U.S.S. Arizona at its prime

The U.S.S. Arizona: A Fallen Giant Inspires Victory

On December 7th, 1941, the Empire of Japan launched a surprise military strike into the heart of the United State’s Pacific naval presence. At 7:48 in the morning, a fleet of 6 Japanese aircraft carriers launched over 400 aircraft towards Pearl Harbor with the goal of crippling as the Pacific Fleet and preventing U.S. meddling in the on-going accumulation of Imperial power in Southeast Asia.

At the very center of the ensuing firestorm sat the U.S.S. Arizona: a massive Pennsylvania-class battleship crewed by 1,400 U.S. sailors completely unaware of what was about to happen.

The Super Dreadnought

The construction of the U.S.S. Arizona began in 1914. The massive undertaking was informed by hard-won knowledge gained during the opening naval exchanges of World War I. The changing face of modern warfare showed navies on all sides of this conflict surprised by the sheer immensity of modern war ships…not to mention the incredible distance they could launch volleys of tremendous firepower. The Pennsylvania class battleships, the Arizona and the Pennsylvania, were both “Super Dreadnoughts” built to be bigger, faster, and farther-reaching than any other battleship in U.S. Naval history.


U.S.S. Arizona at its prime
U.S.S. Arizona in its prime


Ships in World War I naval engagements were firing farther, with bigger, more destructive guns, and the Arizona took advantage of this. 12 14″ guns (shells were 14″ in diameter) were mounted into 4 massive triple turrets. Maximum range was set to 21,000 yards (over 11 miles). For defense against smaller boats, the Arizona had 22 5″ guns. Beneath the waves hid 2 21″ torpedo tubes for the destruction of underwater targets. For air defense, the Arizona carried 4 3″ anti-aircraft guns.

Armor used the “all or nothing” principle. The heaviest armor was placed where it was needed most, along the waterline of the ship to face the incoming shells of enemy battleships. Less armor was placed everywhere else, in order to decrease weight and increase effective speed. Unlike many of the World War I-era ships, the Pennyslynaia class used fuel oil (diesel) to increase engine power while decreasing the amount of space necessary for fuel. Nevertheless, the Arizona still required a fuel tank with a capacity of 1,500 tons of fuel. With this capacity it could move at 12 knots (14 mph) for over 6,000 nautical miles.

Pride of the Fleet

The new U.S.S. Arizona were ready for war by 1916, but that turned out to be too late for World War I. The Arizona never joined the British Fleet in Europe, but instead was relegated to defensive patrols along the Eastern Seaboard. After Armistice Day, the battleship became a symbol of American Naval power, sailing to diplomatic hot spots around the world and offering escorts to various U.S. presidents such as Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding and Herbert Hoover during visits overseas.


U.S.S. Arizona on display in New York City
U.S.S. Arizona on display in New York City


During the interwar period, the Arizona was subjected to refitting and modernization, increasing the number of anti-aircraft guns from 4 to 12.  The threat of air warfare had became more and more apparent during the many, many training exercises the U.S. Navy conducted. And by 1941, the battleship was sent to Pearl Harbor in anticipation of potential hostilities in the Pacific.

The Day of Infamy

The Japanese carriers struck unprovoked, without warning, and without any formal declaration of war from the Empire of Japan (no declaration of war was published until December 8th).

The air raid sirens on board the Arizona began at 7:55. Approx. 5 minutes later the battleship came under fire from 10 Japanese torpedo bombers, and found itself on the receiving end of 7 bombs, each weighing approx. 1,700 lbs.

The attack resulted in 5 hits and 3 near misses. Many of the hits were directly to the top of the ship, completely avoiding the reinforced armor belt protecting the waterline. The last bomb, which hit just 11 minutes after the first air-raid siren went off, penetrated an ammunition magazine holding the gigantic 14″ rounds used for the Arizona’s main guns. The explosion ripped the ship in half. Of the 1,400 crewmen on board the Arizona less than 300 would escape the explosion, fire and sinking of the giant battleship.


The U.S.S. Arizona burns and sinks after the attack on Pearl Harbor


Besides the Arizona, 4 other battleships were sunk. 18 ships total were destroyed. 155 planes had been destroyed while still on the ground. In the aftermath, Japan began attacks in Asia to further drive out American, Dutch, English and French influence. The island nation of the Philippines was quickly overrun along with Malaya and Singapore,

A Terrible Loss points the way to Victory

The group of six carrier aircraft that comprised the secret Japanese strike force achieved their stated aims and more. But rather than destroying America’s morale, the action did the exact opposite. Arizona (and the attack on Pearl Harbor) became a rallying cry under which the remaining U.S. naval forces could wage war against the Japanese fleet, manufacture new ships, recruit and train new sailors.

And, it turned out, the most valuable parts of U.S. fleet were left completely undamaged. While most of the ships in harbor were destroyed, the Japanese aircraft did not take the time to destroy the shipyards themselves. Pearl Harbor’s ability to supply fuel, repair and other support services to the Fleet continued almost completely uninterrupted.

And perhaps even more importantly, all seven U.S. aircraft carriers were away from Pearl Harbor during the attack.


U.S.S. Enterprise aircraft carrier
U.S.S. Enterprise aircraft carrier


Less than 4 months later, the U.S. mounted a direct attack on mainland Japan in the form of the Doolittle Raid. This was the beginning of America’s fight to take back the Pacific, using its remaining aircraft carriers and submarines to slowly turn the tide.

And the tactics that the U.S. Navy would eventually use were a direct result of Japan’s success at Pearl Harbor.

Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, aircraft carriers had rarely been part of larger carrier forces. The attack by Japan’s 6-carrier force proved that by leaving battleships behind, a large carrier group could move quickly and deliver a withering swarm of bombing aircraft faster than most military strategists had thought possible. With its own aircraft carriers grouped similarly, the United States military forces were able to wreck the same devastation time and again across a Pacific where Japanese defenses had been drawn thin thanks to all their earlier successes.

By the Battle of Midway in June of 1942 (about 6 months after Pearl Harbor), the tides had turned and Japan was on the defensive. By 1945, Japan had been driven back to its home territory and the last remnants of the Japanese fleet found the swarms of U.S. bomber aircraft as tenacious as when they had turned them on others.

One of the last engagements of the Pacific War saw the Japanese battleship Yamato unsuccessfully face off against U.S. forces in the defense of Okinawa.

The mega-battleship, the pride of the remaining Japanese Navy, was constructed using the full industrial power of Imperial Japan at its prime. It was even larger than the Arizona at 863 feet long (compared to the Arizona’s 608 feet). It carried 9 enormous 18″ guns. And despite being decked out with 24 anti-aircraft guns, its defense of Japan was transformed into a slow, agonizing death under bombardment from the combined aircraft of the U.S. Enterprise, Yorktown and Intrepid carriers. On April 7th, 1945 after being struck by 12 bombs and 7 torpedoes, the Yamato exploded and sank beneath the waves of the Pacific forever.


Destruction of the Yamato
The Yamato’s main magazine explodes in an enormous mushroom cloud

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27 Responses to “The U.S.S. Arizona: A Fallen Giant Inspires Victory”

  1. Clay Henderson

    Great brief. Thank you for taking the time to publish this and remember The USS Arizona and the rest of the fallen at Pearl Harbor.

  2. Stephen Krell

    Sir: Your opening picture is NOT that of the Arizona! Please LOOK at what you publish!
    s krell

  3. Gaylord DeMoure

    My father-in law was on 7 different ships when he was in the navy of which the Arizona was his 3rd.
    We have old pictures taken by him in the late 30’s of the ship at sea , and the engine room of which
    he was a machinist mate in 1939. They are amazing early pictures. He went into the navy at 17 in
    1934 and didn’t get out until 1945. He was going to get out as war broke out. He just could not bring himself to go to Hawaii years later.

  4. ed

    thanks for remembering; these people bled and died for the FREEDOM – so many take for granted today
    a Vet. and American

  5. robert white

    my uncle Charles white from strong city ks went down on the Arizona when they redeacad the viewing area the paid for mom and dad to come to the service and gave my dad a piece of the granite floor

  6. Gary J. Crowell

    My girlfriend and I visited Pearl Harbor during the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. We visited the USS Arizona memorial, and I was astonished to see that fuel oil was still seeping from the Arizona’s fuel bunkers. The memorial itself is a very quiet and peaceful place to reflect upon what this ship represented in 1941, and what it still represented in 2016. I am very proud to be a Navy veteran, and I sometimes feel that today the Arizona is truly the sleeping Giant referred to by Admiral Yamamoto when after learning just how devastating the was attack on Pearl Harbor he said, “I feel that we have awakened a sleeping giant, and filled him with a terrible remorse”.

    • Bill Wray

      I believe the final word in Yamamoto’s quote was resolve, not remorse.

  7. John H Reilley III

    My father was in the army engineers stationed at Hickum Field when the island was attacked. He had told me that they were building pill boxes and laying barbed wire and handing out live amunition a day or so before the attack in anticipation of an invasion. We should never have been cought by surprise.

  8. Steve B. USCG

    Very Nice Thank You Hope to see

  9. Dave Sepulveda

    Thank you to all who have served and are presently serving.
    May God Bless you, your families and the United States.

    An American

  10. Brian Hand

    Thank you so much for sharing this. God bless the men and woman of our armed forces, past and present and God Bless this Great country.

  11. Tom Homer

    That is indeed a photo of the 1920’s U.S.S. Alabama prior to its modernization during the 1930’s. Tom Servo is correct, below, and Stephen Krell is mistaken. We had two brothers on our small street that were killed at Pearl Harbor that day. God bless America and our men and women in uniform.

  12. Skisphinx

    No matter how many versions I read or see, one thing remains a constant. There is never any mention of Billy Mitchell’s contribution to this whole chain of events. I guess that’s part of the mystery of history. The way the past can still make some parties uncomfortable even today?

    • Skisphinx

      It isn’t my intention to demean a well written article*

    • Ragnar Benson.

      You are so right, the man was a true visionary. Those above him like the Brits did not like upstarts.
      That rigidity cost thousand of lives later. It is too bad that the man did not live long enough to see his vindication. Guys like Westover, Le May and others carried forth and built the heavy bomber fleet even with opposition from the narrow minded.
      Even here in the late 30’s the navy tried to block the air corp from patrolling “their” oceans.
      The interception of the Italian liner the Rex made the navy apoplectic.

      As a side note, the Arizona did not burn Diesel oil.
      It burned a heavy crude called bunker oil.

  13. John Harris

    Thank you for a wonderful essay of the USS Arizona! A truly great ship that died before her time. We must never forget Pearl Harbor or 9-11 and the brave men and women that gave all.

    My only suggestions would be to proof read for typos and there were only three US carriers in the Pacific at the time of Pearl Harbor, the USS Saratoga, Lexington and Enterprise unless you were counting all US carriers, then there were five. The USS Ranger and Wasp were in the Atlantic at the time.

    • Bill Wray

      I think you forgot the USS Hornet which launched Doolittle’s rsid s few months later.

  14. wendell york

    Again, the U.S. shuts down 2 world powers at the same time , all we had to do is bring that other hand around from behind it’s back, their was no hope nippon after 6 months. Now they and (krautland are our allies ) Great Britan and France are but a shadow of their former selves. We should have let George Pattons boys go on into ussr . my uncle William King was on the USS St. Louis, it was the first ship to clear the harbour, in search of the jap fleet.

  15. Terry ryan

    I think this is great I’m a world war 2 person I wish all Americans would learn to know just how much America came together then to defeat this enemy. Today I’m ashamed of people today. They don’t know just how much was given for our country. I thank you for caring. ! Terry ryan

  16. David j. Clarke

    Thank you for reminding us about our military history. It shows all of us the real Americans we should always be. David j. Clarke , Indiana.

  17. Wm Ahlers

    Yes Mr Krell, this is a photo of Arizona or Pennsylvania before modernization in the 1930s. The secondary batteries in the hull were removed and the openings were plated over during this overhaul. This is how Arizona would have appeared at Pearl Harbor in 1941.The photo shown is an early view of Arizona or Pennsylvania.The Pennsylvania was the first ship in the class and Arizona was her sister ship and both ships were nearly identical at launching and up to Pearl Harbor.

  18. Howard Michael Rudd, GMC U.S. Navy (ret)

    I retired from the U.S. Navy on 31 July 2014 after 36 years of service. I have been to the Hawaiian Islands for several visits. On every occasion I would visit the U.S.S. Arizona to pay my respect to the fallen Sailor’s and Marines assigned to the ship. I am a man and I do not cry, but for every visit I made to the ship I cried. On every occasion I would be overwhelmed with sadden, but also honor. The men aboard this ship are gallant hero’s and this memorial allow us to never forget there sacrifice.

    • gary montgomery

      if the Arizona and Pennsylvania were in a class by themselves, what class was the USS Michigan?
      I have toured the UUS Alabama but the size of the Michigan was overwhelming!