Torpedoing of the USS Arizona
Matching eyewitness accounts with forensic evidence
On the one hand, I had very strong convictions from eyewitnesses about at least one torpedo hitting Arizona. On the other, the wreck itself – at least, that much that could be examined – seemed to indicate that there was no damage indicative of a torpedo strike. This is not an unusual situation in historical research...I have encountered it before in my Titanic investigations. The question, then, would be: Could we resolve this discrepancy; if so, how?
We were certainly not the first to grapple with this conundrum. Others have tried to make sense of it by postulating a near miss by a bomb off Arizona's port bow that mimicked the explosion of a torpedo. However, that bomb was reportedly dropped by a Kaga flight of horizontal bombers that overflew the vessel some minutes after 0800. Bauer's observation of a torpedo hit was prior to the call to colours at 0800. Besides, a bomb explosion would not produce a torpedo trail that both Bauer and Stratton are convinced they saw.
Other historians have speculated that witnesses like Bauer and Stratton were confused by torpedoes that actually targeted the ships on either side of Arizona; i.e., West Virginia and Nevada. I pressed both eyewitnesses on this point and they were firm in their conviction that while they saw a number of torpedo tracks headed for the different ships, at least one came directly at Arizona. I asked both what they would say to those who claim they were mistaken and the response was the same from both: "They weren't there. I was." One has to be extremely careful when questioning such firm conviction from men who literally survived the fires of Hell.
Why hasn't a torpedo drop against Arizona been seen in post-event reconstructions?
"I saw about five torpedo planes coming in low over the channel and south end of Kuahua Island each plane picking a berth where there were battleships. Two of these planes almost had a collision, finally leveled out and launched their torpedoes in the West Va. and almost crashed in mast of ARIZONA."
- BM1/c J. D. Shepard, in a signed statement submitted after the attack
Could one of the torpedoes originally tallied as being assigned to West Virginia have in the confusion of the moment been instead dropped against Arizona? Could the kanko described by Bauer be the same one described in Shepard's account as almost hitting Arizona's mast?
The discrepancy left us with only one reasonable possibility: could a torpedo have been fired at Arizona but not actually have hit the ship? With this perspective in mind, some of the clues we had already considered seemed to take on new meaning, creating a new scenario whereby an aerial-dropped torpedo exploded underneath Arizona's bow.
Explosion underneath the bow?
This could explain Kimmel's observation of the bow lifting up and dropping down again. Modern torpedoes operate on the principle that when a torpedo warhead detonates underneath a ship (preferably underneath the keel), the resultant explosion creates a gas bubble that rises, lifting the ship above with it. This unexpected force weakens a ship's structure. When the bubble collapses, the ship then literally falls into a hole in the water and the structure, already weakened by the lifting, often fractures from the shifting stresses. Snapping the keel of a ship with a single torpedo can more efficiently guarantee a sinking than by blowing a number of holes in its side.
The Type 91 Mod 2 torpedo was neither designed nor meant to be deployed in this fashion. Its warhead had a contact fuse that detonated the charge upon physical contact with the target. So, if a Japanese torpedo did happen to run a bit too deep and run underneath Arizona's bow, why then would it have exploded? There were a few Type 91 torpedoes launched that day at other ships (Helena and Oklahoma, to name a couple) that ran too deep and buried themselves in the mud without exploding. Why would a torpedo aimed at Arizona be any different?
The loss of water main pressure at NAS Ford Island began to take on new meaning. I understood that the water pipe supplying the island was supposedly cut when the sinking Arizona settled on top of it, but what if it was actually cut earlier? According to base commander Captain James Shoemaker, the water supply had already been cut by the time the station's fire brigade showed up on scene. The timing is such that it seems possible that water pressure was lost before the Arizona blew up and sank. Was it merely assumption that the water pipe was cut when Arizona settled on top of it, or was there evidence that connected one event to the other?
Could it be that a low-running torpedo passed underneath Arizona's bow and struck the water pipe (or one of its supports) instead? Damage to the bow would be limited, possibly to the area directly underneath that remains unavailable to examination, and not obvious enough to discern even with modern sub-bottom profiling systems. As far as I know, there is no evidence to refute such speculation; on the contrary, it does help bridge the gap between the eyewitness accounts and the forensic observations.
This seems to be a credible possibility, although I have no way of proving it at the moment. There is another possibility, though...the torpedo could have failed to explode, even after hitting the ship. A "dud," though, wouldn't explain Kimmel's and Bauer's observation that included what is obviously a detonation. However, a dud does help explain other observations of what could very well have been a second torpedo to hit Arizona.