The Mighty Wee Vee – USS West Virginia

January 10, 2018

Next in our ongoing look at the ships of Pearl Harbor, here's a look at the USS West Virginia (BB-48):

USS West Virginia Specs:

  • Overall Length: 624’
  • Maximum Displacement: 32,100 tons (33,060 tons w/ a full load)
  • Speed: 21 knots
  • Armament: Before reconstruction: 8 x 16” .45 caliber guns; 12 x 5” .51 caliber guns; 4 x 3” .23 caliber guns 2 x 21” torpedo tubes. After reconstruction: 8 x 16” .45 caliber guns; 16 x 5” .38 caliber guns; 40 x Bofors 40 mm guns; 50 x Oerlikon 20 mm cannons.

1920: Laying Down the Wee Vee and the Incident of Lynnhaven

Twenty-one years and eight months before the tragic events of December 7, 1941, construction on a new US Navy battleship began. On April 12, 1920, what was soon to become the USS West Virginia was laid down at Newport News, VA. Within a year and seven months, she was launched, sliding into the waters of the Atlantic for the first time in her completed state. The West Virginia was designed with new features introduced to the super-dreadnought battleships such as a compartmentalized hull and increased armor thickness.

USS West Virginia

Newport News Shipyard. West Virginia is visible center-left

On Dec. 1, 1923, West Virginia was commissioned into the US Navy under the command of Captain Thomas J. Senn. Under Senn’s command, she departed Newport News for New York, where she worked for a brief period at the New York Navy Yard. Not long after, she was ordered to Hampton Roads for repairs, which led to the discovery of steering gear troubles and a resulting overhaul was completed in June of 1924.

In her early years, West Virginia faced many difficulties. Before becoming the battle-fleet flagship in October of 1924, she ran aground during an incident earlier that year. While sailing down the Lynnhaven channel in Virginia, the rudder indicator and emergency bell that alerted the steering engine room malfunctioned. Senn ordered a full stop on the engines, but when the telegraphs failed, was forced to order the port engines to full power and a full stop on the starboard. As hard as the crew tried to steer West Virginia with her engines, it was no use. She grounded in the soft mud.

In the investigation that followed, it was determined that Senn and his navigator were provided with misleading navigational data and the USS West Virginia was cleared to continue business as normal.

From Training to War

After the Lynnhaven mishap, West Virginia, by then the fleet's flagship, won the American Defense Society’s American Defense Cup and Spokane Cup, along with Battle Efficiency Pennants in 1925, 1927, 1932, and 1935. Shortly after these victories, she underwent training and maintenance and participated in the annual fleet problems, a series of naval exercises that trained naval vessels in various strategic and tactical scenarios.

In 1925, as part of Fleet Problem V, West Virginia participated in a mock attack on the Hawaiian Islands, testing the coastal defenses. Seven years later, Fleet Problem XIII would demonstrate the weaknesses of those coastal defenses.

Before shipping off to Pearl Harbor for intensive training, West Virginia underwent modifications to enhance her performance and replace some of her armament. In 1939, three years after Captain Senn’s retirement and Mervyn S. Bennion’s appointment as commander, she was stationed in Hawaii in response to the rapidly growing threat of war. As Japanese–American relations continued to deteriorate, fear of a large-scale war in the Pacific grew.

Sinking of the USS West Virginia

USS West Virginia

Smoke coming from the USS West Virginia

On the morning of December 7, 1941, bombs exploded near the USS Arizona (BB-39), signifying the start of the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor. West Virginia was moored at berth F-6 alongside the USS Tennessee (BB-43) and was one of the first battleships struck during the attack. West Virginia suffered significant damage during the attack, initially from seven Type 91 aerial torpedoes that struck her port side, and two Type 99 bombs.

As she took on water from the two holes extended between two sets of frames, her plight gave rise to one of the greatest stories of heroism from that devastating morning. Messman Third Class Doris Miller became a national hero when he helped move the mortally wounded Captain Bennion to safety and then man an anti-aircraft machine gun on which he had no prior training.

Miller survived the attack, and the battleship was later refloated. Within her hull, repair workers found the remains of 66 sailors who had perished during the attack.

The Wee Vee at War

The damage done to West Virginia was extensive, but by July of 1944, she had been repaired and modernized, and on September 14, 1944, she was sent to Pearl Harbor for her first orders of World War II. She first sailed to Manus Island, where she was joined by the aircraft carrier USS Hancock (CV-19), and then sailed to Seeadler Harbor to join Battleship Division 4. Within two days, she became flagship of the division.

USS West Virginia

USS West Virginia firing on Japanese fleet

The USS West Virginia’s first foray into the war in the Pacific was the invasion of the Philippines and the battle of Leyte Gulf. She provided bombardment of shore targets and supported underwater demolition teams to prepare the island for the American assault.

While American troops stormed the Philippines, West Virginia led Maryland (BB-46), Mississippi (BB-41), Tennessee (BB-43), California (BB-44), and Pennsylvania (BB-38) against Admiral Shoji Nishimura’s force. In the battle, she was credited with assisting in the sinking of Yamashiro, a Japanese dreadnought battleship.

West Virginia continued her service in the Philippines before shipping off to assist in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. As she did at Leyte, she bombarded the islands to help clear a path for the American troops who would land on their shores.

After the Japanese surrender, West Virginia sailed for Tokyo Bay and was present for the official surrender on September 2, 1945, aboard the USS Missouri (BB-63).

After the War

With the war over, West Virginia assisted in transporting passengers back to the West Coast of the United States. During her service, she received the American Defense Service Medal (w/Fleet clasp), the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal (w/five battle stars), the World War II Victory Medal, and the Navy Occupation Medal (w/Asia clasp).

West Virginia was decommissioned on January 9, 1947. For 12 years, she remained inactive before being struck from the Naval Vessel Register on March 1, 1959. In August of the same year, the USS West Virginia was sold for scrap.

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