Thursday, February 18, 2010

Pearl Harbor Camouflage

First, a little background. For those that don't know, there is a little controversy in regards to the camouflage worn by many ships of the US Navy during the attack at Pearl Harbor. My introduction to this was the winter of 2005, when myself and a couple of others were asked for help in determining Battleship Arizona's final paint scheme. We found some highly circumstantial evidence but no proof, and I have maintained a keen interest in finding out one way or another just what this historic ship looked like at the time of her demise.

At this point the search has seen extensive research in two archives (San Francisco and Seattle) and the records of three shipyards (Mare Island, Pearl Harbor, and Puget Sound) and one naval district (13th Naval District, essentially the Northwestern US) along with some non-Pearl Harbor research in various other records such as Astoria Navy Base just to try and build a complete understanding about how the Navy went about camouflage in the Second World War.

Using those resources we have been able to build up a "higher resolution" picture of the turbulent year of 1941, and yet there is much that remains unknown.

We know that in January, 1941 a change in camouflage was ordered, but that due to production problems and supply difficulties, it took time to build up significant quantities of the new paints and adoptions seems to have started around June of that year. However, the main color for the majority of the ships, 5-D Dark Gray, was not found satisfactory and by July the Navy ordered its production halted and 5-S Sea Blue mixed as its replacement.

This is the point at which things really get murky. The Navy did not do a good job of promulgating this order, sending it only to the three Navy Yards responsible for manufacturing paint for the various fleets as well as four commands (Atlantic Fleet, Pacific Fleet, "Air Force" [Not Army Air Force but the Navy command in charge of aircraft], and OPNAV [Office of the Chief of Naval Operations]). This resulted in a lot of confusion and resentment when ships and commands kept sending in requisitions for old paint formulas.

Initially Mare Island Navy Yard answered the requests of other yards and ships with letters listing the new formulas and an order to re-request the desired materials, but by late September they were ordered to simply substitute the new paints for the old.

So it would seem that by October the Navy Yard at Pearl Harbor and ships based there should have started receiving the new paints, but this is not a hard fact at all. Indeed, a memo found in the records of the suggest that at the earliest it was late October that they knew for sure.

This memo deserves its own discussion. There is a typo in a date that can be confusing; the second paragraph starts with "Today, August 22..." This is clearly incorrect as the date occurs before the shipyard received the file. This memo discusses a letter from Mare Island to Pearl Harbor that was lost for six weeks in internal mail before being found and finally delivered. The letter in question was the aforementioned Letter to re-calculate paint needed and re-requisition the amounts. So Pearl Harbor did not officially know about the new paints until October 22.

This might not be that big of a deal in that the new paints were actually made using the same stocks as some of the old ones. 5-L Light Gray and 5-O Ocean gray were made by mixing specific amounts of a tinting paste into a white, un-tinted base. 5-S Sea Blue and 5-H Haze Gray were created by simply creating different ratios of the same tinting paste and untinted base, so if they had the stock to mix Ocean Gray they could do Sea Blue. But, at this point we don't even know when Pearl Harbor had the supplies to issue those two components of the paints.

Documents from August and September hint that Pearl Harbor did not have the facilities to provide the new paints; CL-50 Helena was not only ordered to paint into 5-S Sea Blue at Mare Island, but was also ordered to pick up paints for other cruisers at Mare Island at the end of September. Ships of Destroyer Division Nine were ordered to paint in variations of measures during overhaul at Mare Island in October.

These last documents throw in a new wrinkle; they are not from the Bureau of Ships or any Navy Yard, but from the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, Commander of Destroyer Flotilla One, and the Commander Cruisers, Battle Force.

The question left unsolved at this point is, if the Commander of Cruisers, Battle Force, knew about the new paints and Pearl Harbor Navy Yard didn't, would there be any sort of interaction that would bring this to Pearl Harbor's attention? Would ComCruBatFor have requested the paint from PHNY first, or is there some other documentation thus undiscovered that would explain more?

What orders could these commands have given to the ships they administered that we haven't seen yet? And if Pearl Harbor didn't have the knowledge about the paints until late October, does it really matter if the various commands of the fleet DID have the knowledge and their supply chains did not exclusively flow through Pearl Harbor Navy Yard?

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