BY DAVID PERRYMAN
It was Sept. 2, 1945 and each of the 280 Allied warships that had accompanied the USS Missouri into Tokyo Bay for the formal signing of the Japanese Instrument of Surrender, had its own story of heroism and perseverance.
Assembled shoulder to shoulder on the decks of American ships were soldiers and sailors of every rank, of every race, from every state of the union.
With one accord and undivided attention they watched on the deck of “Big Mo” as the Japanese representatives signed the Instrument of Surrender. They observed as signatures were affixed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces; Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, and representatives of eight other Allied nations.
Those present and untold millions from around the globe listened silently as Gen. MacArthur spoke about the need to put aside divergent ideals and ideologies; to put aside a spirit of distrust, malice and hatred, and instead to rise to that higher dignity to which we have been called. They watched as the ceremony concluded and over 1,200 Allied aircraft from carriers anchored miles away flew low over Tokyo Bay.
What was not readily apparent at that time is an amazing and inspiring story of perseverance that must be told this Veterans Day. Among the hundreds of ships and aircraft carriers that escorted and surrounded the USS Missouri on that historic day was a battleship carrying the designation BB-48.
BB-48’s remarkable story began shortly after World War I. Congress, in the early 1920’s had decided to downsize the Navy and cancel battleship construction contracts. However, one ship, BB-48 was nearly complete and that contract alone was honored.
Congress fully intended to send the “unneeded” ship to be turned into scrap metal; however, it was christened before it was completed and ultimately commissioned and launched in 1923.
BB-48 was the last battleship built for the U.S. Navy for 20 years and by merely escaping an early demise was instrumental in the pre-invasion bombardment of the Philippines; being a part of the last battle in world history where battleships engaged battleships with their big guns during the Battle of Surigao Strait. But these facts are not what makes the story of BB-48 so remarkable.
BB-48 took part in operations to capture several islands in the Pacific Theater, including Mindoro, Lingayen Gulf, Iwo Jima and Okinawa, using her 16-inch guns to support U.S. ground forces. She was hit by a Japanese Kamikaze plane on April 1, 1945 and remained in action. Despite all this adversity, BB-48 escorted the USS Missouri into Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender and was used postwar as a troop transport on several “magic carpet runs” shuttling soldiers and sailors from points in the Pacific back to the U.S.
However, that she was present when the flag was raised on Iwo Jima and engaged in these other amazing feats is not the reason that the story of BB-48 is being told today. This story is being told this Veterans Day because in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, while anchored just ahead of the USS Oklahoma, and just behind the mooring of the USS Arizona, BB-48 was hit by two bombs and a minimum of seven torpedoes blew huge holes in her port side.
Yes, on Dec. 7, 1941, the USS West Virginia [BB-48] sank to the bottom of Pearl Harbor and endured the loss of more than 100 of her crew. The amazing story of the USS West Virginia is being told because her story did not end with water gushing into the listing ship. You see, Capt. Mervyn Bennion and his crew risked bombs, torpedoes, bullets from strafing Zeroes and explosions and intentionally flooded the side opposite the torpedo strikes, thereby righting the sinking ship.
The tenacity of the captain to keep the ship afloat was matched by the perseverance of the Japanese as a bomb from 20,000 feet in the air hit squarely on the West Virginia hurling hot jagged metal in all directions and filling Capt. Bennion’s abdomen with shrapnel. Refusing to leave the sinking ship, his pain became too great, the captain collapsed and then he died along with 105 crewmembers, but not before they made certain that the ship settled upright on the floor of Pearl Harbor.
What makes the story of the USS West Virginia so special is that through the grit and determination that defines our veterans and the service that they have given our country, at Pier F-6 on Battleship Row, a ship that lay settled into the mud at the bottom of the harbor with little more than a U.S. flag visible was raised and repaired.
The spirit of BB-48 parallels the spirit of our veterans from every war and conflict from the time of the War for Independence down to the current engagements.
The amazing story is that the West Virginia did the things that she is known for after she was sunk. Don’t think for a second that the spirit of Capt. Bennion was not present when the flag was raised at Iwo Jima. That is the same spirit that gives Americans purpose and validity. It is the spirit of compassion that was present when Gen. MacArthur proclaimed the end of a war that claimed 72 million lives and that delivered veterans home safely at the end of a horrible world war.
Our veterans embody that spirit of sacrifice and endurance. We must do our part to be unified behind them.
All veterans, like Capt. Mervyn Bennion, are permanently woven into the fabric of history. They fought for freedom and social justice. They gave of themselves.
The least that we can do is graciously thank them and remember their sacrifices. Surely we are able to put aside partisan politics and petty differences to pull together for that same spirit of common purpose.
– David Perryman, a Chickasha Democrat, represents District 56 in the Oklahoma House of Representatives