Defense Media Network

Utah Was the “Not So Famous” Battleship Sunk During the Pearl Harbor Attack

As we mark the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II, some who recall Dec. 7, 1941 are forced to scratch their heads when asked a history question: Can you name all three American battleships sunk by Japanese carrier planes during the attack?

To some veterans, the USS Utah (AG 16) is the ship no one remembers.

To some veterans, the USS Utah (AG 16) is the ship no one remembers.

An extraordinary 1,500,000 tourists come annually to visit Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona (BB 39) Memorial where visitors can stand literally on top of the watery grave of 1,177 sailors who perished aboard the better-known battleship that went to the bottom that Sunday morning.

No longer at Pearl today is the USS Oklahoma (BB 37), sunk by Japanese bombs and torpedoes, taking 429 sailors with her. The Oklahoma was later righted, stripped, and sold for scrap, but she was never again a seaworthy battleship.

USS Utah (AG 16)

The upturned bottom of the capsized USS Utah after the attack. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

Visitors today can see and visit yet another battlewagon, the USS Missouri (BB 63), which did not exist on the day of the attack and was never sunk, but became the site of the formal surrender ceremony marking the war’s end in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.

“Most people have heard of them,” said Daniel Martinez, a historian and guide who conducts tours of the attack site. “There’s a lot of recognition of the names Arizona and Missouri.” Many visitors are also well aware that the Oklahoma went to the bottom during the attack.

Perhaps because it was no longer pulling duty in its original capacity as a battleship, or perhaps because of its location at Pearl Harbor during the attack, the Utah has never received as much recognition as other warships associated with Pearl Harbor. To many, the Utah is the forgotten battlewagon of what President Franklin D. Roosevelt called “a date which will live in infamy.”

Ironically, the Utah was meant to be on the receiving end of bombs falling from the sky – but not from the Japanese.

The U.S. Navy had invested heavily to modify the imposing but geriatric Florida-class dreadnought to serve as a floating target. It was supposed to portray the role of an enemy warship during mock exercises.

‘This is not a drill’

Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class Lee Soucy remembered being “clenched up” with surprise and shock when the real thing came storming down on the Utah and his shipmates. At about 7:50 a.m., or five minutes before the first bombs and torpedoes struck the U.S. Pacific Fleet at anchor, sailors topside observed three aircraft, which they took for American planes on maneuvers, passing over the harbor entrance. With the captain and executive officer ashore on leave on that laid-back Sunday morning, Utah‘s senior officer on board was engineer Lt. Cmdr. Solomon S. Isquith.

“In any event, even after I saw a huge fireball and cloud of black smoke rise from the hangars on Ford Island and heard explosions, it still did not occur to me that these were enemy planes. It was too incredible! Simply beyond imagination!”

“I had just had breakfast,” sailor Soucy said in an interview for a Navy official history, “and was looking out a porthole in sick bay when someone said, ‘What the hell are all those planes doing up there on a Sunday?’ Someone else said, ‘It must be those crazy Marines. They’d be the only ones out maneuvering on a Sunday.'” At that moment, Isquith was telling sailors on the bridge to sound battle stations.

Like many, Soucy was slow to discover that friendlies weren’t at the controls of the aircraft overhead. “When I looked up in the sky I saw five or six planes starting their descent. Then when the first bombs dropped on the hangars at Ford Island, I thought, ‘Those guys are missing us by a mile.’ Inasmuch as practice bombing was a daily occurrence to us, it was not too unusual for planes to drop bombs, but the time and place were quite out of line. We could not imagine bombing practice in port. It occurred to me and to most of the others that someone had really goofed this time and put live bombs on those planes by mistake.” Ford Island was, of course, the site of a naval air station right in the middle of the moored fleet.

“In any event, even after I saw a huge fireball and cloud of black smoke rise from the hangars on Ford Island and heard explosions, it still did not occur to me that these were enemy planes. It was too incredible! Simply beyond imagination!”

The attack on the Utah itself came swiftly, at 8:01 a.m. The Utah was one of the first ships struck by 353 Japanese planes from six carriers, attacking Pearl Harbor in two waves. The battleship, now considered a “miscellaneous auxiliary” in its intended role as a weapons trainer and floating target, was at a berth where an aircraft carrier was usually located. The Japanese may have believed she was a carrier. There were, in fact, no carriers in port that day – as the attackers would learn to their regret.

While a bugler was sounding general quarters, the Utah took two torpedoes within five minutes of the beginning of the attack. The ship listed so rapidly Isquith had no choice but to do something he’d never imagined he would do – give the order to abandon ship. Men began swarming over the sides, their shouts drowned by the booming of the battle that unfolded around them. No one had finished hoisting the flag that was to be raised at 8:00 a.m. By 8:12 a.m., the mooring lines that held the Utah in place snapped – like “whips whistling through the air,” one observer wrote – and the battleship rolled over, its masts digging into the muddy floor of Pearl Harbor. The Utah lay bottom up, a total loss. Fifty-eight men perished in the ship.


‘Distinguished conduct…’

When the 21,285-ton displacement battleship capsized and turned over, Chief Watertender Peter Tomich ignored the obvious opportunity to save himself. Tomich was 48, an ethnic Croat from a village in what was then Austria-Hungary and is today part of Bosnia. He was in the Army during World War I and became a sailor immediately after the armistice, serving aboard the destroyer USS Litchfield (DD 336). Recently, he’d said something to a shipmate about his current location being an “island paradise.” Now, he believed his duty was to secure the boilers and make certain other sailors escaped.

Chief Watertender Peter Tomich

Chief Watertender Peter Tomich, USN, who was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism on board USS Utah (AG 16) during the Dec. 7, 1941 Japanese air attack on Pearl Harbor. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

Tomich remained at his station and prevented what might have been a worse disaster had the boilers ruptured. This act of heroism cost Tomich his life. Posthumously, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for “distinguished conduct in the line of his profession, and extraordinary courage and disregard of his own safety.” As a sidelight to Tomich’s story, the Navy could find no next-of-kin to whom to present the medal until a family member was located and a ceremony held in Split, Croatia, sixty-five years later in 2006.

Fireman Second Class John Vaessen was working at the switchboard when blasts jolted the Utah. Vaessen stayed at his post and later said, “I was very busy flipping switches trying to keep [the ship’s lights working].” Vaessen was awarded the Navy Cross. Trapped in the overturned Utah, he was saved only when Bill Hill, a shipfitter from another vessel, heard him hammering on the hull and used a torch to cut open the Utah‘s bottom.

Remembered Soucy: “Many of the Utah survivors [were] taken to the USS Argonne (AP 4), a transport. Gunners manning .50 caliber machine guns on the partially submerged USS California directly across from the Argonne hit the ship while shooting at the planes. A stray, armor-piercing bullet penetrated Argonne‘s thin bulkhead, went through a Utah survivor’s arm, and spent itself in another sailor’s heart. He died instantly.”

The hulk was partially righted to clear another berth, but was not salvaged. Utah remains at Pearl Harbor today.

The Utah had been launched at Camden, N. J. and commissioned on Aug. 21, 1911. She was 521 feet six inches in length. Originally given hull number BB 31, she was redesignated AG 16 on July 1, 1931, and converted to a radio-controlled target ship.

The Navy refitted the Utah with new guns and armor at Bremerton, Wash., only in October 1941. The refurbishment gave the Utah a great deal of shiny wooden planking, possibly giving the appearance of a flat deck. To Japanese pilots whose own carriers had features in common with other surface warships, the Utah may have been mistaken for an American carrier. She may have stood out when viewed from above, even though historian Martinez said Utah was “not so famous” compared to other warships struck that day.

Torpedoed, capsized and sunk at Pearl Harbor, the Utah was not officially placed out of commission until September 1944. The hulk was partially righted to clear another berth, but was not salvaged. Utah remains at Pearl Harbor today.


Robert F. Dorr is an author, U.S. Air Force veteran, and retired American diplomat who...

    li class="comment byuser comment-author-dwight-jon-zimmerman even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-18327">
    Dwight Jon Zimmerman

    Great article, Bob!