Capsizing of the USS Oklahoma
Eyewitness accounts and photographic evidence
"I counted eight torpedoes going into the USS OKLAHOMA. These were dropped into the water between 300 to 200 yards from the target just beyond the new landing at Mary's [sic] Point."
- PHM2c J. A. Ruggles, in a signed statement submitted after the attack
"As I reached the starboard side, I met Lieutenant Commander HOBBY, the First Lieutenant, and with him concluded that the ship was fast becoming untenable and that an effort should be made to save as many men as possible. 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. At about this time another heavy explosion was felt on the port side and the ship began to roll over rapidly."
- Commander Jesse L. Kenworthy, Jr., Executive Officer, USS Oklahoma in his report to Commanding Officer, USS Oklahoma, dated 16 December 1941
"The fourth torpedo hit the ship hard, above the armored belt this time because of the Oklahoma's heavy list to port. The ship rocked from side to side in her terrible agony. An almost inaudible moan sounded through the lower decks as the mighty Okie's vast insides absorbed the impact...masts and turret guns were leaning faster and faster to meet the harbor water....then, thirty seconds later...the fifth torpedo jarred ship and sailors again with a final explosion. We hung on. It hadn't been necessary. The ship was going fast."
- S1/c Stephen Young, Trapped At Pearl Harbor: Escape From Battleship Oklahoma
Reading through the Oklahoma survivor reports, there is an occasional mention of a pause in the ship's rolling movement that is broken by another torpedo hit, after which the ship accelerates her roll until she capsizes. This is understandable, but it wasn't until I sat down with Jim Bounds, an Oklahoma survivor who was trapped in after steering when the ship rolled over, that a theory started to form.
"I noticed other torpedo hits, but I noticed [the first] three more than anything else, and then there was an extra loud one...it shook the ship, then we got one or two more after that...but they wasn't as powerful as that one."
- S1/c Jim Bounds, USS Oklahoma, in a filmed interview with the author
Ever since 1941, Bounds has assumed that the large explosion that he felt inside Oklahoma's hull after the "boom-boom-boom" of the first three torpedo hits was the USS Arizona blowing up. In addition, he was certain that this larger explosion happened before the ship rolled over and before the final torpedo hits. Maybe he was right...after the broadcast of Killer Subs in Pearl Harbor, A.P. "Tony" Tully wrote to point me to his 2001 analysis of the uncropped motion-picture footage taken of the Arizona explosion. In a frame from that footage, the mainmast of Oklahoma can be seen in a heavy port list, but still well above the water during the explosion that destroyed Arizona. Others have offered up the possibility that a hit closer to Bounds position aft would seem louder to him. Still, though, Bounds's description, coupled with Kenworthy's and Young's, raised the possibility that one of the torpedo hits stood apart from the rest. Was there any evidence to support this notion?
After my interview with Bounds, Tom and I went back to the documentation to see if there was any evidence of a secondary explosion within the Oklahoma's hull that might account for the extraordinarily large explosion. We found none. With the information we had gathered to date, we were left with two possibilities to consider...that this large explosion was caused either by two aerial torpedoes hitting simultaneously or a submarine-launched torpedo with its much larger warhead.For two torpedoes to hit simultaneously, they would had to have been dropped simultaneously from two different aircraft. Due to the risk of a mid-air collision, this would not have been a planned event...two aircraft dropping simultaneously against the same target would have been accidental. Was there any evidence of such a faltering of discipline in the Japanese torpedo bomber runs?
"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
Shepard's observation is corroborated by Flight Leader Mitsuo Fuchida's tally board, where he recorded two cross-crossing aircraft making runs on the West Virginia. However, we have been unable to find any such lack of discipline on the torpedo bomber runs on the Oklahoma. That in itself is no proof, but does continue the trend where possibility after possibility becomes less likely until we are left with one credible alternative...that the USS Oklahoma was hit by a torpedo launched by a midget submarine.
Another possible corroboration for this is a photograph (catalogued in the NH&HC archives as NH50929) taken by a Japanese aircraft that captures a torpedo hit against the USS Oklahoma early in the attack. Tom and I were struck by the appearance of this water plume, which appears to be unique. In every other image, both still and moving taken during the attack by the Japanese, the torpedo water plumes rising and falling against the battleship line are tall, thin and white, virtually identical to the one in this photograph rising above West Virginia. This one against Oklahoma, though, appears to be short, dark and squat. After consulting with photo analysts, our conclusion is that this plume was heavy with a greater volume of water thrown skyward, compared to the other water plumes in the Japanese footage. This photo, in our estimation, captured Jim Bounds's "extra loud" explosion on film.
To both Tom and I, the trend of the evidence, circumstantial though it might be, was driving us to a conclusion that a submarine-launched Type 97 torpedo hit Oklahoma in between hits by aerial-dropped ones. However, given so many hits on the ship in such a short amount of time, did any of this matter?