USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor

By: Bruce D.

Affectionately nicknamed “Wee Vee”, USS West Virginia was commissioned in in December 1923.  She was moved to Hawaii in 1940 with the US Pacific Fleet and was the youngest of all the battleships at Pearl Harbor.

USS West Virginia During the Attack

During the attack on Pearl Harbor West Virginia was outboard of USS Tennessee. The outboard ships took the brunt of the torpedo damage while they protected the inboard ships.  Tennessee was not hit by a single torpedo, but West Virginia was hit by nine torpedoes.

Only one Japanese midget submarine was able to clear the torpedo net. It is believed that this submarine used both torpedoes on West Virginia, accounting for two of the nine torpedoes that struck her. However, that claim has not been proven.

USS West Virginia Torpedo Strike

Photograph taken from a Japanese plane during the torpedo attack on ships moored on both sides of Ford Island shortly after the beginning of the Pearl Harbor attack. View looks about east, with the supply depot, submarine base and fuel tank farm in the right center distance. A torpedo has just hit USS West Virginia on the far side of Ford Island (center).

Torpedoed USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor

Notice the ripples in the water after the torpedo strike on Battleship Row.

Of the thirty six torpedo hits that Japan claimed West Virginia took nine. West Virginia was luckier than Oklahoma because only one of the nine torpedoes struck above the armor belt. That luck, however, was only relative.

The dive bombers were focused on the inboard ships, but there was one dive bomber hit on West Virginia. Perhaps more dive bombers would have hit if it was not for the smoke coming from Arizona‘s raging fires.

A bomb similar to the one that destroyed the Arizona hit West Virginia. It penetrated the six-inch roof armor, but turned out to be a dud and only damaged a loading slide.

Nevertheless after dive bombers, high level bombers and torpedoes were finished West Virginia was sitting on the bottom of the harbor.

USS West Virginia

A small boat rescues a seaman from the 31,800 ton USS West Virginia burning in the foreground. Smoke rolling out amidships shows where the most extensive damage occurred. Note the two men in the superstructure. The USS Tennessee is inboard

Heroics on the “Wee Vee”

Before general quarters were sounded on West Virginia, they were heard on Oklahoma. Ensign Roland S. Brooks, officer-of-the-deck, announced on the loudspeaker “Japanese are attacking, all hands general quarters!” and rang the general alarm. There is no doubt that this warning saved many lives.

Moments later the first torpedo hit. Lieutenant Commander John Harper, First Lieutenant and Damage Control Officer of West Virginia sprung into action. As the ship began listing 15 degrees, Harper immediately ordered counter flooding measures. The counter-flooding measures saved West Virginia from capsizing and the fate of Oklahoma.

Captain Bennion was injured by a large piece of metal from a bomb explosion on Tennessee.  It cut his abdomen, exposed his intestines and killed him. He was brave until his last moment, showing concern for his men during the attack. He asked the men to leave him and find safety for themselves. They continued to care for him and decided to move him to safety.

Doris Miller

Doris Miller, Mess Attendant 2nd Class, just after being presented the Navy Cross.

They needed a strong man to carry him to safety. They saw the ship’s heavyweight boxing champion, Doris Miller carrying wounded sailors to safety already. He was called over to help Captain Bennion. Along with Lieutenant Commander Doir C. Johnson, Doris Miller carried the captain to safety, where he later died of his wounds.

After moving the captain, mess attendant Doris Miller took it upon himself to man a machine gun. He later received the Navy Cross for his bravery on West Virginia.

With the help of the crew of Tennessee, the wounded were moved from West Virginia and the fires were confined. Eventually, the order to abandon ship was made.

The USS West Virginia After the Attack

When the attack was over, 106 men died on the “Wee Vee”.

Pearl Harbor is quite shallow. There was only 40 feet of water below West Virginia‘s keel. This prevented her (and California) from sinking completely. The shallow waters also helped in raising and eventually repairing her. Had she been at sea, it would have been a total loss.

USS West Virginia 1944

USS West Virginia (BB-48) with her main batteries trained to starboard, in her final configuration after being rebuilt at Puget Sound Navy Yard, June 1944.

West Virginia suffered major damage from torpedo hits, bombs, sinking, and intense fires. However, she was not lost. In July 1944, West Virginia was repaired, modernized, and back in action. In October 1944, West Virginia participated in the largest naval battle in history at Leyte Gulf.

West Virginia was also at the Battle of Iwo Jima and the Battle of Okinawa. After the war ended on August 15, 1945, “Wee Vee” sailed to Tokyo Bay, where she would be for the Japanese surrender on the deck of Battleship USS Missouri.

After sustaining great damage at Pearl Harbor, West Virginia, went on to fight strong in WWII and earned five battle stars.  After an illustrious career, she was decommissioned in 1947 and eventually sold for scrap in 1959.

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