On December 7, 1941, during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS West Virginia suffered significant damage from multiple torpedoes and bombs, causing it to sink and trap several sailors inside.

In a harrowing ordeal, trapped sailors struggled for survival in pitch-black, flooded compartments, with some able to signal for help by tapping on the steel hull. Despite valiant rescue efforts, not all were saved.


The USS West Virginia

Launched in 1921, the USS West Virginia, fondly known as “Wee Vee,” was a Colorado-class battleship and a proud representation of American naval power during the interwar period. Built by Newport News Shipbuilding, she measured 624 feet in length with a displacement of over 32,000 tons. Its armament included eight 16-inch guns, a powerful main battery capable of firing shells weighing up to 2,100 pounds.

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The design of the USS West Virginia reflected significant advancements in naval architecture. She was constructed with a heavily armored hull and equipped with state-of-the-art fire-control systems, which enhanced her combat capabilities. The ship also boasted anti-aircraft guns and torpedo bulges, features that were added to improve defenses against air and underwater attacks.

Throughout the 1930s, the USS West Virginia underwent several modernizations. These upgrades were part of a broader effort by the U.S. Navy to modernize and strengthen its fleet in response to global naval trends and the rising tensions that would eventually lead to World War II. The modernization included enhancements to her armor, propulsion system, and armaments.

The ship received additional deck armor, improved underwater protection, and updated fire-control systems. The propulsion system was also overhauled, which increased her maximum speed and overall efficiency.

USS West Virginia in Hampton Roads, Virginia in 1927.

During the interwar period, the USS West Virginia played a significant role in various naval exercises and operations. She served in both the Atlantic and Pacific fleets, participating in training exercises that showcased naval tactics and power projection.

The ship was involved in Fleet Problems, which were large-scale naval exercises designed to test U.S. naval strategies and capabilities. These exercises were crucial in developing tactics that would later be employed during World War II.

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As tensions escalated in the Pacific, the USS West Virginia was transferred to Pearl Harbor as a deterrent against Japanese expansion. Stationed at Battleship Row, she became a critical component of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s strategic presence in the region.

The ship’s crew could not have foreseen the devastating attack that would thrust the United States into the Second World War.

The Attack on Pearl Harbor

The morning of December 7, 1941, dawned like any other peaceful Sunday in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. However, this tranquility was shattered when, at 7:55 AM, the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service launched a surprise military strike against the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor. The attack was aimed at crippling the U.S. Pacific Fleet, thus preventing it from interfering with Japanese military actions in Southeast Asia.

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At the heart of this attack were six aircraft carriers—Akagi, Kaga, Soryu, Hiryu, Shokaku, and Zuikaku—dispatching a first wave of 183 aircraft, comprising fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo bombers. A second wave of 170 additional aircraft followed.

The USS West Virginia, stationed at Battleship Row along Ford Island, was a prime target due to its powerful presence. The ship’s location made it vulnerable to aerial torpedoes, a fact exploited by the Japanese aviators.

The West Virginia sustained multiple torpedo hits to her port side. These torpedoes, specially designed with wooden fins to operate in the shallow waters of Pearl Harbor, inflicted severe damage on the ship.

A view of Ford Island during the attack on Pearl Harbor. To the right of the Island, you can see Battleship Row, where water is rising from one of the torpedo hits on USS West Virginia.

In addition to the torpedoes, the USS West Virginia was also struck by at least two armor-piercing bombs, which caused further catastrophic damage. The ship’s crew, caught by surprise, responded with remarkable courage and efficiency. Despite the chaos and destruction, they attempted to fight fires, rescue trapped shipmates, and prevent the ship from sinking.

The captain of the ship, Mervyn S. Bennion, was awarded the Medal of Honor for remaining on the ship to continue the fight until he died of his wounds.

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Amidst this maelstrom, the USS West Virginia began to list heavily to port due to the torpedo damage. Counterflooding measures were taken by the crew, a desperate attempt to level the ship and prevent her from capsizing like the USS Oklahoma, which had rolled over nearby. These efforts were partially successful, as the West Virginia sank upright, settling on the shallow harbor bottom.

The attack on Pearl Harbor, lasting less than two hours, left a devastating mark: all eight U.S. Navy battleships were damaged, with four being sunk, including the USS West Virginia. Additionally, the attack destroyed or damaged numerous other vessels, hundreds of airplanes, and killed over 2,400 Americans, with many others wounded.

Trapped in the USS West Virginia

In the immediate aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor, amidst the chaos and devastation, a particularly heart-wrenching drama unfolded within the stricken hull of the USS West Virginia. The battleship, having sustained severe damage from multiple torpedo hits and bomb strikes, was rapidly flooding.

Oil leaking from the USS Arizona caused a fire that engulfed the West Virginia which took a day to extinguish.

In a desperate effort to save the ship, the crew had to seal off various compartments. This standard emergency protocol, while necessary to prevent further flooding and potential capsizing, had a tragic and unintended consequence: three sailors were trapped within one of these sealed compartments.

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The situation for these trapped sailors was dire. They were confined in a pitch-black compartment with limited air supply and no way to communicate with the outside world, except by tapping on the metal hull. The very design that made the USS West Virginia a formidable battleship – its thick armored steel – now became a barrier to their rescue.

Rescuing the men was not an option. Using torches to cut through risked causing an explosion, and if that did not happen, the holes themselves could causes more flooding on the ship.

The psychological and physical toll on the trapped sailors cannot be overstated. In complete darkness, with water rising and air running out, these men faced unimaginable fear and uncertainty.

Reports from survivors and historical accounts suggest that the three trapped sailors managed to survive for 16 days after the attack, as evidenced by the ongoing tapping and the discovery of calendars marked by the trapped men.

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It is reported that men on guard duty near the West Virginia could hear the trapped men hitting the metal hull.

Their names were Ronald Endicott, Clifford Olds and Louis Costin aged 18, 20 and 21 respectively.

Clifford Olds on the right, seen here the day before the attack.

After Pearl Harbor

Following the attack, the USS West Virginia underwent an extensive and remarkable salvage operation.

The USS West Virginia was hit by at least seven torpedoes and two bombs during the attack. The torpedoes caused significant flooding, and the bomb hits started fires that burned for two days. Despite the crew’s valiant damage control efforts, the battleship sank to the harbor’s bottom, settling upright.

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The salvage operation began in earnest in 1942. The first step was to remove mud, water, fuel oil, and debris from the ship. Navy divers performed the dangerous and arduous task of patching holes in the ship’s hull, some of which were underwater. Temporary patches were applied to torpedo damage on the port side, and cofferdams were constructed for access to damaged areas above and below the waterline.

USS West Virginia during salvage operations.

With the hull breaches sealed, powerful pumps began the process of removing thousands of tons of water from the ship’s interior. This phase was critical to making the battleship buoyant again and required constant monitoring to manage the stresses on the hull as it was refloated.

The salvage crews faced the grim task of recovering the remains of the crew members who had perished during the attack. Personal effects and sensitive materials were also removed. Clearing the ship of debris was essential to assess and repair the damage fully.

By late May 1942, the USS West Virginia was sufficiently repaired to be refloated. She was then moved to Dry Dock Number One at the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard for further repairs and a thorough overhaul. This phase allowed workers to access and repair damage below the waterline that was not reachable while the ship was in the water.

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After the initial repairs in Pearl Harbor, the West Virginia was towed to the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington, for a comprehensive overhaul and modernization. This process included enhancing her armament, armor, and propulsion systems, and updating her fire control and radar systems. The reconstruction also involved altering her superstructure to improve stability and combat efficiency.

USS West Virginia pictured at Puget Sound in July,1944.

The salvage, repair, and modernization efforts culminated in the USS West Virginia rejoining the fleet in July 1944

USS West Virginia Re-enters the War

After re-entering service in July 1944, following her extensive repair and modernization due to the damage she sustained during the Pearl Harbor attack, the USS West Virginia (BB-48) had a notable service history through the final stages of World War II in the Pacific. Here’s a detailed look at her contributions:

Battle of Leyte Gulf (October 1944)

The USS West Virginia played a significant role in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle of World War II and possibly the largest naval battle in history. As part of the U.S. 7th Fleet’s battleship line, she engaged Japanese naval forces in the Surigao Strait. The West Virginia and other battleships executed a devastating nighttime gunfire and torpedo attack against the Japanese Southern Force, contributing to a decisive American victory. This battle was part of the larger operation to liberate the Philippines from Japanese occupation.

USS West Virginia fires her guns during the Battle of Surigao Strait.

Iwo Jima (February 1945)

During the invasion of Iwo Jima, the USS West Virginia provided invaluable naval gunfire support to U.S. Marines landing on the beaches. Her main batteries were used to bombard enemy positions, helping to weaken the Japanese defenses and supporting the ground troops as they fought to secure the island.

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Okinawa (April-June 1945)

In the Battle of Okinawa, one of the largest amphibious assaults in the Pacific Theater, the USS West Virginia again offered crucial support. Her guns bombarded Japanese fortifications, contributing to the effort to capture the island. The battle was critical for establishing a base of operations close to the Japanese mainland. During this period, she also had to defend against kamikaze attacks, which were intense and frequent.

Bombardment of the Japanese Home Islands

In the final stages of the Pacific War, the USS West Virginia participated in the bombardment of industrial and military targets on the Japanese home islands. This offensive aimed to further weaken Japan’s ability to continue the war and was part of the Allied strategy to compel Japan’s surrender without an invasion of the mainland.

Operation Magic Carpet

After Japan’s surrender in August 1945, the USS West Virginia took part in Operation Magic Carpet, the post-war effort to return American military personnel to the United States. She transported veterans across the Pacific, contributing to the demobilization efforts.

Decommissioning and Fate

The USS West Virginia was decommissioned in 1947 after serving with distinction in World War II. She spent the next several years in the reserve fleet before being stricken from the Naval Vessel Register. Ultimately, the battleship was sold for scrap in 1959, marking the end of her service.