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Salvaging the Pacific Fleet


A remarkable aspect of the bombing of Pearl Harbor remains little known. It concerns Homer N. Wallin, who was born and raised in Washburn in 1893. After high school, Wallin served for a year in the North Dakota National Guard while attending Jamestown College and UND in Grand Forks.

Wallin's life took a major turn with his appointment to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis when he was 19 years old. He graduated from the academy in time to serve aboard the USS New Jersey during WWI. Later, the navy sent him to MIT to study Naval Architecture, after which he was assigned to several different Naval Yards, including Pearl Harbor, where he witnessed the destruction of the Pacific Fleet on December 6, 1941.

Just four weeks after the bombing, Wallin found himself in charge of the largest maritime salvage operation in history. His mission was to raise the sunken battleships and, if possible, get them back into service. Few people thought it could be done, but two famous navy men believed Wallin was the man for the job - Admiral Nimitz and Admiral Halsey.

The task was immense, complicated and dangerous. Using both navy personnel and civilian contractors, Wallin's first priority was to recover sunken antiaircraft guns, which they used to protect their salvage operation from enemy fliers. Obstacles were many. The underwater recovery of human remains, documents and unexploded Japanese bombs was hampered by oily water and leaks of hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous and highly flammable gas.

Holes in the ships' hulls had to be plugged with underwater cement before water could be pumped out of the ships. Wallin later described a serious shortage of pumping equipment, lumber and other materials necessary for refloating the ships. "However," he wrote, "the spirit of the times was to do the best with what we had."

Navy and civilian divers made 5,000 dives and spent approximately 20,000 hours underwater during the effort. Within months, the battleships Nevada, California and the West Virginia were back in action, as was the Oglala, a mine-layer. The Oklahoma was uprighted, but could not be returned to service. The Utah and the Arizona were not recoverable, and both lie below the waters of Pearl Harbor to this day.

Wallin retired on this date in 1955. One of his many citations reads: "With unerring judgment and excellent foresight, Captain Wallin planned and directed the salvage and repair of numerous battle-damaged ships [. . .] despite exceedingly adverse conditions. His skill, resourcefulness and courageous leadership were an inspiration to the men under his command and contributed in a major degree to the accomplishment of an extremely vital and hazardous undertaking. . ."

Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm

Sources: Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin, U.S. Navy, Retired. U.S. Navy Office of Information: Biographies Branch, U.S. Naval History Division. 5 Jan 1961.

Pearl Harbor Raid, 7 December 1941 - Post-attack Ship Salvage. Dept. of the Navy, Naval Historical Center. Washington, D.C. Web. (13 Apr 2009)

Salvage at Pearl Harbor. USS Arizona Preservation Project 2004. National Park Service: U.S. Dept of Interior. Web. (13 Apr 2009)

Wallin, Homer N. Pearl Harbor: why, how, fleet salvage and final appraisal. University Press of the Pacific. Sep 2001.