, 64 years late, are edited excerpts from a dispatch sent to The New York Times by Robert Trumbull, the paper’s correspondent at Pearl Harbor. It details a triumphant but mostly forgotten story of World War II: the salvage effort that rebuilt the Pacific Fleet after the Japanese attack.

A city of seamen, engineers, divers, carpenters, welders, pipe fitters and other industrial workers arose overnight at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard. Its slogan was “We keep them fit to fight,” and within two years the yard raised or salvaged all the damaged ships except the Arizona and the Utah.

One year after the attack, with the harbor still choked with wreckage, Trumbull wrote a 15,000-word, three-part series about the round-the-clock operation. But wartime censorship killed the articles. Like the civilian rescue workers and hardhats at ground zero, the shipyard workers dispersed, unheralded, when the job was done. Trumbull died in 1992.

PEARL HARBOR, Dec. 13 (Passed by naval censor) —

TWO of the great stories of world naval history concern Pearl Harbor. First is the stunning blow dealt the United States Pacific Fleet in the Japanese sneak attack here Dec. 7, 1941. The second, which may well be the more significant story when the world returns to the ways of peace, deals with the miracle of reclamation and repair accomplished here to undo the incredibly complex destruction wrought by the Japanese bombers.

Undoing of the Pearl Harbor damage is a story that continues today; as this is written its climax is still in the future. Its first full telling in this series of articles reveals the greatness of American industrial ingenuity, which has reached at Pearl Harbor a historic flowering.

What has been done here to put back into fighting trim the once proud warships that were unmercifully rent and shattered by bomb and torpedo, the ships pounded and broken into an unholy mess and then jammed by their own great weight into the muck of the harbor bottom, could scarcely be grasped by anyone who has not seen it.

To understand adequately the staggering problem that faced the naval engineers Dec. 7, 1941, one must go back and survey Pearl Harbor as it lay in the silence of death and ruin after the attack.

The battleship Nevada, staggered by a number of heavy bomb hits and punctured by a torpedo that struck near the bow, was able to get underway and leave the hell that was Battleship Row. It beached itself in the channel and sank back to rest with water lapping its quarterdeck.

The California, its bow burned and its insides horribly scrambled by torpedoes amidships, sank at its moorings, settling in the mud with a list of five to seven degrees. Only its high turrets poked above the water, which swirled over its stern and quarterdeck, and rushed inside the torn hole to add its own vast weight to the mass pressing into the soft harbor bottom.

Also sunk at its moorings in Battleship Row was the West Virginia, terribly wounded by both bombs and torpedoes. Like the California, it remained in an upright position. This circumstance made reclamation more readily workable, although discouragingly complicated problems remained.

The Arizona, the only battleship listed as lost — and rightfully so, as will be seen — rested on the bottom near Ford Island, devastated by fire within as well as wrecked by bombs and torpedoes.

On the opposite side of Ford Island, the Oklahoma lay capsized, 150 degrees from the vertical, its ravaged port side turned under. It was anchored to the bottom by its own masts and superstructure, which were pushed down through layers of harbor mud that closed over the masts with uncounted tons of downward pressure.

Sunk by a heavy bomb hit was the big floating dry dock, which contained the destroyer Shaw at the time. The minelayer Oglala was sunk on its side at its dock, and the two destroyers Cassin and Downes were lost in the dry dock. The Downes was literally blown in two by the explosion of its magazine. The Cassin, which lay alongside the Downes to starboard in the dry dock, also caught fire and, its hull mottled like wetted paper, fell off its blocks and leaned over wearily against the Downes....
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