The Story of the USS West Virginia

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By Jeremy T.K. Farley, Follow him on Twitter @JeremyTKFarley

Monday, December 7, 2015, will mark the 74th anniversary of the vicious Japanese attack against American forces stationed at Pearl Harbor. The attack left over 2,400 American servicemen dead and more than a thousand additional sailors wounded – prompting Congress to declare a swift declaration of war, thrusting America into an international conflict unlike anything previously witnessed.

Among the many battleships anchored at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, that fateful December morning was the USS West Virginia, a Colorado-class battleship constructed in a naval yard on the coast of the Mountain State’s birthmother: Newport News, Virginia.

First launched in November 1921, the ship was sailing through the Chesapeake Bay, off the coast of Virginia, on the morning of June 16, 1924, when the vessel was ran aground onto the soft, muddy shoreline of the Old Dominion. A court of inquiry later found that the battleship had been supplied with “inaccurate and misleading navigational data,” exonerating the ship’s captain and crew of any blame for the incident.

After repairs had been made, the ship roamed the waters of the Atlantic Oceans for roughly a decade, until it was hastily ordered to join the Pacific Fleet in the spring of 1939, as war with a Japanese empire intent upon extending its Pacific territory seemed inevitable.

Over the next year and a half, the ship engaged in multiple training exercises in the waters near Hawaii, preparing for what many Navy leaders believed was a coming war with the Empire of the Rising Sun.

One Sunday morning in early December 1941, those fears were realized as the sleepy crew of the USS West Virginia was awoken by seven 18-inch aerial torpedoes striking against the ship’s port side — World War II had just began and the deck of the USS West Virginia was the setting.

Moored outboard of the USS Tennessee, the ship affectionately known by sailors in Hawaii as “WeeVee,” was the first US causality of World War II.

As the day’s attack progressed, the ship would take additional torpedo hits, eventually exploding the armored second deck. West Virginia was then seriously damaged by an oil fire from the USS Arizona — the fire would continue to burn for the next 30 hours as the fuel from sinking ships polluted the water.

The massive damage to the port side of the “WeeVee” caused rapid flooding of the port compartments, including the battle phone circuit batteries.

Injured by an explosion, the ship’s dying captain ordered his sailors to abandon ship with his final breaths.  Seconds after the ship’s captain died, however, the new commanding officer reversed the captain’s order, commanding sailors aboard the USS West Virginia to remain on the ship and fight the Japanese.

Fire hoses from the Tennessee, a ship that suffered relatively minor damage thanks to being inboard of the West Virginia were brought aboard the battleship as crews from both ships continued fighting fires aboard the Mountain State’s namesake vessel.

Clarence Moldenhauer, a young sailor aboard the USS West Virginia told the remainder of the ship’s story in the following words, immediately after the conclusion of World War II:

“The USS West Virginia, damaged so severely by the Japanese attack sank in her Pearl Harbor berth… Patched up with what plates were available, the West Virginia was raised and she steamed back under her own power to a West Coast Navy Yard. Battered and torn, she seemed suited only for the scrap head. But the modern genius of our shipyards made a different story. Stripped to her main deck, the ship was rebuilt and she emerged from the yard practically a new vessel, equipped with the most modern weapons of warfare.

“The West Virginia’s first chance for vengeance came with the opening of the Philippines campaign. Flying the same colors she had up on December 7, 1941, she led the column of battleships into Leyte Gulf and poured salvo after salvo into the Japanese forces before our troops went ashore. Here, she shot down her first enemy plane, on the starboard beam…

“Next came the Mindoro landings. Operating offshore as a protective screen for the carriers and lighter forces, the West Virginia experienced heavy air attacks which she beat off successfully.

“After many weeks, the veteran battleship retired to a base for what was expected to be a leisurely rest period. Instead, within 24-hours of her arrival, she was on her way to Iwo Jima and another major operation.

“Arriving just as the first wave of Marines went in to land, the West Virginia moved in close to Iwo Jima’s southern beaches and began bombarding Mt. Suribachi. Often in the following days she was close enough to the beach to hit the enemy with automatic weapon fire.

“From Iwo Jima, the West Virginia moved on to Okinawa and Ie Shima, continuing her action in the face of fierce and fanatical Japanese suicide air attacks. She again pounded the enemy with shells in the campaign to secure this strategic area.

Ultimately, she shot down eight enemy planes and had sure assists in the destruction of twelve others, traveling 63,000 nautical miles in the final year of the war.

The war which began so abruptly in December 1941 came to a halt nearly just as quickly, when Japanese imperial leaders accepted an unconditional surrender offer from the United States.

The USS West Virginia, first victim of the Japanese, steamed proudly into Tokyo Bay, the backyard of the enemy, on August 30, 1945, and was anchored alongside the USS Missouri as Japanese foreign affairs minister Mamoru Shigemitsu humbly walked across its deck to sign the Japanese Instrument of Surrender.

Five musicians from the USS West Virginia were transferred to the Missouri for the surrender ceremony.

In the weeks ahead, the American vessel which had witnessed many of the most iconic moments of the 20th century returned to the mainland where she was, in the years ahead, decommissioned and cut into scrap metal.

Prior to being destroyed, however, many of the ship’s most important parts were removed and offered to localities and organizations based in West Virginia. The flagstaff, which was sunk at Pearl Harbor is on display in front of the Harrison County Courthouse in Clarksburg, West Virginia, to honor the sailors who died. The mainmast was presented to West Virginia University and is still displayed in front of Oglebay Hall as a memorial. The ship’s bells, wheel, and triptych were sent to the West Virginia State Museum in Charleston, West Virginia. The secondary con wheel is on display at the Salem College Library, Salem, West Virginia. An anti-aircraft gun is displayed at City Park in Parkersburg, West Virginia. The ship’s wheel and binnacle are on display at the Hampton Roads Naval Museum in neighboring Virginia, where the ship was originally constructed. The USS West Virginia Association maintains a collection of artifacts and organizes annual reunions for crew members, family and friends.

Like the state the ship was commissioned to represent, the USS West Virginia was no stranger to difficult times, yet she met each new challenge with an unmatched courage and resilience.  The crew of the USS West Virginia are American heroes, worthy of not just the admiration of residents from the Mountain State, but from all Americans.  As we approach December 7, 2015, let us do so with the memory of the USS West Virginia and the thousands of men aboard several other ships who died that terrible day — it is because of their sacrifices that we can still boldly proclaim “Montani Semper Liberi,” Mountaineers are Always Free.

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