The Pearl Harbor Battle Line on December 7th, 1941, was not the uniform, tidy and pristine row of warships that movies like Tora-Tora-Tora or Pearl Harbor depicted. To fully understand the colors and camouflage of the Pearl Harbor battle line, we have to review the chaotic state of camouflage doctrine throughout 1941 as a whole, as it ultimately culminates on December 7th, 1941.
Late 1941 was a transitional period with regards to ship camouflage both in the use of colors and their application as a direct result of this chaos. Just 11 months earlier, in February 1941, the overwhelming majority of the US Fleet was still wearing #5 Standard Navy Gray (#5sng).
This had been the standard pre-war color for decades, although the Navy was actively experimenting with numerous types of camouflage throughout the 1930s. In 1936 and 1937, camouflage experiments were conducted using graded and solid schemes under the guidance of Charles Bittinger, who had worked on ship camouflage for the US Navy during World War I. The colors selected were Dark Gray, Ocean Gray, Haze Gray and Light Gray, although these early colors were not the same 5-series colors to appear in 1941, they were neutrals.
The 1937 experimental graded camouflage schemes had several versions similar to the later Measures 1, 2, 12, 18 and 22 found in SHIPS-2. The results of these camouflage experiments were detailed in the 1937 Bureau of Construction & Repair (BuC&R) Handbook No.4., pursuant to S-19-7 issued on Dec. 30th, 1937, and was from this handbook that the basis of the Navy’s 1941 camouflage doctrine was formed. With the war in Europe already into its second year and Japan rattling sabers in the Pacific, the US Navy decided to implement a camouflage system to reduce the overall visibility of their warships. This resulted in No. C-S19-1 (1-28), dated 31 January 1941, which introduced 5-D Dark Gray as a replacement for #5 Standard Navy Gray. C-S19-1 (2-19), dated February 20, 1941, reiterated the previous memo, included application instructions, and the chemical composition of 5-D Dark Gray and 5-U White Mixing Base. By mixing 5-D with 5-U, two additional shades, 5-O Ocean Gray, and 5-L Light Gray, could be achieved. Because of the lesser required amounts of these two shades, these colors were not manufactured as specific colors. C-S19-1 (2-19) also referenced a new set of standardized camouflage instructions, known as SHIPS-2. These memos were circulated by BuShips (Bureau of Ships) and each of the Fleet CICs to all navy yards, Force Commanders, supply depots, and commanding officers of all ships in commission.
This was the memo that indicated that these changes were taking place. On April 29th, 1941, C-S19-7 was issued, effectively telling ships’ captains to get moving… “Turn into store at the nearest supply activity at the first opportunity all old stocks of light gray paint Formula 5 in excess of the quantity required for one complete painting of the vessel if the assigned camouflage measure has been applied or for two complete coats if the measure has not been applied.”This initiated the transition of the US Fleet from peacetime light gray to dark gray, but it was soon realized that navy yards would wind up with large quantities of #5 Standard Navy Gray whilst attempting to supply ships with 5-D at the same time. JJ52/L8-3 issued April 19, 1941, introduced a stop-gap measure to tint the already on-board stocks of #5 Standard Navy Gray with 5-TM Tinting Material. It also allowed for use of black striping paint in the event 5-TM was unavailable, but which yielded a slight gloss. Ships that were scheduled for yard work received their new camouflage color from the yard, other ships were required to submit requisitions for either the new paint or sufficient quantities of 5-TM tinting material, contingent upon how much #5 that ship had on hand. When trying to comprehend the amount of paint we are discussing, encompassing all the ships of the fleet, memo BB43/JJ52 from USS Tennessee to the Mare Island Commandant, says it all. Tennessee was carrying, as per orders, 1,170 gallons of paint, sufficient for one repaint of the ship. When faced with the logistical nightmare of having to transfer hundreds of thousands of gallons of paint from the fleet to naval stores, then replace that paint with new paint, one can quickly understand the navy’s decision to facilitate the tinting of the paint already onboard. Although orders were issued, vessels repainted as operational requirements allowed, and some ships carried #5 Standard Navy Gray well into the early summer of 1941. The Pacific Fleet was always about 2-3 months behind the Atlantic Fleet when implementing camouflage, as Admiral King, Commander in Chief of the Atlantic Fleet, had an interest in camouflage, and logistics on the East coast were not difficult to deal with. Admiral Kimmel, Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, appears to have been less interested in camouflage study initially, probably due to the demands placed on him for maintaining a fleet at a forward base, and focusing on thwarting attempts to move his ships from the Pacific to the Atlantic. Based on the documents, the Pacific Fleet appears to have followed the lead of the Atlantic Fleet with regards to implementation of new camouflage doctrines, albeit 2-3 months later. As a result of these factors, along with the logistical problems of supplying a forward base, Atlantic Fleet camouflage almost always occurred ahead of that of the Pacific Fleet.
When the Pacific Fleet initially began painting their ships in 5-D Dark Gray in May of 1941, it was almost immediately realized that the color was too dark for the bright blue Pacific, and was prone to chalking and fading. This resulted in C-S19-1-5 (341) dated July 11, 1941, which basically said that the color was too dark, and introduced 5-S Sea Blue. We have to remember that in 1941, things didn’t happen overnight, and even though 5-D was almost immediately identified as inadequate, ships were nonetheless still painting into the color, as new orders had not yet been issued, and the new colors had not yet been manufactured. On July 30, 1941, the decision was made and orders issued in the form of C-S19-7 (341) to discontinue the production of 5-D and commence the production of 5-S, following the same process as before with the creation of 5-H Haze Gray and 5-O Ocean Gray, this time, however, using a new 5-TM tinting material based on a purple-blue color instead of a black-based one.
The order to cease production of 5-D reiterated early to mid Sept. with further orders for all ships to return unused 5-D to stores, retaining only enough for one complete repainting of the hull. The July C-S19-7 (341) order also had the return paint order. By mid-October fleet, force type, ship type and yard commands had all responded to 5-D to be replaced by 5-S, most had replied by mid-Sept. Aug/Sept order to use stocks of 5-L in lieu of 5-H until 5-L depleted. An interesting aside is the Mid-Sept/early Oct order to use 5-H Haze Gray as a barrier layer when painting over 5-D to prevent bleed through. When factored in, 5-S Sea Blue over 5-H Haze Gray would certainly appear vibrant and more intense in color, whereas 5-S Sea Blue applied over 5-D Dark Gray could very easily be mistaken for the later 5-N Navy Blue, especially when freshly applied. For those not familiar with pre-EPA oil based paints the solvents were MUCH hotter back in the day and would re-dissolve the upper layers of underlying paints, especially partially oxidized paint. Yard forces were required to apply a 5-H barrier layer, and ship’s force could apply a barrier layer at the CO’s discretion depending upon time and stocks. Due to the logistical issues facing Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, it is possible that during October and November 1941 PHNY may not have had enough 5-H for the barrier layers. The earliest known photos of the barrier layer are from Pearl Harbor on attack day (West Virginia’s turrets and the cruisers at 10-10 dock.
The period of July through October 1941 saw a tremendous volume of traffic between Bu C&R, Fleet commands, and naval yards. It was truly a chaotic time. As 5-D was being implemented in the Pacific, it was already replaced in the Atlantic with 5-S. As 5-S reached the Pacific Fleet, it was already being replaced by 5-N in the Atlantic. In early August, the Pacific Fleet began testing on the new camouflage color 5-D, officially listed in SHIPS-2 as Measure 1, and with Measure 5, a false bow wave. By August 18, 1941, S19/(0613) had confirmed the Pacific Fleet’s warnings about the problems with 5-D, and ascertained that the previously ordered Measure 5 was of little use. It was also during August that a slew of requisitions for 5-D were made to Mare Island Navy Yard, submitted by Pacific Fleet Ships, including the USS Arizona, USS Nevada, USS Pennsylvania, USS West Virginia, and USS Oklahoma. In each instance, these requisitions were canceled by Mare Island, and a reply was sent back to each ship telling them to order 5-S Sea Blue.
It is interesting to note that the turn-around time for this memo was nine days – it is unknown when Arizona requisitioned paint for the second time, although we do know that she was partially repainted as of 13 October, 1941, and completed her repaint whilst in dry dock following her collision with Oklahoma.
USS Arizona, photographed on October 13, 1941, with 5-S hull and turrets and 5-D Dark Gray superstructure. (US NARA via Ron Smith)
Once the requisition was approved, how much time passed before the paint was manufactured then shipped to Pearl Harbor from Mare Island? An interesting aside…we know that USS Oklahoma apparently never received a reply from Mare Island, as she followed up on September 12th asking for further instructions. During observation trials of September and October 1941, she was wearing Ms1, 5-D overall, with a Ms5 false bow wave, according to S-19/(0152), Arizona’s report on effects of various-colored bow waves. At some point between her collision with Arizona (Oct 22, 1941) and December 7th, she repainted into a graded Measure 12 scheme, but instead of using the new blue colors of 5-S, 5-O, and 5-L, she used the earlier versions achieved by mixing 5-TM with 5-D. (1*) In response to the lack of stock of 5-S, Modified Measure 2 (not the same as Measure 2 Modified), was authorized by Admiral King, in late Sept., early Oct. Due to shortages of new paints, at the ship captain’s discretion, they could retain enough 5-D for one repaint of the hull, and the upper works may be painted in any combination of the new colors as they become available within the strictures of the new Measures (patterns). West Virginia and Nevada on Dec. 7 are examples.
As with the previous 5-D/5-S debacle, just as the Pacific Fleet was starting to transition from 5-D into 5-S, the Atlantic Fleet had determined that 5-S was in fact, too light. Direct intervention by Admiral King resulted in 5-N Navy Blue, darker than 5-S but still much lighter than 5-D. By late 1941, the Atlantic Fleet had phased out 5-S altogether, just as the Pacific Fleet was starting to implement it. This chain of events adds to the confusion, since Measure 1 was adopted as the standard measure for the Pacific Fleet. The Atlantic Fleet had messed around with Measures 1 and 2, and eventually settled on a hybrid graded pattern, which became Measure 12. As the new colors were introduced into the Pacific, Measure 1 remained in place using 5-D Dark Gray, while Measure 1A used 5-S Sea Blue in lieu of 5-D, Measure 1B was an experimental measure using Sapphire Blue, and Measure 1C which used 5-N Navy Blue in lieu of 5-S.
Here is where things begin to get interesting, because we have to look back at the visibility studies conducted by the Pacific Fleet from August into late November of 1941. As these visibility studies continued, the Pearl Harbor battleships were wearing a variety of camouflage measures and colors. It is interesting to note that the actual documents submitted by these ships pertaining to visibility reflect the commanding officer’s opinions of those colors. The documents submitted by Arizona, Tennessee, West Virginia and Nevada all advocate for the removal of 5-D in favor of 5-S, and ironically, those are the ships that are in 5-S, or repainting into 5-S, at the time of the attack. Those
captains who were less favorable of 5-S as being too light, California, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Utah, were all wearing 5-D at the time of the attack. Oklahoma is the anomaly, as her captain reported 5-S as being too light, but had his ship painted into a graded Ms12. Although impossible to ascertain a definitive answer, the probability of it being a mere coincidence is remote.
There has been speculation that ships wore 5-N Navy Blue, based on the dark values of the black-and-white photos of the post-attack photos. There are several variables to consider before rendering this possibility unlikely. Although 5-N was already in use in the Atlantic, 5-N simply hadn’t reached the Pacific. A memo was received on Dec 3rd requesting the testing of 5-N on a destroyer, 4 days before the attack. It seems highly improbable that a memo of this nature would be sent if ships were already painted in this color, especially if they were battleships. This essentially debunks a current theory that the Pearl Harbor battle line was wearing 5-N, given the delays in the cycle of testing, ordering, logistics, and implementation in the Pacific Fleet at the time.
Nine days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the US Navy issued order 21-CN-41, production of 5-S was to cease in favor of 5-N.
Existing stocks of 5-S were to be used until exhausted, and additional quantities of 5-TM tinting material were to be used by ships at sea to darken 5-S to 5-N. This also took time to implement, especially in the Pacific, and it was not unusual to see ships in 5-S Sea Blue well into the summer of 1942, especially those vessels on extended forward deployments. In early February 1942, USS Maryland and USS Colorado departed Bremerton after their refits in overall 5-S. Colorado was already wearing 5-S and Maryland was likely painted to match her sister as a deception, since both ships were virtually identical at the time. This is a prime example of exhausting available stocks. In the Spring of 1942 a letter sent to West Virginia and California stated, “when ready to go back to CONUS for overhaul, repaint into MS-11 using 5-N not 5-S as per Maryland and Colorado.”
Because of the on-going visibility studies, the logistical delays in supplying Pearl Harbor, the ever-changing and confusing fleet orders, and eventually, the attack itself, the Pearl Harbor battle line was caught in a perfect storm of transition. Based on photographic evidence, documents pertaining to the visibility studies, paint requisitions, and other memos and documents, here is what we know:
USS Arizona – Measure 1A, 5-S Sea Blue on her hull and upper works, 5-L on her fighting tops. Apparently mid-repaint according to survivors.
USS California – Measure 1, 5-D Dark Gray on her hull and upper works, 5-L on her fighting tops. USS Oklahoma – Measure 12, using 5-D on her hull, 5-O on her superstructure, and 5-L on her fighting tops. Her Measure 5 bow wave had been painted out. USS Maryland – Measure 12 graded pattern, but using the older 1937 colors, 5-D, 5-O, 5-L. USS West Virginia – Measure 1 – In the middle of repainting from 5-D to 5-S. 5-D on her hull, 5-S on her upper works, 5-L on her fighting tops. Photos show 5-H Haze Gray barrier coat on her turrets at the time of the attack, in accordance with Mod. MS-2 USS Nevada – Modified Measure 2. 5-D Dark Gray on her hull, 5-S Sea Blue on parts of her upper works, 5-L Light Gray (earlier 1941 version) on her fighting tops. (At least one photo shows one turret with two different colored barrels) She also had painted deck as per S19/50/01050 dated 10-31-41 (see below). USS Tennessee – Measure 1A, 5-S Sea Blue with 5-L fighting tops. She also had painted deck as per S19/50/01050 dated 10-31-41 (see below). USS Pennsylvania – Measure 1, 5-D Dark Gray, 5-L fighting tops.
There are two ongoing debates that continue to be the bane of naval historians… the use of colored turret roof plates, and the painting of decks. There are survivor accounts that Arizona’s turret roof plates were not painted red, as ordered in 1937 and reiterated with USL-1-41 dated March 25, 1941.
This obviously defies a standing order from the commander-in-chief of the fleet. If the ship were repainted, as Arizona was at least twice in 1941, why would the turret roof plates be painted over if there were no orders to do so? Why paint the turret roof plates in camouflage colors only to paint over them yet again with Insignia Red? Logic states we leave the turret roof plates red and simply paint around them, right? Why would all of the other ships in the battle line have painted roof plates, but Arizona doesn’t? The answer lies in the photos, or lack thereof. There are no color photos of Arizona in 5-S known to exist prior to the attack. A photography ban was in place and strictly enforced, and photography in 1941 was a luxury not many had access to, unlike today. After the attack, no photos have turned up indicating proof-positive that the turret plates were, or weren’t, painted. Turret One was destroyed, Turret Two was burned, and Turret Three was never photographed up close. When comparing the insignia red of the turret plates to 5-S Sea Blue, the difference in color is strikingly obvious. In black and white photos, however, both of those colors hold nearly identical locations on the grayscale spectrum, especially if we take into consideration atmospheric conditions, lighting, exposure, orthochromatic shift of the film as a result of chemical degradation. It is relatively easy to see that red could easily be mistaken for blue in this instance. Feel free to duplicate this experiment using the color swatches provided.
Our next topic of debate is painted decks. The US Navy was experimenting with ‘darkened’ decks in the Atlantic as early as June of 1941 with regards to the development of what would eventually become 20-B Deck Blue. During the visibility tests of late 1941 in the Pacific, several ships were painted with dark blue decks. This is supported by the following:
10-31-41 – S19-01050 orders specified ships to paint into blue decks for observation trials. Those ships include Nevada and Tennessee.
11-12-1941 S19-01537 directs aviation units from cruisers USS Detroit and Raleigh to conduct those observation trials.
1-21-42 BB43/S19-78 is memo from USS Tennessee indicating that pursuant to S19-01050, her decks had been painted, the observation trials had been carried out (S19-01537), and that additional tests were being scheduled during her next at-sea period. Those tests did not happen (because of the attack).
This is supported by photographic evidence taken both by the Japanese during the attack and by US aircraft conducting aerial surveys after the attack. It’s pretty safe to assume that all of the vessels listed in these memos still had dark decks at the start of the war.
It is in the best interests of anyone who studies the Pearl Harbor attack from a camouflage/paint perspective, to look beyond the obvious, and factor in the less-obvious nuances of the recorded data both leading up to, during, and after the attack. There are thousands of documents leading up to the attack. Many are repetitive, many offer nothing new. A few contain hidden gems of information, many headers contain references to previously published documents that shed new light on the subject and offer new data to interpret and plug into the grand equation.
This document was written by Jeff Herne, and is the culmination of research compiled by members of the Warship Camouflage Research Group, including Ron Smith, John Snyder, Jamie Duff, Jim Azelton, Al Ross, and Don Andrews. Special thanks go out to Jamie Duff, who did the timeline illustration for this project, and Tracy White, proprietor of Researcher at Large, a repository of US Navy documents pertaining to the development, implementation, and changes to US Navy Camouflage practices during World War Two.
This document is COPYRIGHT 2021 Warship Camouflage Research Group, and cannot be altered, manipulated, reprinted or reposted EXCEPT in its original form and with the express written permission of the authors. You are free to circulate this document for NON-COMMERCIAL, educational and research purposes only.
Any documents highlighted in red can be seen online at the Researcher at Large, http://researcheratlarge.com/Ships/S19-7/index.html
Notes applicable to the subject-
1- Some modern ‘authorities’ claim the post-attack color films and photos of West Virginia, California, and Nevada do not reflect attack-day colors as the crews “repainted all the time”. This is simply incorrect. A letter shortly after the attack clearly states that no camouflage paints are to be used on the “sunken” ships due to scarcity and ONLY red lead or zinc chromate as appropriate are to be used for corrosion control. The color films and photos clearly show this.
2- Most of the attack day and immediate post-attack photos are listed as “NO NEG”, meaning you cannot trust the contrast of the image to make any meaningful tonal comparison. If there is a negative number, or it says “COPY NEG” you can safely make some tonal comparisons. COPY NEG is a copy made from the original nitrate-based negative and is close to 100% true.
3- You cannot trust any images sourced online, not even NARA (National Archives) or NHC (Naval Historical Center), because most have been manipulated with Photoshop or some other editing software. They are also usually lo-res. The same goes for the lo-res videos like Critical History and videos found on sites like YouTube.
4- Paint manufacturing and mixing. There is a lot of confusion and false assumptions here. Not since white and spar had ceased to be the official paint scheme did USN ships mix their own paint, and they only mixed the spar (buff for those who do not know the official, correct name of the color). Once the USN settled on #5 Standard Navy Gray (#5sng) the paint was supplied pre-mixed from the two Paint Manufacturing Yards (PMY), Philadelphia and Mare Island. Despite mixing formulas in SHIPS-2, this was still standard practice throughout most of 1941 for both yard and ship’s forces. PMYs produced 55-gallon, 30-gallon and 5-gallon pre-mixed paint containers, and eventually, 5-U and 5-TM for mixing onboard ship. With the exceptions noted in the text regarding: #5sng and 5-S re-tinting into 5-D and 5-N yards never mixed their own paint. Until SHIPS-2 Rev. 1, September 1941, most ships did not mix their own paint unless specifically ordered to do so for an experiment, and this was still commonly practiced well into 1942.
5- How to tell if 5-D is PMY new manufactured or re-tinted #5sng. Real PMY 5-D is almost black and matte. Re-tinted #5sng is lighter and will have some gloss to it. #5sng had a gloss factor of 44. Re-tinting with the neutral 5-TM would give a slight sheen, and with the ‘last resort’ black striping paint it would be even glossier, as black striping is high sheen.