The University of Arizona Library

USS Arizona - A Brief History

Building and Shakedown

On March 16, 1914 the New York Navy Yard laid down the keel to begin construction of battleship number 39, which would later be named Arizona (Original speculation was that the ship would be named the North Carolina, the home state of Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels). The Pennsylvania class (consisting of the Arizona and the Pennsylvania) formed the next step of the US Navy's response to the naval arms race that had begun in 1906 when the Royal Navy completed the HMS Dreadnought. The ship was launched on June 19, 1915. Miss Esther Ross, of Prescott, christened the ship, along with the traditional champagne, with a bottle of the first water to pass over the spillway of Roosevelt Dam, which was completed in 1911 but which took until April 15, 1915 to fill. Construction continued on the floating hull and the ship was commissioned on October 17, 1916.

During 1917 residents of Arizona organized a state-wide fund raising effort to pay for a silver service to present to the Arizona.

Arizona experienced considerable problems with her engines during her trials, to the extent that the blades were striped from one her turbines, requiring months in dry dock to replace. The work was finished in March 1917, and the Arizona served with the Atlantic Fleet as a gunnery training ship during World War I. Coal was more plentiful than oil in Great Britain during the war, and the modern oil fired boilers on the Arizona prevented her from joining the other U.S. battleships serving with the British Grand Fleet.

1918-1941, Service

In November 1918 the Arizona sailed for Europe to join Battleship Division Six serving with the British Grand Fleet, one week after the signing of the armistice. On December 12, she put to sea with the rest of her division, to rendezvous with the transport George Washington, which was carrying President Wilson to the Paris Peace Conference. The Arizona was part of the honor escort that arrived at Brest, France the next day with the president. On the 13th she sailed from Brest with 238 homeward-bound veterans on board and arrived in New York on the day after Christmas.
During the years between the world wars, Arizona carried on with the routine of a Navy ship in peace time, conducting training, gunnery practice, fleet exercises, cruises and routine shipyard maintenance. Among the events of interest during this time were:

In 1920 the Arizona began to carry airplanes on board for scouting and spotting the fall of shells from the ship's guns.
In early March 1924 Madeline Blair stowed away on the Arizona and wasn't discovered until April 12th. She was apparently attempting to ride to San Pedro (on the way to Hollywood) and was providing favors to crewmen in return for shelter and food. She was discovered after a Chief Radioman happened to overhear a sailor remark on her presence. As a result courts-martial of the men involved were held and twenty three men were sentenced to prison, the longest for ten years.
The Arizona received a thorough modernization beginning in 1929. The entire superstructure was replaced, including the lattice or cage masts which had been in place since construction. Torpedo bulges were fitted, as was additional horizontal armor for protection from air attack. New boilers and turbines were fitted, the torpedo tubes were removed and new tripod masts replaced the cage masts. The work was completed in March 1931.

Upon completion of the modernization, the Arizona carried President Hoover on a vacation cruise in the Caribbean.
On March 10, 1933 the Arizona was anchored at San Pedro when the Long Beach earthquake struck. The ship provided a shore party that helped patrol the area, provided communications, set up first aid stations and provided food and shelter for those made homeless by the earthquake.
The Warner Brothers movie Here Comes the Navy used the Arizona as one of it's locations during spring of 1934. The film starred James Cagney, Pat O'Brien and Gloria Stuart. The movie was one of the nominees for the Academy Award in 1935.
As relations between the U.S. and Japan declined and the possibility of fighting in the Pacific became more likely, operations at Pearl Harbor were designed to prepare the fleet for war. On October 22, 1941, while conducting exercises with the Oklahoma and Nevada, the Arizona was struck on the port side by the Oklahoma. A V-shaped hole, four feet wide by twelve feet long was opened in the torpedo bulge. The Arizona was in dry-dock at Pearl Harbor for a few weeks to repair it.

December 7, 1941

Japanese aircraft appeared in the air over Pearl Harbor just before 8:00 am on this Sunday morning. The color detail was on deck in anticipation of raising the flag at the stern at 8:00. The Arizona came under attack almost immediately, and at about 8:10 received a hit by a 800-kilogram bomb just forward of turret two on the starboard side. Within a few seconds the forward powder magazines exploded, gutting the forward part of the ship. The foremast and forward superstructure collapsed forward into the void created by the explosion and turrets one and two, deprived of support, dropped more than 20 feet relative to their normal position. The explosion ignited furious fires in the forward part of the ship.

The majority of the crew members were either killed by the explosion and fire or were trapped by the rapid sinking of the ship. Many of the survivors displayed remarkable courage in assisting their shipmates to safety. Lieutenant Commander Samuel G. Fuqua was awarded the Medal of Honor for his role in leading the rescue of other survivors. It was also awarded posthumously to Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd and Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh. 1,177 of the crew died on the ship.

During the following months and years of World War II, the destruction of the Arizona came to symbolize the reason the U.S. was fighting, as in this poster showing the ship's collapsing foremast silhouetted against the explosion of the ship's magazines. As recounted by William Manchester:

"Remember Pearl Harbor" became an American shibboleth and the title of the country's most popular war song, but it was the loss of that great ship which seared the minds of navy men. Six months later, when naval Lieutenant Wilmer E. Gallaher turned the nose of his Dauntless dive-bomber down toward the Akagi off Midway, the memory of that volcanic eruption in Pearl Harbor, which he had witnessed, flashed across his mind. As the Akagi blew up, he exulted: "Arizona, I remember you!" 1

Salvage and Building the Memorial

After the attack the ship was left resting on the bottom with the deck just awash. In the days and weeks following, efforts were made to recover the bodies of the crew and the ship's records. Eventually further recovery of bodies became fruitless, and the bodies of at least 900 crewmen remained in the ship. During 1942 salvage work to recover as much of the ship as was practical began. The masts and superstructure were removed for scrap and the two turrets aft were salvaged for use at shore batteries on Hawaii. The forward part of the ship had received the most damage, and only the guns of turret two were removed while turret one was left in place. On December 1, 1942 the ship was stricken from the registry of U.S. Navy vessels.

In the years immediately following the end of World War II, the wreck was largely ignored. In 1950 the tradition of raising and lowering the colors over the ship daily was started, and momentum gradually began to build toward providing a memorial for the ship and those who died on her. In 1958 legislation was passed authorizing the Navy to erect a memorial and allowing it to accept donations toward that goal. Among the many noteworthy contributions were several generous ones from Hawaii's legislature and a 1961 concert by Elvis Presley. In 1960 construction began and the memorial was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1962. In 1980 a visitor's center on shore was opened and the Navy turned the operation of the memorial over to the National Park Service. During the 1980's, the Park Service conducted a detailed survey of the sunken Arizona and other sites of historical interest related to the Pearl Harbor attack.

1. Manchester, William. Goodbye, darkness (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1980), 42  [catalog record]


Further historical information about the Arizona is available on-line at the entry for Arizona BB-39 in the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (online at Haze Gray & Underway - Naval History and Photography by Andrew C. Toppan), USS Arizona : general data from the Airzona Memorial Museum Association Web site and as part of the Park Service's survey, Submerged Cultural Resources Study USS Arizona Memorial and Pearl Harbor National Historic Landmark (part of the UA Library's USS Arizona exhibit)
For a comprehensive account of the Arizona, consult Paul Stillwell's excellent book, Battleship Arizona Catalog.


Embedded Off-site links:
Medal of Honor is from the U.S. Army's Center of Military History
1,177 of the crew died is from the USS Arizona Memorial Web pages of the National Park Service.
Avenge December 7 (poster) is from the National Archives and Record Administration.
the country's most popular war song is from Pearl Harbor : Remembered by Don Schaaf
Akagi is from the Naval Historical Center.


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