As they trained for the surprise attack on the United States Pacific fleet in Hawaii, Japanese pilots were told to avoid the USS Utah.
The intelligence the Japanese had was so good that by the time they took off from their carriers on the morning of December 7, 1941, each pilot knew the disposition of the ships around Pearl Harbor. Utah had arrived on the evening of Dec. 5, its docking site already noted.
At 8 a.m., the Japanese began their attack. Sailors on the USS Utah saw three planes pass overhead and mistook them for U.S. aircraft. A minute later a torpedo slammed into the Utah's hull--an overeager Japanese pilot goofed and targeted the dreadnought, mistaking her for another battleship.
Taking on water and beginning to list, the crew scrambled topside and abandoned ship. Smaller vessels came to their aid and were able to remove most of the crew. When asked for volunteers to augment the crews of two destroyers, 200 rescued sailors jumped up, mad to get back into the fight. They had to be restrained by force when only 55 were wanted.
Tapping could be heard from the ship's overturned hull. Rescue parties with a blow torch eventually saved a crewman who had taken a flashlight and a wrench and scrambled to the bottom of the ship as she capsized.
Out of 461 crew members, 58 died in the attack.
But why did the Japanese intend to avoid the Utah?
Commissioned in 1909, she served as a battleship for the next two decades. But by 1931, Utah was no longer designated as a battleship and was refitted to act as a mobile target, the decks sporting logs to absorb the impact of the dummy bombs that struck her.
In 1932, the Utah was equipped with radio and made remote controlled. From a controlling ship, she was put through her paces and, though her engineering stations were manned, not a hand was laid on her machinery. Her speed and course maneuvers were all controlled from off-ship.
Just before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Utah underwent yet another incarnation. Outfitted with new guns, she became a gunnery training ship. Having taken it for so long, Utah could now inflict a little pain herself. Still, she was not the battle wagon she once was. And that is why the Japanese pilots had been told not to waste ordnance on her. There were more important targets.
Starting on March 9th, the Utah State Capitol will host an exhibit of photos and artifacts from the USS Utah to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the laying of her keel. The display is on the fourth floor and will be there for the rest of the year.
Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune.