The Wee Vee: An Inspiring Tale of Resurrection from a Watery Grave

“With confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God.”

President Franklin D. Roosevelt

Mervyn closed his eyes and listened as destruction erupted all around him. He had been hit and lay bleeding on the deck of his ship. Several of his men urged him to leave and get medical aid, but hearing the sounds of war around him, his blood boiled for his country. And so he gathered every ounce of strength he had, and he fought. He refused to leave his post. He was the captain and one thing he knew for sure – this captain and his ship would not go down without a fight. After all, he knew this was going to be his last fight.

This is the story of a courageous captain and crew, a millionaire’s daughter, and a battleship resurrected from a watery grave to face the enemy one last time. 

The year was 1920, and the countries of the world were still reeling from the world war that had just come to an end two years earlier. Millions of people had lost their lives in the Great War, and millions more were wounded mentally and physically. Since the end of the war, The United States had been busy building up its arsenal of battleships, little knowing they would soon need them to take part in yet another world war. 

April of 1920, builders of the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company of Newport News, Virginia laid down the hull for the last battleship to be completed for almost twenty years later. As the ship reached completion, it became a 624 feet long, 94 feet wide Colorado class battleship. It measured roughly the length of two football fields and the height of eight stories. It was equipped with eight 16-inch guns in four turrets and twelve 5-inch guns as the secondary battery, and it was capable of moving at a speed of 21 knots. The name of this new battleship? It was named the USS West Virginia. 

Alice T. Mann, daughter of coal-baron Isaac T. Mann, was present alongside West Virginia Governor Ephraim Morgan as the USS West Virginia was christened and launched in November of 1921. It soon became affectionately called the “Wee Vee.” The ship was commissioned on December 1, 1923, and she spent the next 15 years or so undergoing a cycle of training, maintenance, and readiness exercises, taking part in several engineering and gunnery competitions. She and her crew learned lessons that would be needed sooner rather than later.

On September 1, 1939, German forces under the leadership of Adolf Hitler took up arms and invaded Poland, a violation of the Treaty of Versailles signed following the First World War. Two days later, France and Britain declared war on Germany thus beginning World War II. In June of the following year, Italy joined the war on the side of Germany and the Axis powers. The fight was spreading and more nations were being pulled into the conflict, but the United States had yet to declare war. 

Battleship Row during the attack on Pearl Harbor; the large column of water visible in the center is one of the torpedo hits on West Virginia

Nevertheless, the United States stood on edge. Their battleships were stationed, ready for the worst. The USS West Virginia was sent to the Pacific. It’s station – Pearl Harbor. 

On December 7, 1941, the USS West Virginia, was one of a handful of battleships moored along Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked and bombed United States soil bringing both countries into World War II.  The “Wee Vee” was hit by two bombs and seven torpedoes, and more than 100 of her crew lost their lives, including Captain Mervyn S. Bennion. It was here on the deck of the USS West Virginia, in the midst of Pearl Harbor that he refused to leave his post. It was here that he saw the first of many enemy planes to come, the first of many bombs to be dropped, and the first of many men to lose their lives in the Second World War. It was here that he bled on the deck of his own ship. It was here that he stood in defense of his country. 

Captain Mervyn Bennion

Captain Bennion was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously for “conspicuous devotion to duty, extraordinary courage, and complete disregard of his own life, above and beyond the call of duty, during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, by Japanese forces on 7 December 1941.”

Aboard the USS West Virginia that day, there was indeed no lack of heroics. Navy Cook Doris “Dorie” Miller was one of many who fought back at Pearl Harbor. He was the man who finally carried the dying Captain Bennion from the fight. After carrying the captain, he returned and took up a machine gun. He had no formal training in the use of anti-aircraft guns, and yet experience is the best teacher. Miller also attended to the wounded, and helped move many of his comrades through oil and water to the quarterdeck saving many lives. He became the first African-American to receive the Navy Cross. It was awarded for his “distinguished devotion to duty, extraordinary courage and disregard for his own personal safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor.” Nearly two years later, Miller was killed in action when his ship was sunk by a Japanese submarine.

As for the ship, due to the efforts of Bennion and his men, the ship was saved from capsizing. But, the USS West Virginia did sink to the bottom of the harbor. After the events of that fateful December day, Americans across the country were in shock. The United States had been attacked. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt spoke to the public saying:

 “Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of JapanWith confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph—so help us God. I ask that the Congress declare that since the unprovoked and dastardly attack by Japan on Sunday, December 7th, 1941, a state of war has existed between the United States and the Japanese empire.”

The United States may have been down, but they were not out, and the same went for the USS West Virginia. On May 17, 1942, the battleship was refloated and repairs commenced. She was sailed to Puget Sound Navy Yard for final touches and modernization. By July, the USS West Virginia was a new and improved modern battleship ready for action once again. She had been resurrected from a watery grave; she now returned back to sea stronger and hungry for victory. 

USS West Virginia in the background as Gen. Douglas MacArthur signs as Supreme Allied Commander during formal surrender ceremonies aboard the USS Missouri in Tokyo Bay.

Sent to the Pacific Front, the “Wee Vee” participated in the invasion of the Phillippines and other confrontations. She was at the battle of Surigao Strait, the Battle of Leyte Gulf, and the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. But the USS West Virginia finally got her recompense on September 2, 1945. This resilient battleship was present in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese formally surrendered to the United States. The USS West Virginia was the only Pearl Harbor survivor present at the surrender in Tokyo Bay. 

The USS West Virginia went on to participate in “Operation Magic Carpet,” the return of troops to the United States, the return back home. She remained in active service for a few years, finally being decommissioned in 1947. Twelve years later, in 1959, the victorious battleship was sold for scrap. 

Nevertheless, the legacy of the USS West Virginia lives on. Artifacts from the battleship can be found littered across the state of West Virginia. The flagstaff that was sunk at Pearl Harbor stands in front of the Harrison County Courthouse in Clarksburg, West Virginia. At City Park in Parkersburg can be found an anti-aircraft gun. The ship’s mast stands tall and proud in front of Oglebay Hall on the campus of West Virginia University in Morgantown. The secondary con wheel is displayed at the Salem University library. 

But perhaps the largest collection of artifacts from the USS West Virginia is housed in the capital city in the West Virginia State Museum at the Culture Center. These artifacts include the ship’s bell, an eight-day clock, and several sailor’s uniforms and medals among other memorabilia. The museum also possesses the United States flag that was flown over the USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor. Each artifact stands as a memorial to a battleship and its courageous crew and a resilient nation thrown into the midst of the most destructive conflict in world history. 

To hear learn more of this battleship or to read the stories of individual crewmen aboard the USS West Virginia, go to https://www.usswestvirginia.org/

Sources:

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