USS West Virginia Battleship
The USS West Virginia was a Colorado-class battleship launched in 1921 under the sponsorship of Miss Alice Wright Mann, daughter of Isaac Mann, a well-known West Virginian. The ship was commissioned on December 1, 1923. As the first few of the “super-dreadnoughts,” the USS West Virginia’s design was an embodiment of the latest and most advanced naval ship-building techniques.
On its first day at sea, on June of 1924, the USS West Virginia was en route to Hampton Roads in Virginia when it suffered an engine failure and found itself grounded in mud. A court of inquiry looked into the grounding and, finding that misleading navigational data had been supplied to the ship, pardoned the ship’s captain, Thomas J. Senn, from any blame.
After engine repairs, the USS West Virginia became flagship for the Commander, Battleship Divisions, Battle Fleet and went on in the next several years to rack up a series of awards and recognitions for the capabilities of its artillery. In 1926, the battleship won two trophies for high achievement in short range target practice, and in the years 1925, 1927, 1932 and 1933, it won the prestigious Battle Efficiency Pennant. In 1926, the ship also took part in a joint Army-Navy program that tested the defenses of the Hawaiian Islands. That same year it was sent in for modifications that would modernize the ship’s functional capabilities.
By the late 1930s when Japan had begun to aggressively expand its empire, it was becoming clearer and clearer that the U.S.’ greatest defense against enemy attack would be its Navy. In 1939, Battle Fleet, with its flagship as its backbone, was hurriedly dispatched to the Pacific and retained in Hawaii in 1940. Over the next two years, the USS West Virginia partook in a series of exercises with the other battleships in Hawaii to prepare itself for war.
The morning of December 7, 1941, started off as just another day of training, with the USS West Virginia and its neighboring ships resting soundly on Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor. Shortly before 8 a.m., seven torpedoes launched by a midget Japanese submarine struck the USS West Virginia on its port side, seriously damaging the ship’s armor belt. Shortly after, a bomb hit the foretop of the ship’s deck and miraculously fell unexploded onto the second deck. A second bomb hit the lower deck and also fell unexploded, though some projectiles from the flight destroyed some of the ship’s artillery.
What the USS West Virginia had to actually guard itself against was collateral damage from the explosion at the USS Arizona, which caused hundreds of gallons of oil to spill into the sea. The USS Oklahoma, which was moored nearby, had already capsized; the USS West Virginia was saved from a similar fate by the brave heroes, such as Lieutennant Claude Rickets, Captain Mervyn S. Bennion and the ship’s cook Doris Miller, who was the first African American to receive the Navy Cross.
The battleship survived the fires, but was eventually abandoned and sank to the bottom of the harbor. Its damaged hull was patched up and the USS West Virginia was raised and dry-docked in May 1942. During the repair process, 66 bodies of dead soldiers were found in a store room compartment of the ship. The damage to the ship was so great that it had to be transported to the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Washington State for a full-scale repair.
For two years, workers labored to fix, re-haul and further modernize the USS West Virginia. On September 14, 1944, the battleship had risen from the dead, like a phoenix from its ashes, and departed again for Hawaii. The story of the ship from this moment onwards is that of an indefatigable warrior. It had missed much of the war, but made up for it by participating in the Battle of Leyte in Southeast Asia. As four Japanese battleships headed towards the Philippine Islands, the USS West Virginia – alongside its newly renovated compatriot ships from Pearl Harbor, the USS Tennessee, USS California and USS Pennsylvania – advanced in the dark to open fire on the ships, defeating the Japanese with a tactical mastery that avenged the U.S. Pearl Harbor defeat.
The Battle of Leyte was the last naval engagement fought by line-of-battleships, but the USS West Virginia continued in its defense of the Philippines over the next several months and then went on to fight in the front lines at the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. After the U.S. bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1944, the crew members of the USS West Virginia heard a garbled report about the imminent surrender of Japan. Ebullient at the prospect of peace time, the crew began a premature celebration that was interrupted by an underwater torpedo attack of the battleship by the Japanese.
After the war ended, a patched-up USS West Virginia returned to Pearl Harbor on October 4, 1945. For its unflagging service in World War II, the ship earned five battle stars. In 1947, the ship was decommissioned and put on reserve duty as part of the Pacific Reserve Fleet. But the USS West Virginia was never called for duty again, and in 1959, it was sold for scrapping to Union Minerals and Alloys Corp of New York City.