MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — The USS West Virginia was the only active ship to be present when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor and also at the surrender that brought an end to World War II.
The vessel was among the U.S. Pacific fleet stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii while Japanese fighters were trying to seize resources in the South Pacific. At 7:48 a.m. Dec. 7, 1941 the first bombs were dropped as talks in Washington D.C. were underway about a U.S. embargo to Japan.
“It was the very first one hit. It was also hit by more torpedoes and bombs than any other vessel at Pearl Harbor. It sustained some gigantic holes in the side of the ship. And, it started to go down pretty quickly,” said WVU librarian John Cuthbert leading up to the 75th anniversary of the attack.
The mast, placed on the ship after it was raised, repaired and back in service, is located in the Oglebay Plaza on the university’s downtown campus.
Cuthbert, also the Director and Curator of the West Virginia & Regional History Center, told Metronews Talkline host Hoppy Kercheval
lower compartments of the battle ship were flooded to keep the ship from capsizing during the air assault.
“That facilitated them being able to raise it and salvage it years later.”
The death toll from the USS West Virginia alone was 106.
“Sixty-six of those, we don’t know exactly when they died. They were, unfortunately, trapped below when the ship went down.”
Some of those who were trapped inside may have lived for several days after the ship was struck.
“People could hear people banging on things in the hull of the vessel at the bottom of the ocean. When they raised the ship and found all these bodies, there was a group of three in one compartment. They had a calendar. They had marked on the calendar until something like the day before Christmas.”
Cuthbert said a number of attempts were made to save the trapped sailors.
Uniforms, hats, medals, photos, ship papers, the clapper from original bell, documents, orders and radio message are all included in the historic timeline of the USS West Virginia in an exhibit at the university.
A full crew for the battle ship was 1,400 men. The historian said the vessel was longer than the length of 2 Mountaineer football fields and three-fourths as wide.
The USS West Virginia was raised in May 1942, repaired and sailed to shipyards in the Seattle area.
By September 1944 it had been refitted and repaired enough to return to service in the South Pacific.
“It was the only US vessel that was at Pearl Harbor to witness the beginning of the war with Japan and was also able to witness the end of the war with Japan in Tokyo Bay,” noted the librarian.
The USS West Virginia was ultimately decommissioned at the end of the war and sat inactive for about a decade before being sold for scrap in 1959.
Members of the WVU student body were involved in raising funds and awareness to save the ship’s mast. A Mountaineer fan with connections organized its delivery to Morgantown.
“They arranged to get the B&O railroad to transport it for part of its journey across the country for free. Quite a story,” Cuthbert claimed.
The mast was dedicated as a memorial on campus. The bell from the battleship is kept at the West Virginia State Museum in Charleston.