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USS West Virginia BB-48

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The USS Virginia afire after sinking in Pearl Harbor

USS West Virginia

The USS West Virginia, nicknamed the "Wee Vee", was moored in Battleship Row when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Paired with the USS Tennessee, she was particularly vulnerable to torpedo attacks, being the outboard ship and berthed across from the Southeast Lock waterway. In the line of ships, she was berthed between the USS Arizona, which lay astern and the nested pair, USS Maryland and USS Oklahoma which lay to her bow. According to the action report for December 7, 1941, the words “Away Fire and Rescue Party” was heard aboard the West Virginia at 7:55AM, followed about thirty seconds later by “General Quarter”. At the same time, heavy shocks were felt on the hull of the West Virginia. She had been struck by torpedoes.

The crew manned battle stations and fired all the ready ammunition with difficulty since was no air to the batteries and the ship had begun to list. Ammunition could be not be reached because of the flooding. Counter flooding was promptly ordered by Lieutenant Claude V. Ricketts to correct the list, and this righted the ship, preventing it from capsizing. However, no measures could keep her from sinking with the large holes that were torn in her port side.

YG-17 fighting fires on the West Virginia

A raging oil fire swept from the Arizona, and engulfed the West Virginia. The crew bravely fought fires and tended to the wounded until the order was given to abandon ship.

According to an action report of December 11, 1941, the barge YG-17 pulled alongside the West Virginia to fight the fires on the damaged ship. With its "bow largely enveloped in dense billows of oil smoke and with the burning oil on the water around [its] bow,” YG-17's crew and volunteers returning to the West Virginia fought the raging oil fires despite the great danger of explosions. In the photo, spray from hoses of barge YG-17 can be seen fighting the flames on the West Virginia.

Many awards and citations for bravery during the surprise attack were given to the crew of the West Virginia including the captain, Mervyn S. Bennion, and crew member, Doris Miller. Captain Bennion received the Medal of Honor citation “For conspicuous devotion to duty, extraordinary courage, and complete disregard of his own life, above and beyond the call of duty.... after being mortally wounded, Captain Bennion evidenced apparent concern only in fighting and saving his ship, and strongly protested against being carried from the bridge." Medal of Honor, 1861-1949, The Navy”, page 156. Doris Miller was presented with the Navy Cross, for manning a 50 caliber Browning anti-aircraft machine gun until he ran out of ammunition and was ordered to abandon ship.

Sunken USS West Virginia

During the course of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the West Virginia had been hit by two bombs and up to nine torpedoes, and more than a hundred of her crew had been killed. An immense salvage operation was begun to raise, repair and modernize the West Virginia. She returned to active service in 1944.

During the remainder of World War II, the West Virginia engaged in many of the battles in the Pacific. In September of 1944, she participated in the invasion of the Philippines. In the Battle of Leyte Gulf she was part of the last battleship to battleship combat. On her very first salvo she scored a direct hit upon the lead Japanese battleship. She also participated in the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. And when the Japanese formally surrender on the battleship Missouri, the West Virginia was present in Tokyo Bay.


"West Virginia sank at her berth as a result of four or five aircraft torpedo hits and at least two bomb hits. The vessel rests on a hard bottom with all spaces flooded up to two or three feet below the main deck. Most of the damage from torpedoes is in the midship area, which is badly wrecked both below water and above water. A large bomb passed through the foretop and the boat deck and apparently exploded near the port side on the main or second deck. This explosion caused considerable wreckage and a terrific powder and oil fire, which burned out the whole area and extended to the foremast structure up to and including the bridge.

A second bomb hit the top of turret III and passed through the 6-inch top. The nature of the penetration indicated defective material. This bomb did not explode but caused damage to the slide of the left gun. Recently another torpedo hole, and parts of the torpedo, have been located aft under the counter. The steering engine room appears to be wrecked and the rudder is lying on the bottom." - Damage report on USS West Virginia Enclosure C to CINCPAC action report Serial 0479 February 15, 1942.

Photos from the U.S. Navy photographs, National Archives Collection.

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