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Oklahoma (Battleship No. 37)


The 46th State of the Union, admitted on 16 November 1907. The name, in Choctaw, means "red man."

(Battleship No. 37: displacement 27,500; length 583'; beam 95'3"; draft 28'6"; speed 20.5 knots; complement 864; armament 10 14-inch, 20 5-inch, 4 21-inch torpedo tubes (submerged); class Nevada)

Oklahoma (Battleship No. 37) was laid down on 26 October 1912 at Camden, N.J., by the New York Shipbuilding Corp.; launched on 23 March 1914; sponsored by Miss Lorena J. Cruce, daughter of Governor Lee Cruce of Oklahoma; and commissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard on 2 May 1916, Capt. Roger Welles in command.

Joining the Atlantic Fleet with Norfolk her home port, Oklahoma trained on the eastern seaboard until sailing on 13 August 1918 with sister ship Nevada to join in the task of protecting Allied convoys in European waters. In December she was part of the escort as President Woodrow Wilson arrived in France, departing on the 14th for New York and winter fleet exercises in Cuban waters. She returned to Brest on 15 June 1919 to escort President Wilson in George Washington (Id. No. 3018) home from his second visit to France, returning to New York on 8 July.

While a part of the Atlantic Fleet for the next two years, Oklahoma – redesignated as BB-37 on 17 July 1920 – twice voyaged to South America's west coast, first early in 1921 for combined exercises with the Pacific Fleet, and later that year to take part in celebrations of  the Peruvian Centennial. She then joined the Pacific Fleet for six years highlighted by the cruise of the Battle Fleet to Australia and New Zealand in 1925. Assigned to the Scouting Fleet in early 1927, Oklahoma continued intensive exercises during that summer’s Midshipmen Cruise, voyaging to the East Coast to embark midshipmen, carrying them through the Panama Canal to San Francisco, and returning by the way of Cuba and Haiti.

Modernized at Philadelphia between September 1927 and July 1929, Oklahoma rejoined the Scouting Fleet for exercises in the Caribbean, and returned to the west coast in June 1930. Later that summer [1930], Oklahoma and Tennessee (BB-43) served as gunnery training ships for the battleship class. Oklahoma made a reserve officer training cruise (12 June-14 July 1931), during which time the ship embarked ROTC students from the universities of California and Washington. During that cruise, the battleship and her embarked students visited Honolulu, T.H.

On 5 June 1936, Oklahoma cleared Annapolis with midshipmen on board, sailing with Arkansas (BB-33) and Wyoming (BB-32), comprising the Midshipmen’s Practice Squadron, setting course for Northern European ports. While en route, however, a Civil War erupted in Spain, and Oklahoma disembarked her fledgling naval officers to Arkansas and Wyoming at Cherbourg, France, on 22 July 1936 and sailed for Bilbao, Spain, arriving on 24 July to rescue American citizens and other refugees, whom she carried to Gibraltar and French ports. Oklahoma’s Capt. William A. Hall became Senior Officer of the U.S. Navy in European Waters; upon his departure when Oklahoma sailed for the U.S. on 31 August, Capt. William F. Amsden, commanding officer of the heavy cruiser Quincy (CA-39) succeeded him. Oklahoma returned to Norfolk on 11 September 1936, then proceeded to the West Coast, steaming via the Panama Canal, on 24 October.

Oklahoma’s routine over the five years encompassed a schedule of exercises and battle practices, punctuated with periods in yard hands for maintenance, for repairs and alterations. During one such period, on 19 September 1940, the battleship collided with the tug Goliah in Puget Sound.

Based at Pearl Harbor from 6 December 1940, she took part in the intensive regimen of exercises of various kinds, the intensity reflected in a collision during a battle practice evolution on 22 October 1941, when she collided with Arizona (BB-39). Following repairs, Oklahoma resumed her active preparations for war.

Oklahoma – Cmdr. Jesse L. Kenworthy, Jr., the executive officer, being senior officer on board, Capt. Howard D. Bode being ashore -- lay moored in Battleship Row on 7 December 1941, when the Japanese attacked. Outboard of Maryland (BB-46), Oklahoma took three torpedo hits almost immediately after the first Japanese bomb fell on Ford Island. As she capsized, six more torpedoes struck home. Within 20 minutes after the attack began, she had swung over until halted by her masts touching bottom, her starboard side above water, and a part of her keel clear.

Among the instances of heroism on board Oklahoma that morning, 21-year old Ens. Francis G. Flaherty, USNR, and 20-year old Sea1c J. Richard Ward, as the ship was abandoned, held flashlights to allow their shipmates to escape from Turrets I. For their selfless gallantry, Flaherty, a University of Michigan graduate, and Ward both received the Medal of Honor, posthumously.

Two of Oklahoma’s marines from her embarked detachment particularly distinguished themselves, each receiving the Navy Cross. Sgt. Thomas E. Hailey, clad only in his “skivvies,” manning a 5-inch/25 antiaircraft gun on board Maryland, and Cpl. Willard A. Darling, who helped save the capsized battleship’s 51-year old senior dental officer, Cmdr. Fred H. Rohow (DC), from drowning. Later that day, Hailey, still only in skivvies, went aloft as a volunteer “gunner” (armed with a .30-caliber Springfield 1903 rifle) in a Sikorsky JRS-1 flying boat in an abortive attempt to track the Japanese fleet.

Almost 60 of her survivors clambered on board Maryland to help serve her 5-inch/25 and 1.1-inch/75 antiaircraft guns. Twenty of Oklahoma’s officers and 395 of her enlisted men were either killed or missing, 32 others wounded, and many were trapped within the capsized hull, to be saved by heroic rescue efforts. Such an effort was that of Julio DeCastro, a Honolulu-born civilian yard worker who organized the team that saved 32 of Oklahoma’s sailors, the last of whom extracted an hour into the mid watch on Tuesday, 9 December.

While her able-bodied survivors were reassigned immediately to other ships, on 29 December 1941, Oklahoma was placed under the Base Force and placed “in ordinary” [a non-commissioned status]. The difficult savage job began in March 1943, and, finally righted in a herculean effort, Oklahoma entered dry dock on 28 December. Decommissioned on 1 September 1944 and made available by the Bureau of Ships to CinCPac as a hulk on 28 October 1944, Oklahoma was stricken from the Navy Register on 22 November 1944.

Stripped of guns and superstructure, she was sold on 5 December 1946 to Moore Dry Dock Co., Oakland, Calif., but while en route from Pearl Harbor to San Francisco, ex-Oklahoma parted her tow lines and sank on 17 May 1947, 540 miles from her destination.

Oklahoma received one battle star for her World War II service, at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941.

Revised, Robert J. Cressman

7 December 2016

Published: Thu May 20 15:20:34 EDT 2021