Skip to main content

What If the Battleship Arizona Wasn't Destroyed?

  • Author:
  • Updated date:
USS Arizona BB-39

USS Arizona BB-39

Alternate Histories

The USS Arizona has long since become the symbolic enshrinement of United States' entrance into World War II. 1,177 men were lost when a Japanese armor-piercing bomb detonated the powder magazine on December 7, 1941. Out of all the ships that were damaged or destroyed, Arizona's death toll was the worst of all.

One could ponder what would have happened to the Arizona itself had she not been destroyed at Pearl Harbor. She and the USS Oklahoma were the only two active battleships of the eight at Pearl Harbor that were damaged beyond repair. One could only wonder had her magazines hadn't detonated, hundreds, perhaps a thousand more lives could have been spared from within Arizona herself.

USS Arizona in her original configuration.

USS Arizona in her original configuration.

The Super Dreadnaught

The USS Arizona never fired her guns in anger. Launched in 1914 and commissioned in 1916, problems with her engines kept her stateside during the early months of the Great War. Once repaired she spent the war as a training ship.

The second ship of the Pennsylvania-Class, Arizona was a super dreadnaught, the most advanced up to that time. Twelve 14-inch guns in four triple turrets, the Arizona was a marvel. She spent only a few years in the Atlantic before transferring to the Pacific where she remained for the rest of her career. A training ship for much of her life, Arizona participated in multiple Fleet Problems over the years. Her last being Fleet Problem XXI, Arizona and the rest of the United States Pacific Fleet were retained at Pearl Harbor. For the next year, she remained at anchor as the world plunged deeper into war.

Japanese aerial attack photo. The white plume is a torpedo hit on USS West Virginia.

Japanese aerial attack photo. The white plume is a torpedo hit on USS West Virginia.

Pearl Harbor

December 7, 1941. Three battleships would not survive the attack, USS Oklahoma, USS Utah and USS Arizona. Several torpedos would capsize Oklahoma, trapping hundreds below decks. Utah, a 32-year-old relic by 1941, capsized after double torpedo hits, killing 63. Arizona's fatal shot, an armor-piercing bomb that penetrated around Turret 2 and seven seconds later, detonated the powder magazine. The blast nearly blew the ship in two, killing 1,177, a ballistic bullseye. Say had the bomb hit just a foot or two in any other direction, the results could have been different. Had the magazine not detonated, Arizona likely would have survived to a repairable condition.

Repair and Return to Battle

Admiral Yamamoto who conceived the attack on Pearl Harbor later coined the phrase, "We awoke a sleeping giant." Admiral Hara Tadaichi later remarked "We won a great tactical victory and Pearl Harbor and therefore lost the war." Since Japan's primary targets, the U.S. aircraft carriers, were not in port on December 7 and therefore not harmed, the United States' ability to stay offensive in the Pacific was not completely crippled. By eliminating its battleships, the attack forced the U.S. Navy to rely on submarines and aircraft, which fundamentally changed military warfare forever. The beginning of the end of the battleship now in motion.

Following the attack, the U.S. Navy's clean-up efforts were immediate and urgent. Eager to get their battleships back to fighting, the Navy prioritized repairs based on damage. The least damaged ships were repaired first. Next, in one of the most extensive and successful salvage jobs in history, the Navy raised five of the seven sunk battleships and returned them all to service. Had Arizona not been destroyed and actually remained in a salvable condition, she would have been the sixth battleship resurrected. Not counting the relic USS Utah, only Oklahoma would have been the sole destroyed battleship.

Following a similar path to her sister ship, USS Pennsylvania, it is likely that Arizona during her repairing would have been upgraded at the same time. In Pennsylvania's case, the ship was considerably upgraded including removing her tripod mainmast and upgrading all of her secondary and anti-aircraft guns. With repairs complete, USS Arizona would have likely entered the Pacific Theater.

War in the Pacific

Obviously, we will never know what battles Arizona could have taken part in post-Pearl Harbor. USS Pennsylvania spent the war on the Pacific, shelling Japanese coastal installations all across the Pacific. Her shells fired on the Aleutian Islands, Marshall Islands, Marianas Islands and the Philippines. During operations in the Philippines, Pennsylvania was part of a battleship task force that engaged in a fabled battleship vs battleship fight that ended with most of the Japanese ships sunk.

On August 12, 1945, Pennsylvania took a torpedo hit to her side which blew a 30-foot hole and killed twenty men. Three days later, Japan formally surrendered, ending World War II. Pennsylvania was the last major U.S. warship damaged in the war.

USS Pennsylvania with her post Pearl Harbor refit.

USS Pennsylvania with her post Pearl Harbor refit.

Post-War Fate

The end of World War II left the United States with the largest navy on Earth, so big it made up 70% of all naval vessels 1,000 tons or more worldwide. Before Pearl Harbor, the navy consisted of approximately 800 ships. By war's end, it was nearly 6,800 ships. This included 27 aircraft carriers, eight "fast" battleships like USS Missouri and ten dreadnoughts, or eleven had USS Arizona not been destroyed and survived the war. Such a titanic fleet was impossible to maintain during peacetime.

The navy's main charge after the war, downsizing. And fast. They called for 70% of the navy to be either mothballed, scrapped, or relegated for target ships. The navy's review of all warships was largely based on the age of the vessel, its likely use in a peacetime world and its feasibility to modernize. Ships like USS Arkansas, USS Texas and USS New York were over 35 years old by 1945 and were quickly deemed too old to keep. Texas was selected to become a museum battleship while Arkansas and New York were selected to become target ships. Other dreadnoughts 30 years or older were also designated as target ships.

Operation Crossroads was the official testing site for the new hydrogen bomb. Double nuclear tests, one airborne and one underwater. Ships like USS Nevada and USS Pennsylvania were selected as target ships for these tests. At 33 years old, Arizona likely would have joined her sister ship at Bikini Island. Pennsylvania actually survived both blasts. She was later towed and scuttled when her hull was found to be radioactive.

USS Pennsylvania sinking in 1948.

USS Pennsylvania sinking in 1948.


  • Mothballing the US Navy after WWII: pt.1 – wwiiafterwwii
    (part 1 of a 2-part series) The US Navy at the end of WWII was the largest on the planet, and would be unaffordable at that size in peacetime. What followed was the largest warship preservation effort in history. (WWII Cruisers USS Huntington (CL-107