Among the vast holdings of the National Archives, in Record Group 19: Alphabetical Series of Ship Engineering Drawings, are a type of ship plans known simply as “Booklets of General Plans”. These plans are illustrations various vessels showing elements such as the starboard and portside views of boats, schematics of weaponry, and deck layouts including the numerous tiny compartments on each level of the ship. These booklets are typically very detailed and consist of several plates, usually one for each deck of the ship. These records are very popular and informative and researchers routinely request booklets of general plans for a variety of reasons ranging from using them as an aid in building a replica of the ship to finding a vessel that they themselves or a family member once served aboard to helping to resolves legal cases.
Never were these sets of plans more important than on December 7th and 8th, 1941.
The U.S.S. Oklahoma had been docked at Pearl Harbor awaiting an inspection which was supposed to occur on the morning of December 8th, 1941. Originally the vessel was supposed to be at sea, but had come in to port specifically for the upcoming inspection. Because of the impending inspection, many of the door and hatches on board were standing wide open when Pearl Harbor was attacked and, because of this, the ship flooded and capsized so quickly that many men never had time to abandon ship. Within twenty minutes of being hit by the first torpedo, the Oklahoma lay nearly upside down in the water, masts buried in the mud, with men still alive and trapped in the upturned sections of the battleship. After the attack was over and rescue operation was initiated, tapping could be heard coming from inside of the exposed section of hull and it became a race against the clock to cut the survivors free before they either suffocated or drowned.
A little after 8:00 am on the morning of December 7th, 1941, the Commander of the U.S.S. Maryland, E. Kranzfelder, was summoned back from Honolulu to Pearl Harbor by a telephone operator saying that that there was an emergency at the harbor and that he should return to his ship as soon as possible. Upon arriving back aboard the U.S.S. Maryland, which was docked next to the Oklahoma, and seeing the devastation that lay before him, he went straight to the bridge for an update of the situation. While there, he was contacted by a sailor on the Oklahoma (now capsized) informing him of an immediate need for cutting equipment and a request for any and all assistance that could be rendered. The commander obtained permission from the Admiral to help with the rescue effort and began by obtaining the Booklet of General Plans for the Oklahoma.
It quickly became apparent there were going to be significant issue with cutting through the hull of the ship, since virtually the entire underside of the battleship was composed of fuel tanks and cutting through the hull with torches would pose a significant risk of fire if the hull was cut in the wrong area. In Adding to the problem of where to cut was tapping of the trapped men which was echoed badly, causing rescuers to be unsure of exactly where survivors were trapped. Commander Kranzfelder, in his official report to the navy would later describe the situation writing:
“Lines were rigged from the bilge keel at intervals along the bottom, telephone communication was established with the Maryland, an air supply line was quickly rigged from the Maryland to the Oklahoma, strainers were removed from main injections and over board discharge in an attempt to gain access to the engine room. Contact was established with two men entrapped in the evaporator pump room through a small over board discharge connection in the hull. Food and water were passed down to these men. From information obtained from these men as to their location in the ship and with the aid of the Booklet of General Plans it was possible to determine the best locations to cut access holes in the bottom of the ship.”
With the aid crew from several surrounding vessels and the schematics provided by the Booklet of General Plans of the Oklahoma, eventually, 32 survivors would be cut free from the wreckage of the ship. They were rescued from the hold known as the “Lucky Bag” which was a small hold used for storing items like pea coats and small personal belongings, Radio Room No. 4, the Aft Steering Room, the No. 4 Turret Handling Room, and the Evaporator Pump Room (see illustration above to locate the aforementioned compartments). Many others were trapped who were not able to be rescued in time to save their lives.
Eventually, the Oklahoma was righted in the water using a series of hoists attached to the hull and to the shore that pulled the hull of the ship upright. The ship was salvaged but was too badly damaged to be returned to duty. After being stripped of armaments and superstructure, the hull was sold for salvage in 1946 but, while being towed back to San Francisco in 1947, sank during storm.
Walin, Homer N. Pearl Harbor: Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal. Washington, D.C., Government Printing Office. 1968