The National Postal Museum has two hand-held cancellation devices from the USS Oklahoma. This traditional Navy three-bar cancel device still bears the date “Dec 6, 1941 PM,” the day before the ship capsized and sank early Sunday morning during the attack on Pearl Harbor. It shows evidence of water damage, and possibly even ash, hallmarks of its tragic past.
Since 1913, Navy ships have used postmarks with three killer bars with slots for removable type that could be used to spell out the ship’s location. As World War II progressed, ships’ locations were omitted and the three-bar cancel became unnecessary.
The USS Oklahoma was a BB-37 battleship, laid down by the New York Shipbuilding Corporation in New Jersey on October 26, 1912. The ship was launched in March of 1914, and commissioned to the U.S. Navy in May of 1916. Among her earliest duties, the Oklahoma escorted President Woodrow Wilson to peace negotiations in France in 1919. From 1927-1929, the ship was modernized and made more battle worthy. In 1940, her homeport was shifted from San Pedro, California, to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
At 6 am on Sunday, December 7, 1941, a wave of fighters, bombers, and torpedo planes took off from a series of Japanese warships located 230 miles north of Oahu, Hawaii. The Japanese aircraft reached Pearl Harbor just before 7:55 am. Within twenty minutes, the Oklahoma had been hit on the portside a number of times and capsized, trapping several hundred crew members. Thirty-nine men were rescued through the hull as rescue workers cut through where they could hear tapping from within. Of the ship’s full complement of 2166 men, 415 were listed as either killed or missing in action and 32 wounded.
This canceling device was recovered from the capsized ship and made its way to the Smithsonian Institution where it remains a valuable reminder of the tragedy and resilience of that day that has, indeed, lived in infamy.
By Kerry Beth Johnson