An Opportunity of a Lifetime – A dive on the Arizona

We had returned from our 1985 Westpac deployment and were in upkeep status at Pearl when the XO (Paul Bruno) got a call from CSR5. They wanted to know if we could supply some divers to work with the National Park Service 10 year survey of the USS Arizona. Of course the XO said yes and then asked me if I would like to go. Of course I said yes too! My memory is vague but I believe six or seven of the divers volunteered, including Master Diver Jimmy Johnson. Maybe someone out there can refresh my memory on who actually went on the project. But I regress.

USS Arizona overhead and elevation sketch of damageWe went to the memorial in the ship’s workboat and were briefed by the Park Service dive supervisor. Essentially, the Park Service had ran out of divers and needed the Navy’s services to continue the survey until their divers could return. The purpose of the survey, which the supervisor said were conducted every 10 years, was to determine if the wreck was stable or showed signs of movement. The Park Service had installed a grid system that covered the entire ship, which the surveyors used to make their measurements. Paul and I were assigned a small caliber (20 or 50 I believe) gun tub on the STBD side immediately below the memorial observation platform. But before we conducted our survey, we were given the opportunity to do an indoc dive of the entire ship. XO and LT Oswald, Conserver’s Operations Officer, and I suited up and entered the water.

The indoc dive consisted of navigating around the ship, beginning at the memorial’s small boat landing. It was one of the most interesting dives I’ve ever made. Just being so close to this piece of our history was an incredible feeling. Looking into a porthole, even though I couldn’t see what was inside, took me back to that fateful day that will “live in infamy” as President Roosevelt stated in his address to Congress on 8 Dec 1941. As I peered into the inside of the wreck, I wondered who may have been in that compartment back then and if he was still there, at his battle station, entombed forever.

As we circumnavigated the ship, we stopped near the bow and the only remaining 14-inch turret still relatively intact. The barrels were still there and were depressed almost to the deck. The deck forward of the turret was littered with line, chain, and other unidentifiable parts and pieces of debris. The bow was totally destroyed; jagged metal pointing upward was proof of the fact that a major explosion had occurred in one or all of the forward magazines. Paul and I swam between the turret’s barrels and LT Oswald, who had an underwater camera, took a photo of us there. Then we proceeded up the port side to the boat landing, surfaced and got ready to go to work.

The actual survey was fairly simple. Paul and I measured the distance between designated structural points in the gun tub to one of the grid lines, and recorded the distance on a slate board. The whole thing took about an hour and a half, then we proceeded to the memorial and delivered our data to the Park Service rep.

The measurements were used by a Park Service artist to create a sketch of the wreck and the bottom extending a short distance from  either side. We watched him working on the drawing, which if my memory serves me correctly, was about 50% complete. It was fascinating to watch. You can see a large size version of that drawing if you visit the Arizona Memorial Museum at Pearl. Click this link to view the USS Arizona wreck online.

From what I discovered a few  years later, the survey did detect movement of the wreck. It was spreading from the keel outward. The movement wasn’t large, but enough to convince the Park Service that something needed to be done to prevent further movement. I was told that they decided to deposit parts of the superstructure that were removed during the salvage operation back in 41 and 42. I think most of us were unaware that the Navy had saved the superstructure parts on government property at Pearl. So it was a relatively simple matter to move it over and place it alongside the wreck. The thought was that the superstructure pieces would help prevent the wreck from opening up further, thus preventing or delaying a catastrophic fuel leak of the bunker oil still contained in the wreck’s fuel tanks. I’m not sure if this actually happened, but I got the info from a reputable source. I haven’t been back to the memorial since that day in 85 to check it out.

I’ve also learned that the Navy has developed a way to extract bunker fuel oil from wrecks, so we may one day see them removing the Arizona’s bunker, some 2000 barrels of it.

When everyone was finished, we took departure and headed back to the ship. As I recall, we were all pretty excited about what we had just seen and done.  While we were on the way back, and in his inevitable style, the XO approached me and, being very secretive, told me he had removed something from the wreck as a keepsake. “Oh God”, I thought, “we are in big trouble now! Just wait until the Park Service discovers the missing piece”. Then with that ever present twinkle in his eye, Paul produced his “keepsake” for me to see. It was an inexpensive plastic camera, made in Japan, that someone visiting the memorial had probably accidently lost over the side. We both had a good laugh!

Somewhere in my cluttered archives lies that photograph of Paul Bruno and me kneeling between those gun barrels. I’ll try to find it and  post it here and on Facebook.

John Ackerman

About John Ackerman

Enlisted 9/55, came up through the ranks from the QM rate; SA - QMCS(SS), WO1, CW02, LTJG - LCDR. Served in submarines for 14 years, qualified as a Diving Officer (HE02) in 70. Then on to ASRs, ASs, and finally the best damned ship in the Navy, USS CONSERVER, which I proudly commanded from 84 to her first decomm in September 86. Retired on 1 Jan 87.

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