Retired Navy Capt. James M. Steele, 82, who organized the salvage of sunken and damaged U.S. ships after the Japanese attack on Peal Harbor, died Saturday at his home in Washington.

At the time of the attack in December, 1941, he was commader of the U.S.S. Utah, a former battleship that had been converted to an antiaircraft gunship. The Utah was sunk with a loss of several hundred lives.

Capt. Steele directed the immediate assembing of equipment and specialists to begin salvage work, and within four days the teams had returned three damaged battleships to service and laid plans for raising other ships.

He then was assigned as senior war plans officer for the Navy's buildup and movement toward Japan. He held that assignment until 1944, when he was recalled to Washington to serve as the Navy member of a board established to study reorganization of this country's defense establishment. The borard's work resulted in creation of the Department of Defense.

Capt. Steele retired in 1946, and had lived here since then. After his Navy service, he worked for 10 years as a consultant to the International Minerals and Metals Corp. and the Bridgeport Brass Co. He then was with the brokerage firm of Jones Kreeger until a second retirement in 1966.

Born in Denver, Colo., Capt. Steele graduated from the Naval Academy at Annapolis in 1916. He served on cruisers and destroyers, an oiler and a battleship before World War II.

He was a founding member of the Army Navy Country Club and member of the Army and Navy Club.

He is survived by his wife, Erma Garrett Steele, of the home; a son, retired Navy Vice Adm. Goerge P. Steele, of Philadelphia; a daughter, Mrs. Wilson E. D. Shepherd, of Coronado, Calif., four grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.