Mervyn Bennion: The Last Captain of USS West Virginia
July 11, 2017
At the age of 54, Mervyn Bennion gave everything he had to his nation and to the men who served under him in the US Navy. Serving as captain of the USS West Virginia (BB-48), his bravery wasn’t something that was easily forgotten, earning him a Medal of Honor for having given his life defending his country.
December 7th, 1941 took many lives, that of Mervyn Bennion among them, and even 75 years later, the stories of these brave men continue to be told to ensure their legacies aren’t lost over time.
Captain Bennion was destined for the sea, having graduated third in his class from the United States Naval Academy, in 1910. Once the young officer was ready for service, he joined the crew of USS California (ACR-6), working in the engineering division of the armored cruiser.
Four years after his graduation, World War I started, giving Bennion his first taste of armed conflict. He served as a gunnery specialist in the Ordnance Bureau at the Washington Naval Yard. When the first great war ended, Bennion was moved to the USS Bernadou (DD-153) a destroyer that became the first ship he commanded.
On July 2nd, 1941, Bennion took over as captain of West Virginia, the ship that would be the last he would command.
The Pearl Harbor Attack
At 0755 on December 7th, 1941, a fleet of Japanese fighters and bombers flew into Pearl Harbor and opened fire on the ships lined up on Battleship Row. West Virginia was one of those targets and before long, she suffered a bomb strike that sent shrapnel throughout the command deck. Though West Virginia ultimately survived the attack and went on to fight in the Pacific Theater, she didn’t escape Pearl Harbor without casualties.
When the bombs started to fall and torpedoes struck her side, at least 66 of her crew perished, eventually including Captain Bennion. Struck with shrapnel, he refused to let his wounds stop him. While he could still draw breath, he continued to command the crew of West Virginia. To slow the flow of blood, Bennion held his wounds closed himself and focused his dwindling energy on giving orders to his crew, ensuring that they didn’t give up fighting.
Before the attack ended, Bennion died from blood loss. For his bravery in refusing to leave his post even as he lay dying from his wounds, Bennion was awarded a Medal of Honor posthumously.
Captain Bennion’s Legacy
On July 4th, 1943, the USS Bennion (DD-662), a destroyer named for the former West Virginia captain, was christened by his widow.