Remembering the USS West Virginia

On Sunday, December 7, 1941, the USS West Virginia (BB-48) lay moored outboard of Tennessee (BB-43) at berth F-6 with 40 feet of water beneath her keel. Shortly before 0800, Japanese planes, flying from a six-carrier task force, commenced their well-planned attack on the Fleet at Pearl Harbor. West Virginia took five 18-inch aircraft torpedoes in her port side and two bomb hits those bombs being 15-inch armor-piercing shells fitted with fins. The first bomb penetrated the superstructure deck, wrecking the port casemates and causing that deck to collapse to the level of the galley deck below. Four casemates and the galley caught fire immediately, with the subsequent detonation of the ready-service projectiles stowed in the casemates.

The second bomb hit further aft, wrecking one Vought OS2U Kingfisher floatplane atop the “high” catapult on Turret III and pitching the second one on her top on the main deck below. The projectile penetrated the 4-inch turret roof, wrecking one gun in the turret itself. Although the bomb proved a dud, burning gasoline from the damaged aircraft caused some damage.

The torpedoes, though, ripped into the ship’s port side; only prompt action by Lt. Claude V. Ricketts, the assistant fire control officer who had some knowledge of damage control techniques, saved the ship from the fate that befell Oklahoma (BB-37) moored ahead. She, too, took torpedo hits that flooded the ship and caused her to capsize.

Instances of heroic conduct on board the heavily damaged battleship proliferated in the heat of battle. The ship’s commanding officer, Capt. Mervyn S. Bennion, arrived on his bridge early in the battle, only to be struck down by a bomb fragment hurled in his direction when a 15-inch “bomb” hit the center gun in Tennessee’s Turret II, spraying that ship’s superstructure and West Virginia’s with fragments. Bennion, hit in the abdomen, crumpled to the deck, mortally wounded, but clung tenaciously to life until just before the ship was abandoned, involved in the conduct of the ship’s defense up to the last moment of his life. For his conspicuous devotion to duty, extraordinary courage, and complete disregard of his own life, Capt. Bennion was awarded a Medal of Honor, posthumously.

West Virginia was abandoned, settling to the harbor bottom on an even keel, her fires fought from on board by a party that volunteered to return to the ship after the first abandonment. By the afternoon of the following day, December 8, the flames had been extinguished. The garbage lighter, YG-17, played an important role in assisting those efforts during the Pearl Harbor attack, remaining in position alongside despite the danger posed by exploding ammunition on board the battleship.

Later examination revealed that West Virginia had taken not five, but six, torpedo hits. With a patch over the damaged area of her hull, the battleship was pumped out and ultimately refloated on May 17, 1942. Docked in Drydock Number One on 9 June, West Virginia again came under scrutiny, and it was discovered that there had been not six, but seven torpedo hits.

During the ensuing repairs, workers located 70 bodies of West Virginia sailors who had been trapped below when the ship sank. In one compartment, a calendar was found, the last scratch-off date being December 23. The task confronting the nucleus crew and shipyard workers was a monumental one, so great was the damage on the battleship’s port side. Ultimately, however, West Virginia departed Pearl Harbor for the west coast and a complete rebuilding at the Puget Sound Navy Yard at Bremerton, Wash.

The USS West Virginia was commissioned on December 1, 1923, under command of Capt. Thomas J. Senn. This was the last American Battleship to be launched prior to the restrictions imposed by the 1922 Washington Conference on Limitation of Naval Armament. For the complete history of this historic vessel, visit www.usswestvirginia.org

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