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Through The Lens: The Forgotten Battleship

By Staff | Dec 3, 2019

Shown is a clear photo of the USS Utah

My column today is a story that has almost disappeared into the footnotes of our country’s history. It is the story of the battleship USS Utah. When she was completed in 1911, she was one of the finest battleships in America’s fleet. At a length of 521 feet with a displacement of 23,175 tons, she became a fearsome dreadnought in our country’s arsenal. A ship that was classified as a dreadnought, meant its battle strength lay with her fire power. In the case of the Utah, she was outfitted with 10 twelve inch heavy deck guns. She could stand off and fire on her target from the far horizon. Earlier pre-dreadnought battleships used both a combination of deck guns to first damage their opponents before moving closer to finish them off with smaller guns. Utah’s construction was the final ship built in the Florida-class.

On December 24, 1909, one hundred and ten years ago this month, The Salt Lake Herald-Republican newspaper headline reads, “Greatest Battleship Afloat is Christened the Utah.” A couple years later she was ready for sea duty in 1911. From her commissioning until the early 1930s, the Utah and her crew of 1000 officers and seamen traveled the oceans representing America’s sea going strength. Then in 1931, the battleship was given a new roll in the Navy. She was to be demilitarized and converted into a target ship. This was due to terms that were part of the London Navy Treaty signed in 1930. The once proud dreadnought of America’s sea power had now been delegated to a new duty, a target and training ship.

The 1000 man crew was reduced to around five hundred and she was outfitted with a new radio control system. This system gave crew members the ability to stay within the protected parts of this ship while practice bombs were dropped onto her fortified top decks. Heavy wood planks and steel decking protected her during training raids. Her 12 inch deck guns were replaced with new anti-aircraft guns. For the next ten years she played her roll of target ship and trainer to help keep our country strong.

As fate would have it, Utah was in Pearl Harbor on the morning of December the 7th 1941. Her misfortune made her among the first ships to be attacked. At 8:01, a Japanese plane launched its torpedo at the Utah. A few seconds later it exploded into the ship’s side. Then without warning a second slammed into her and exploded. Her fate was now sealed as water quickly rushed in below her decks. Within moments the ship was listing 40 degrees. Historical records tell us the attacking pilots had been told the Utah was not a target due to its demilitarized duty. Still, in the first moments, two torpedoes struck the Utah. The attacking pilots believed the aircraft carrier Enterprise was supposed to be tied in that location. The pilots mistakenly saw the heavy wooden planks on her top deck and mistook her for the Enterprise. Little more than ten minutes after the first torpedo struck, the Utah rolled onto her side and sank.

When the attack came, the Utah’s crew of 519 officers and men had little time to react to the sudden attack and sinking. The ship’s Captain, Solomon Isquith directed efforts to cut through the ship’s hull to rescue crew members trapped inside. Four men were pulled from the sunken ship. In the following days, it was determined that 58 crewmembers lost their lives.

Shown is USS Utah on December 7 1941.

If you are wondering why I am writing about this ship and the events of that morning, it is because the Utah and her crew have almost been forgotten. It is true two ships have been recognized as being part of the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. But, if I were too ask each of you the names of battleships never raised from the waters of Pearl Harbor, would you only name the USS Arizona? Each year on the anniversary of the attack we witness solemn ceremonies to the men lost onboard the Arizona that morning. The ship exploded and went down with 1,177 on board. The Arizona is considered the final resting place for 1,102 officers and crew. The evening news programs will show flower wreaths being tossed into the waters over the Arizona. Her fate has become the focal point of memorial services held each year.

The Utah was not considered a high value ship and therefore efforts to raise her was delayed until late in the war. When salvage crews tried to bring her to her upright position, the ship began sliding on the bottom making her recovery impossible. It was determined any further efforts would be of no use, so the Navy decommissioned the Utah. Later, in November of 1944 she was stricken from the Navy Vessel Register. To this day, she sits nearly submerged on the northwest side of Ford Island.

A portion of her hull extends above the water’s surface. Rusting metal gives clear evidence the ship is falling victim to the sea. I wonder, if not for the portion of the ship that rises from the water, would the once great battleship and her lost crew be forgotten by both time and man?

The Utah and her story is but one of thousands of untold stories from World War II. We as a nation pause each December 7th to remember the tragedy of Pearl Harbor. But, it is important that we also remember all those who served and those who never came home from the South Pacific and Europe. War is a terrible thing and perhaps the worst thing is, time fades our memories of those who sacrifices helped to keep our country strong.

In preparations for writing this column, I contacted the Utah survivor’s group on Facebook. A very nice lady, Pamela (Calavan) Becerra returned my inquiry. She explained her father, Cecil L. Calavan was one of the survivors of the Utah. He became the President of the USS Utah Survivors Association. He also was the President of the Pearl Harbors Survivors Chapter 5 in MT Vernon, WA. Sadly, though, she told me he too has passed into history. Out of a crew of 519 only three of the Utah’s crew still survive.

This Saturday will mark the 78th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. History tells us 2335 military and 68 civilians lost their lives that morning. I hope my story has given you reason to remember the crew of the Utah and all the others that died that day. There is a fear among the family members of the survivors that when the last crewmen has gone, there will be no one to keep the memory of the ship alive. It is hard for me to accept that those who served on the Utah may become merely a postscript of that long ago war.

For all the men and women that have lost their lives fighting for our country, it is for those of us living to keep their memories alive. Now, the next time someone ask you how many battleships rest on the bottom of Pearl Harbor, you will know the answer, the USS Arizona and the USS Utah.

On this December 7th remember these words of an old seamen’s prayer. Oh God, we pray thee that the memory of our comrades, fallen in battle, be ever sacred in our hearts, … life that we might live. Into thy hands, oh Lord, we commend the soul of thy servants departed, now called unto eternal rest, and we commit their bodies to the deep. Amen, Through The Lens.