The U.S.S. West Virginia was one of the most damaged ships at Pearl Harbor, but rose from the ashes
On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan launched a surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, killing more than 2,400 servicemen and wounding 1,000 others at the U.S. naval base near Honolulu. President Franklin Roosevelt called it “a date which will live in infamy.” The U.S.S. West Virginia was one of eight battleships struck, and was sunk by multiple torpedoes and two bombs; 106 six sailors onboard the ship died that day.
Launched in 1921 and commissioned in 1923, the Colorado-class battleship affectionately known as “WeeVee” became the first U.S. casualty of World War II.
Despite the ship’s sinking and the devastating loss of life, many heroes were made that fateful day, including Capt. Mervyn S. Bennion, who received a posthumous Medal of Honor for his devotion to duty even as he lay mortally wounded from shrapnel. Navy cook Doris “Dorie” Miller, who carried the dying captain from the fight and then took over an unmanned anti-aircraft gun to shoot at enemy planes, became the first African-American to receive the Navy Cross.
Rising from the ashes
The U.S.S. West Virginia proved to be as resilient as its namesake. Like the proverbial phoenix rising from the ashes, it was salvaged from the seabed, patched up and refitted, and sent back into battle. The ship took part in the invasion of the Philippine Islands and provided fire support at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. It was the only ship attacked at Pearl Harbor to be present for the Japanese surrender at Tokyo Bay in 1945. At war’s end the ship joined Operation Magic Carpet in transporting veterans back home.
Creating a legacy
The U.S.S. West Virginia was deactivated in 1947 and dismantled in 1961, but its story doesn’t end there. In 2000, on the 59th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, Governor Cecil Underwood issued a proclamation naming U.S. 470 in the Northern Panhandle U.S.S. West Virginia Memorial Highway.
Artifacts from this mighty battleship are on display throughout the state. The flagstaff that was sunk at Pearl Harbor stands in front of the Harrison County Courthouse in Clarksburg as a memorial to the sailors who died. An anti-aircraft gun is on display at City Park in Parkersburg. The ship’s mast is mounted in front of Oglebay Hall at West Virginia University and the secondary con wheel is on display at the library at Salem University.
The West Virginia State Museum at the Culture Center in Charleston houses a special U.S.S. West Virginia exhibit as part of its military history section. Artifacts include the ship’s bell, an eight-day clock and a silver plate creamer that were on the ship when it was raised from the seabed. Other mementos include a sailor’s uniform and medals, a triptych from the original U.S.S. West Virginia (launched in 1903 and later renamed the Huntington), and even pieces of a Japanese kamikaze plane that attacked the ship in 1945.
Perhaps the most symbolic part of the State Museum exhibit is the U.S. flag that had flown over the ship in Pearl Harbor. When sailors evacuated the wounded ship to the U.S.S. Tennessee, they took the West Virginia’s flag with them and hoisted it above the Tennessee—a lasting testament to the perseverance of the battleship and its courageous crew.
This post was last updated on July 30, 2020