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This Month in Naval History
USS West Virginia BB 48
West Virginia

(BB-48: dp. 33,590 (f.); 1. 624'0"; b. 97'335"; dr. 30'6" (mean); s. 21.0 k., cpl. 1,407; a. 8 16", 12 5", 8 3", 4 6-pdrs., 2 21" tt.; cl. Colorado)

West Virginia (Battleship No. 48) was laid down on 12 April 1920 by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. of Newport News, VA.; reclassified to BB-48 on 17 July 1920, launched on 17 November 1921, sponsored by Miss Alice Wright Mann, daughter of Issac T. Mann, a prominent West Virginian, and commissioned on 1 December lD-23, Capt. Thomas J. Senn in command

The most recent of the super-dreadnoughts," West Virginia embodied the latest knowledge of naval architecture; the water-tight compartmentation of her hull and her armor protection marked an advance over the design of battleships built or on the drawing boards before the Battle of Jutland.

In the months that followed, West Virginia ran her trials and shakedown and underwent post-commissioning alterations. After a brief period of work at the New York Navy Yard, the ship made the passage to Hampton Roads, although experiencing trouble with her steering gear while en route. Overhauling the troublesome gear thoroughly while in Hampton Roads, West Virginia put to sea on the morning of 16 June 1924. At 1010, while the battleship was steaming in the center of Lynnhaven Channel, the quartermaster at the wheel reported that the rudder indicator would not answer. The ringing of the emergency bell to the steering motor room produced no response; Capt. Senn quickly ordered all engines stopped, but the engine room telegraph would not answer—it was later discovered that there was no power to the engine room telegraph or the steering telegraph.

The captain then resorted to sending orders down to main control via the voice tube from the bridge. He ordered full speed ahead on the port engine; all stop on the starboard. Efforts continued apace over the ensuing moments to steer the ship with her engines and keep her in the channel and, when this failed, to check headway from the edge of the channel. Unfortunately, all efforts failed; and, as the ship lost headway due to an engine casualty, West Virginia grounded on the soft mud bottom. Fortunately, as Comdr. (later Admiral) Harold 1?. Stark, the executive officer, reported: ". . . not the slightest damage to the hull had been sustained."

The court of inquiry, investigating the grounding, found that inaccurate and misleading navigational data had been supplied the ship. The legends on the charts provided were found to have indicated uniformly greater channel width than actually existed. The findings of the court thus exonerated Capt. Senn and the navigator from any blame.

After repairs had been effected, West Virginia became flagship for the Commander, Battleship Divisions, Battle Fleet, on 30 October 1924, thus beginning her service as an integral part of the "backbone of the fleet"—as the battleships were regarded. She soon proved her worth under a succession of commanding officers—most of whom later attained flag rank. In 1925, for example, under Capt. A. J. Hepburn, the comparative newcomer to battleship ranks scored first in competitive short range target practices. During Hepburn's tour, West Virginia garnered two trophies for attaining the highest merit in the category.

The ship later won the American Defense Cup— presented by the American Defense Society to the battleship obtaining the highest merit with all guns in short-range firing—and the Spokane Cup, presented by that city's Chamber of Commerce in recognition of the battleship's scoring the highest merit with all guns at short range. In 1925, West Virginia won the Battle Efficiency Pennant for battleships—the first time that the ship had won the coveted "Meatball." She won it again in 1927, 1932, and 1933.

During this period, West Virginia underwent a cycle of training, maintenance, and readiness exercises, taking part in engineering and gunnery competitions
and the annual large-scale exercises, or "Fleet Problems." In the latter, the Fleet would be divided up into opposing sides, and a strategic or tactical situation would be played out, with the lessons learned becoming part and parcel of the development of doctrine that would later be tested in the crucible of combat.

During 1925, the battleship took part in the joint Army-Navy maneuvers to test the defenses of the Hawaiian Islands and then cruised with the Fleet to Australia and New Zealand. In fleet exercises subsequent to the 1925 cruise, West Virginia ranged from Hawaii to the Caribbean and the Atlantic, and from Alaskan waters to Panama.

In order to keep pace with technological developments in ordnance, gunnery, and fire control—as well as engineering and aviation—the ship underwent modifications designed to increase the ship's capacity to perform her designed function. Some of the alterations effected included the replacement of her initial 3-inch antiaircraft battery with 5-inch/25-caliber dual-purpose guns; the addition of platforms for .50-caliber machine guns at the foremast and maintop, and the addition of catapults on her quarterdeck, aft, and on her number III, or "high" turret.

In the closing years of the decade of the 1930's, however, it was becoming evident to many that it was only a matter of time before the United States became involved in yet another war on a grand scale. The United States Fleet thus came to be considered a grand deterrent to the country's most probable enemy— Japan. This reasoning produced the hurried despatch of the Fleet to Pacific waters in the spring of 1939 and the retention of the Fleet in Hawaiian waters in 1940, following the conclusion of Fleet Problem XXI in April.

As the year 1941 progressed, West Virginia carried out a schedule of intensive training, basing on Pearl Harbor and operating in various task forces and groups in the Hawaiian operating area. This routine continued even through the unusually tense period that began in late November and extended into the next month. Such at-sea periods were usually followed by in-port upkeep, with the battleships mooring to masonry "quays" along the southeast shores of Ford Island in the center of Pearl Harbor.

On Sunday, 7 December 1941, West Virginia lay moored outboard of Tennessee (BB-43) at berth F-6 with 40 feet of water beneath her keel. Shortly before 0800, Japanese planes, flying from a six-carrier task force, commenced their well-planned attack on the Fleet at Pearl Harbor. West Virginia took five 18-inch aircraft torpedoes in her port side and two bomb hits— those bombs being 15-inch armor-piercing shells fitted with fins. The first bomb penetrated the superstructure deck, wrecking the port casemates and causing that deck to collapse to the level of the galley deck below.

Four casemates and the galley caught fire immediately, with the subsequent detonation of the ready-service projectiles stowed in the casemates.

The second bomb hit further aft, wrecking one Vought OS2U Kingfisher floatplane atop the "high" catapult on Turret III and pitching the second one on her top on the main deck below. The projectile penetrated the 4-inch turret roof, wrecking one gun in the turret itself. Although the bomb proved a dud, burning gasoline from the damaged aircraft caused some damage.

The torpedoes, though, ripped into the ship's port side, only prompt action by Lt. Claude V. Ricketts, the assistant fire control officer who had some knowledge of damage control techniques, saved the ship from the fate that befell Oklahoma (BB-37) moored ahead. She, too, took torpedo hits that flooded the ship and caused her to capsize.

Instances of heroic conduct on board the heavily damaged battleship proliferated in the heat of battle. The ship's commanding officer, Capt. Mervyn S. Bennion, arrived on his bridge early in the battle, only to be struck down by a bomb fragment hurled in his direction when a 15-inch "bomb" hit the center gun in TennesSee's Turret II, spraying that ship's superstructure and West Virginia's with fragments. Bennion, hit in the abdomen, crumpled to the deck, mortally wounded, but clung tenaciously to life until just before the ship was abandoned, involved in the conduct of the ship's defense up to the last moment of his life. For his conspicuous devotion to duty, extraordinary courage, and complete disregard of his own life, Capt. Bennion was awarded a Medal of Honor, posthumously.

West Virginia was abandoned, settling to the harbor bottom on an even keel, her fires fought from on board by a party that volunteered to return to the ship after the first abandonment. By the afternoon of the following day, 8 December, the flames had been extinguished. The garbage lighter, YG-17, played an important role in assisting those efforts during the Pearl Harbor attack, remaining in position alongside despite the danger posed by exploding ammunition on board the battleship.

Later examination revealed that West Virginia had taken not five, but six, torpedo hits. With a patch over the damaged areas of her hull, the battleship was pumped out and ultimately refloated on 17 May 1942. docked in Drydock Number One on 9 June, West Virginia again came under scrutiny, and it was discovered that there had been not six, but seven torpedo hits.

During the ensuing repairs, workers located 70 bodies of West Virginia sailors who had been trapped below when the ship sank. In one compartment, a calendar was found, the last scratch-off date being 23 December. The task confronting the nucleus crew and shipyard workers was a monumental one, so great was the damage on the battleship's port side. Ultimately, however, West Virginia departed Pearl Harbor for the West coast and a complete rebuilding at the Puget Sound Navy Yard at Bremerton, Wash.

Emerging from the extensive modernization, the battleship that had risen, Phoenix-like, from the destruction at Pearl Harbor looked totally different from the way she had appeared prior to 7 December 1941. Gone were the "cage" masts that supported the threetier fire-control tops, as well as the two funnels, the open mount 5-inch/26's and the casemates with the single-purpose 5-inch/61's. A streamlined superstructure now gave the ship a totally new silhouette, dual purpose 5-inch/38-caliber guns, in gunhouses, gave the ship a potent antiaircraft battery. In addition, 40-millimeter Bofors and 20-millimeter Oerlikon batteries studded the decks, giving the ship a heavy "punch" for dealing with close-in enemy planes.

West Virginia remained at Puget Sound until early July 1944. Loading ammunition on the 2d, the battleship got underway soon thereafter to conduct her sea trials out of Port Townsend, Wash. She ran a full power trial on the 6th, continuing her working-up until the 12th. Subsequently returning to Puget Sound for last-minute repairs, the battleship headed for San Pedro and her post-modernization shakedown.


 

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