Battleship Oklahoma, BB-37

Battleship Oklahoma, BB-37


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Battleship Oklahoma, BB-37 by Jeff Phister, Thomas Hone, Paul Goodyear

On a quiet Sunday morning in 1941, a ship designed to keep the peace was suddenly attacked. This book tells the remarkable story of a battleship, its brave crew, and how their lives were intertwined.

Jeff Phister and his coauthors have written the comprehensive history of the USS Oklahoma from its christening in 1914 to its final loss in 1947. Phister tells how the Oklahoma served in World War I, participated in the Great Cruise of 1925, and evacuated refugees from Spain in 1936. But the most memorable event of the ship’s history occurred on December 7, 1941.

Phister weaves the personal narratives of surviving crewmen with the necessary technical information to recreate the attack and demonstrate the full scope of its devastation. Captured Japanese photographs and dozens of historic U.S. Navy photographs deepen our understanding of this monumental event.

Raised after the attack, the Oklahoma sank again while being towed stateside and now rests on the ocean floor, 540 miles northeast of Oahu. Battleship Oklahoma: BB-37 tells the complete story of a proud ship and her fall through the eyes of those who survived her loss.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780806139364
Publisher: University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 662,419
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Jeff Phister is a freelance biographer in Phoenix, Arizona, and an active member of the USS Oklahoma Family, Inc., a nonprofit corporation dedicated to preserving the memory of the USS Oklahoma.

Read an Excerpt

Battleship Oklahoma BB-37

By Jeff Phister, Thomas Hone, Paul Goodyear


Copyright © 2008 University of Oklahoma Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-3936-4


Oklahoma's Genesis

"The President is hereby authorized to have constructed two first-class battleships, each carrying as heavy armor and as powerful armament as any vessel in its class, to have the highest practicable speed and the greatest practicable radius of action, and to cost, exclusive of armor and armament, not to exceed six million dollars each."

—Naval Appropriation Act, March 4, 1911

The war with Spain in 1898 showed that the U.S. Navy was a force to be reckoned with both in the Caribbean and in the far Pacific, where the United States had gained control of the Philippines. To give the navy the muscle it needed to assert American interests in the Pacific and the Caribbean, between 1900 and 1911 Congress authorized the navy to add twenty-two battleships and seven large armored cruisers to the force that had defeated Spain's navy in 1898. Twelve of the newest battleships were of the dreadnought type, with very heavy batteries of 12-and 14-inch guns. USS Oklahoma (BB-37) and USS Nevada (BB36) were the newest and most powerful.

The power of Oklahoma and Nevada came from their batteries of ten 14-inch guns, their great steaming range (eight thousand nautical miles at ten knots' speed), and their heavy armor protection. When launched in the spring and summer of 1914, the two new battleships caused something of a stir among the world's navies. The ships were a sign that the U.S. Navy was technologically and militarily mature—that it could design and build battleships equal to or better than those of any other navy.

Where did these two impressive battleships come from? After all, the U.S. Navy was a Johnny-come-lately on the world stage. Congress did not authorize the navy to build powerful battleships until 1890. In twenty years, the navy had fostered a shipbuilding industry, created a corps of talented engineers and naval architects who could tap the latest developments in technology, and bootstrapped itself from a navy that could never hope to take on the world's best to a force that was capable—finally—of unilaterally enforcing the Monroe Doctrine.

To understand the genesis of Oklahoma and Nevada, you have to understand the problems that the rapidly growing U.S. Navy faced as it moved from the minor naval leagues to the majors. The basic problem facing the navy's battleship designers was how to pack the most punch into a ship of reasonable size and cost. A battleship was like a prizefighter in the ring. It had to be able to dish out punches as well as take them. It also had to have stamina and employ tactics that would defeat an opponent. Unfortunately for the designers, technological advances had made necessary a tremendous change in tactics.

In 1898, battleships fought at short range. In the Battle of Santiago on July 3, 1898, not one of the 13-inch shells fired by American battleships struck a Spanish ship. Only 13 of the 319 8-inch shells fired by the U.S. ships struck their intended targets. Seven years later, at the Battle of Tsushima between Russian and Japanese fleets, the accuracy of heavy naval guns had not improved much. Japanese gunners were able to hit Russian battleships at 6,000 yards, or less than 3 ½ miles, but the most severe damage inflicted on the Russian ships came at a range of 4,700 yards, or about 2 2/3 miles, and it was not the biggest guns that did the most damage.

The larger navies recognized that the big guns were not accurate at long range, and therefore they built battleships that carried intermediate batteries of 8-inch, 7-inch, and 6-inch guns—as well as many smaller weapons to ward off torpedo boats. But by the time the United States dispatched its Great White Fleet from Hampton Roads, Virginia, on an around-the-world cruise in 1907, a revolution was in the making. The big guns were becoming accurate at long range. They had to. Otherwise, the inexpensive, fast, and highly maneuverable torpedo boats every navy was building would make the battleship obsolete.

But there was still the question: How accurate would the larger (12-and 14-inch) guns be at really long range? When Texas and New York, the two battleships that preceded Nevada and Oklahoma, were being designed in the spring of 1910, the designers knew that the ships would carry new and reliable 14-inch guns, but they were also convinced that the ships' gunners could not hit enemy ships at the maximum range of the guns, which was twenty thousand yards, or 11 1/3 miles. So they planned for battles at a range of ten thousand yards, or just over 5 2/3 miles, where shells approaching a battleship would come in at a shallow angle of fifteen degrees or less. It followed that Texas and New York would need armor protection mostly on the sides. As it happened, the gunners in every major navy found that with new range-finding equipment, they could hit targets at the maximum range, and the 1,400-pound shells fired from those guns at the maximum range would arcover the side armor plating that protected ships such as Texas and New York.

By the time this was understood, it was too late to change the design of Texas and New York, but the navy's ship designers understood that they had a problem on their hands for the next class of ship. Their first impulse was to make only incremental changes to the design of Texas and New York, but the General Board of the Navy, a panel of senior admirals who advised the secretary of the navy, rejected that approach. It was time to take some risks. Otherwise, the navy would not get a battleship that met its needs and was both affordable and not too large for dry docks, anchorages, and the locks of the Panama Canal.

Several innovations developed in 1910 came together to make a new design possible in the spring of 1911: a battleship turret that could carry three guns instead of two, which meant Oklahoma and Nevada could carry the same number of 14-inch guns (ten) as Texas and New York but in four turrets instead of five; "all or nothing" armor protection; the shift from coal to oil fuel; and the use of turbine engines.


In many older battleships, armor on the sides and much thinner armor on one or more decks were like the armor worn by a medieval knight—a burden. The armor provided protection, but at the price of being dead weight. In 1911, however, the navy's ship designers hit on a method to make it an integral part of a battleship's structure.

The method provided the ship with very thick side armor (13 ½ inches tapering to 8 inches below the waterline) over about two-thirds of her length. Capping this heavy side armor was an armored deck three inches thick. One deck below this one was another, lighter armor deck 1 ½ inches thick. In essence, the heart of Oklahoma, consisting of her engines, her ammunition magazines, and her gunnery and damage-control nerve centers, was inside an armored box—very thick at the sides and ends, and thick enough on top. Sticking up out of this armored box were the armored supports for her turrets, a heavily armored conning tower for her captain in battle, and a conical armored foundation for her funnel. Her turrets had faceplates eighteen inches thick, with armor five inches thick on top and nine inches thick on the back.

This form of armor protection was sometimes referred to as "protection where it mattered." As one navy officer reportedly put it, if Oklahoma were hit by an enemy shell where it mattered, then it would not matter. Conversely, if the ship were struck by a shell where it did not matter, then that would not matter, either. You can see the difference by comparing the weights of New York and Nevada:

Displacement Weight of
Weight of
Ship (tons) armor (tons) weapons (tons) keel laid

New York 27,000 8,965 2,582 1911
Nevada 27,500 11,309 2,586 1912

With just 500 extra tons of displacement, Nevada, Oklahoma's sister ship, carried 2,344 additional tons of armor—or about 25 percent more than New York or Texas. What made this dramatic difference possible was the integration of the heavy side- and deck-protective armor into the ship's structure, where it provided both protection and strength for the hull and for the ship's superstructure. This creative design set the pattern for all U.S. Navy battleships built before the Washington Naval Treaty—halting new battleship construction—was signed in 1922.


The navy had decided in 1910 to fuel all future battleships with oil. Oil fuel was much, much cleaner than coal, which meant less mess when the ship refueled and hardly any residual ash deposits on the burners that heated the boilers. Oil also had more thermal energy per pound than coal, and it took far fewer firemen to tend an oil-fired boiler than a coal-fired one. Oil-fired boilers also did not need pressured fire rooms, which had been required in older battleships to provide sufficient air to burn coal, and oil-fired ships needed fewer smokestacks. It was also easier to take on oil at sea from tankers than coal from colliers, and oil-fired battleships could refuel their own escorting destroyers.

In 1914, fitting Oklahoma with oil-fired reciprocating engines was defended because they would use less fuel when the ship cruised at low speeds over long distances. Her engines were also expected to be much easier to maintain because oil under pressure would lubricate their moving parts.


To make best use of the available energy in coal and oil, the navy experimented with turbines (in Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania), reciprocating engines (in Texas, New York, and Oklahoma), and eventually with turbo-electric drive (in New Mexico, Tennessee, and California). Turbo-electric drive used turbines operating at high speed to spin the armatures in generators, creating direct current that was then used to power separate electric motors. What you see in the battle fleet in the years just before and during World War I is a high degree of experimentation, with navy designers trying out different types of engines, different forms of underwater protection, and even different hull designs. The result was a battle fleet with ships of very different capabilities.

When Oklahoma and Nevada were designed, the navy decided to equip Nevada with steam turbines but Oklahoma with reciprocating steam engines. The navy's Bureau of Steam Engineering was not confident that existing steam turbine power plants had the reliability to work consistently well as the battle fleet steamed across the Pacific to meet its likely Japanese opponents. The factors that shaped the choice of reciprocating engines for Oklahoma were reliability, fuel efficiency, and ease of upkeep.

Oklahoma's engines were powered by steam produced in boilers. Each of the battleship's two triple-expansion engines was like a huge automobile engine. Attached to a finely balanced crankshaft was a row of four cylinders: a high-pressure cylinder (thirty-five inches in diameter), an intermediate-pressure cylinder (fifty-nine inches in diameter), and two low-pressure cylinders (each seventy-eight inches in diameter). The pistons in the cylinders, like those in an automobile engine, went up and down, through a full stroke of forty-eight inches in response to 250 pounds of steam pressure from Oklahoma's twelve boilers. The crankshafts converted that up-and-down motion into circular motion, and the circular motion turned the drive shafts that drove the ship's two massive propellers. Oklahoma's boilers and engines weighed just over 1,900 tons, and they generated approximately 22,000 horsepower when she was first commissioned.

But what gave this engine the ability to work both effectively and efficiently? The answer is simple: it used the same steam multiple times. The steam at its hottest and highest pressure was used first to push the piston in the high-pressure cylinder. Once it had done that, the energy-depleted steam was exhausted into the intermediate-pressure cylinder and used to push the piston there. Then, though with less heat and at a lower pressure, it was used yet one more time to displace the pistons in the two large low-pressure cylinders. Finally, the steam, robbed by now of most of its energy, was sent to a condenser, where it was cooled to form water that was filtered and recycled to the boilers.

This is where the reciprocating engines on Oklahoma differed from their cousins, the engines that drove steam locomotives. In a steam locomotive, there was only one high-pressure cylinder. Once the steam was used, it was either lost or captured and condensed to water. That was too inefficient a system for a ship that had to operate for weeks at sea without stops for additional fuel. Moreover, the ship had to use distilled seawater in its boilers, and the distilling process used energy, and energy—like ammunition for the big guns—was scarce and therefore precious.

Adding to the reliability of Oklahoma's main engines was her impressive maintenance capability. She carried spare parts for her engines, such as piston rods, piston rings, valve stems, crank pins, bearings, and cylinder head bolts. Oklahoma also had spare oil burners, furnace doors, water gauges, condenser tubes, and oil strainers. Her workshops were equipped with machine tools—lathes, drills, milling machines, grinders—and a blacksmith's forge so that her engineering department could repair her main engines and other mechanical devices, such as the pumps that drew in seawater and emptied her bilges. She was even built with a foundry so that her metalsmiths and boilermakers could cast parts in an emergency without having to return to a major base.

In 1911, the weight of her engines was comparable to the weights of existing turbines, and it was easier then to throw a reciprocating engine into reverse. When Oklahoma was designed, the basic difference between turbines and reciprocating engines was that the turbines operated more efficiently at high speed than at low speed, while reciprocating engines were more efficient at low speeds. Because the battle fleet did not cruise at high speed, the reciprocating engine was a sensible alternative to turbine propulsion.

Oklahoma's engines were built well. When she was modernized after 1927, she kept her engines but was given six more modern and efficient boilers in place of her original twelve. Her maximum speed dropped below twenty knots because her weight had risen to over thirty-two thousand tons from her original twenty-eight thousand. However, her engineering performance remained impressive. In 1940, for example, at ten knots speed, her boilers burned 752 gallons of fuel per hour, giving her the ability to cruise almost 18,000 nautical miles without refueling. At nineteen knots, her maximum speed, fuel consumption jumped to 3,723 gallons per hour, giving her an endurance of only about 6,900 nautical miles.

Newer battleships did better. West Virginia, the last of the battleships built before the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, had boilers that consumed 521 gallons of oil per hour at ten knots sustained speed. At nineteen knots, West Virginia's boilers burned 2,826 gallons of fuel per hour, giving her an endurance of 8,954 nautical miles. But Oklahoma's power plant was a good deal for the American taxpayer. When designed, the ship was never intended to serve as long as she did (25 years), yet her engines continued to function effectively throughout her long life—giving her the range and the mechanical reliability she was originally required to have.


Oklahoma's mission was to destroy or disable any ship that she attacked. Her 14-inch guns were designed to smash through the armor of enemy battleships and cruisers, detonating their powder magazines, wrecking their engines and boilers, or disabling their steering so that they could be picked off later. Oklahoma's 5-inch guns were there to repel the attacks of destroyers. In the daytime, enemy destroyers would attack from behind a smoke screen. At night, they would try to overwhelm the ability of Oklahoma's 5-inch guns and searchlights to nail them as they dashed at her from the darkness.

But Oklahoma was not designed to fight alone. She was meant to serve as one unit in a line of battleships. The goal of battleship tactics in every major navy was the same—to concentrate heavy fire on one part of the enemy's fleet, sinking and disabling one or two divisions of its battleships quickly, and then turning the heavy guns on the rest of the enemy's force. It was essential to find the enemy, strike fast and hard, and keep the enemy from retreating. In May 1916, at the Battle of Jutland, the British battleships hit their German opponents hard, but they allowed the Germans to slip away during the night and were robbed of the victory they had been right on the edge of achieving.


Excerpted from Battleship Oklahoma BB-37 by Jeff Phister, Thomas Hone, Paul Goodyear. Copyright © 2008 University of Oklahoma Press. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


List of Illustrations,
Preface, by Paul Goodyear,
1. Oklahoma's Genesis,
2. Life on the Oklahoma,
3. Oklahoma's First Mission,
4. The Great Cruise and Modernization,
5. Earthquakes, Refugees, and War,
6. Countdown to Pearl Harbor,
7. A Quiet Sunday Morning,
8. Damn the Torpedoes,
9. Topside—7:55 A.M.,
10. Chaos Below,
11. Twelve-Inch Portholes,
12. Trapped!,
13. Thirty-Two Came Back,
14. Resurrection,
15. She Chose the Sea,
A. Commanding Officers and Dates of Service,
B. Medal Citations: December 7, 1941,
C. USS Oklahoma Crew Roster: December 7, 1941,
D. Ships Named for USS Oklahoma Crewmen,

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Battleship Oklahoma BB-37 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Haha !
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Blackfeather slowly walked up the river. She shivered when she saw a small speck of blood on a rock.
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