Damage Control

Photograph of damage control efforts on
        USS Princeton

National Archives #80-G-270357

Damage control encompasses all the activities taken by the crews of warships to minimize the effects of battle damage and keep the ship afloat and operating. Thus, it includes fire fighting, shoring, and emergency repairs of all kinds.

A hit in a magazine leading to a magazine explosion, as happened to the British battle cruiser Hood or the U.S. battleship Arizona, was one way for a warship to be destroyed outright in battle. Another was for an underwater explosion (from a mine or torpedo) to break the back of the ship. More typically, a ship was lost through a combination of progressive flooding, loss of stability, or fire. A ship hit below the waterline suffers immediate flooding in compartments breached by the enemy's weapon, which is followed by slower progressive flooding through bulkheads penetrated by splinters or through hatches or pipes distorted by the shock of the explosion. Progressive flooding can be controlled by pumping and through emergency repairs to restore watertight integrity.  Loss of stability refers to flooding to one side of the ship that causes it to capsize and sink even though the ship nominally has enough buoyancy to remain afloat. It is controlled through counterflooding on the undamaged side of the ship, which restores the ship to an even keel. Fire hinders damage control and can cause secondary explosions. Uncontrolled fire can reduce a warship to useless scrap metal even if the hull remains buoyant, as occurred with Kaga.

Some idea of the relative importance of various kinds of damage control can be gleaned from loss statistics. Of the five U.S. fleet and light carriers lost during the war, one (Yorktown) was lost to progressive flooding, while the other four (Lexington, Wasp, Hornet, and Princeton) were all lost to fire. No U.S. battleship was lost at sea, but of the battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor, one (Arizona) was lost to a magazine explosion, another (Oklahoma) capsized, and the other three (West Virginia, Nevada, and California) were victims of progressive flooding. It is likely that no conceivable damage control could have saved the first three, but the Nevada and California might have been saved by better damage control; California, in particular, was preparing for inspection and had so many hatches loosened that her watertight integrity was all but nonexistent. As it was, Nevada was repaired within a year and California and West Virginia were salvaged in time to participate in the final campaigns of the war. No warship larger than a destroyer was lost to structural failure.

Ships were rated by the number of major compartments that could be flooded without the ship sinking. Even most U.S. Navy auxiliaries were rated as having a two-compartment standard of subdivision or better. A significqant part of damage control procedure was the rapid patching of damaged bulkheads and decks to contain flooding.

Prewar damage control drill, at least in the British Navy, put a great deal of emphasis on shoring of bulkheads, which was probably misplaced. Bulkheads were designed and tested to withstand any head of water they were likely to be exposed to. In the United States Navy, it was recognized almost at once that the loss of Lexington need not have happened had better damage control procedures been in place. Lexington suffered two torpedo hits and three bomb hits at the Battle of the Coral Sea but was able to resume flight operations. However, inadequate damage control procedures led to a gasoline explosion and fires that went out of control and forced the scuttling of the vessel. Thereafter fire fighting became to the Navy what rifle marksmanship was to the infantry: A basic skill expected of all hands.

Lieutenant Harold J. Burke, a Navy reservist who had been deputy chief of the New York City fire department, persuaded the chief of the Bureau of Ships, Rear Admiral Edward L. Cochrane, to equip the fleet with the then-new fog nozzle, which produced a fine spray that was more effective at quenching fire than a solid stream of water. Burke and Lieutenant Thomas A. Kilduff, another reservist formerly with the Boston fire department, trained over 260 instructors to man firefighting schools at every continental naval base. These aimed at building the confidence of damage control parties in their own ability to survive and control major shipboard fires.

Fire fighting equipment and techniques were relatively primitive in all navies at the start of the war, but improved considerably, especially in the U.S. Navy. Some of the lessons of the Lexington disaster had already been absorbed and put into practice by the time of the battle of Midway, where the Yorktown's fuel officer had already introduced the use of carbon dioxide to flush fuel lines and blanket the fuel tanks. The Japanese discovered at Midway, and the Americans with the loss of Wasp, how easily water mains could be broken by shock and fire curtains destroyed by splinters. Portable pumps increased in number and capacity; firefighters were equipped with more and better asbestos suits; and foam was introduced for fighting fuel fires. U.S. warships were equipped with 160-pound (73 kg) handy billies and the larger warships (destroyer and up) were give 500-pound (227 kg) mobile pumps powered by gasoline engines, and hoses and couplings were standardized. The Essex class carriers, designed with fourteen fire mains dependent on ship's power, added two additional fire mains powered by individual gasoline engines, and a foamite system was installed every 100 feet (30 meters) on all aircraft carriers.

By the end of the war, the United States had perfected damage control to the point where Franklin could be saved, and return to the United States under her own power, after experiencing kamikaze hits that set off numerous secondary explosions in her hanger. There can be little doubt that Franklin would have been lost had her crew been trained and equipped for damage control in the same way that the crew of Lexington was when the latter was lost at Coral Sea. All of her fire mains were knocked out except for one gasoline-powered main, which operated continuously for eight hours. A case can be made that American damage control became too good: Some 21 warships hit by kamikazes in the last year of the war were saved from sinking by heroic damage control work, only to be ruled constructive total losses, too damaged for economic repair. These were scrapped or sunk as practice targets or, in one case, towed into the combat zone as a decoy. The effort put into "saving" these ships might better have been employed getting the crews off as safely as possible.

A postwar assessment of damage control in destroyers concluded that split plant operations (in which two or more sets of machinery in separate compartments are operated independently) and emergency diesel generators were vital to damage control. Emergency generators could provide immediate emergency power for damage control equipment when main power was lost. The same assessment also concluded that steam piping was remarkably resistant to damage. However, the report concluded that there was no substitute for highly trained personnel.

After Yorktown was lost at Midway, at least in part due to delays in organizing an ad hoc salvage crew for the stricken vessel, standard procedures were instituted for damage control on crippled warships. Salvage Control Phase I meant that the ship was crippled, and the wounded and crewmen not essential to defending and navigating the ship were to be evacuated. For example, on carriers, the air department personnel were evacuated in Phase I. For a light carrier of the Independence class, all but 490 of the 1570 men on board were evacuated for Salvage Phase I. If the ship was judged in danger of foundering, Salvage Control Phase II was instituted, in which only a skeleton crew of gun crews, firefighters, and damage control parties were left on board. For an Independence-class light carrier, this left just 240 men on board. Salvage Control Phase III meant to abandon ship.

Japanese damage control never reached the same level of effectiveness. Part of the problem was divided responsibility for damage control on Japanese warships. On an American warship, the assistant engineering officer had responsibility for all damage control and was trained accordingly. On a Japanese warship, the chief engineering officer was responsible for damage control in engineering spaces, while topside damage control was the responsibility of the officer of the deck, who might be a mere lieutenant. Neither the deck officer nor his damage control teams were likely to have much training in damage control, particularly since the damage control teams were drawn from men who normally had other duties.

According to Nakagawa (1997), the multicore electrical cables on Japanese warships were particularly difficult to repair, because it was extremely difficult to determine which conductors had been damaged by splinters.

Japanese damage control did improve during the war, as illustrated by the case of Zuikaku at the Battle of the Philippine Sea. Hit by at least one bomb and numerous near misses, she was ablaze and ordered abandoned, but her damage control crews managed to get the blaze under control.


Brown (2000)

Cutler (1994)

Friedman (2004)

Lundstrom (2006)

Morison (1958, 1959)

Nakagawa (1997)

NAVPERS 16191, "Damage Control" (May 1945; accessed 2019-1-21)
Peattie (2001)

Prange (1982)

Stern (2010)

Tillman (1997)
USS Enterprise: War Abandon Ship Bill (accessed 2009-9-7)

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