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Old Man and the USS West Virginia

Today, we received a letter from my husband’s grandfather, “Old Man”. There was no writing, just a typed note and a black and white picture of the USS West Virginia BB48.

The USS West Virginia‘s base was moved to Pearl Harbor in 1940. It was the ship “Old Man” was on  7 December 1941 when the Japanese attacked with an overwhelming force of carrier aircraft. The USS Virginia was hit by two bombs and at least seven torpedoes, which blew huge holes in her port side, eventually sinking her. It was this raid that would burn the flesh from the back of a young “Old Man”. Though wounded, he was fortunate. More than a hundred of her crew were lost.

The typed note reads:

“On our ‘Magic Carpet’ trips, I was informed by the Army commander that we only had to serve two meals per day. I insisted on three and had some concern about being shorthanded. WE called for volunteers from the passengers and were overwhelmed with assistance.

“The Exec warned me that I could expect a delegation complaining about the washroom and had to be open at odd hours. That was easy, I pointed out that ‘Colored Only’ meant that only colored could use it. They could also use any other head they wanted.”

On December 30, 1945, the tired warrior was detached from her transport duties and sent to Bremerton to assume inactive status.

Before moving on, let us briefly recapitulate some service statistics. In the three years 1943-1945, the West Virginia steamed a total of 71,615 miles and from September 21, 1944, to September 6, 1945, spent a total of 223 days in various combat areas. She claimed on Japanese battleship sunk and eight planes shot down, with many other “assists.” In those months of combat, she expended over three thousand 16-inch projectiles, about thirty thousand 5-inch shells, and over two hundred thousand rounds of smaller caliber shot for a total use of 5,500 tons of ammunition. During her year of service, she lost four men killed as a result of the Kamikaze hit on April 1, 1945, and four in observation planes, two in November 1944 and two in June 1945. Wounded totaled thirty-one with two men missing in action. The officers and enlisted men on board received a total of three Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Air Medals, one Silver Star, twenty-one Bronze Stars, ten letters of commendation, and many Purple Hears. The ship  herself was honored with seven Battle Stars: Pearl Harbor; Leyte Operation; Surigao Straits, Mindoro Isle, Luzon Operations: Iwo Jima Operation and Okinawa Gunto Operation.

When the West Virginia reached Bremerton, Captain Holsinger turned her over to Commander Richard S. Andrews. Through the next six months, as she lay tied up on the east side of the Puget Sound Navy Yard’s Pier 90, her crew was mustered out and she was prepared for storage or “mothballing” as part of the Pacific Reserve Fleet. On June 18, 1946, one last well-attended ceremony was held aboard.

With the “Wee Vee’s” skeleton crew standing in the full-dress and several hundred relatives seated in chairs on the quarterdeck, a formal inactivation function began on the starboard side of the main deck, near 16-inch Turret Three. Seattle Mayor William F. Devin spoke briefly, remarks were brief and noted that the West Virginia was the first major warship of the US Fleet to be retired. He closed with praise, “she acquitted herself admirably at all times, ” and then pulled a switch starting the last battery of dehumidifying machines. Commander Andrews came to the podium briefly and as the ship’s final skipper, turned her over to reserve supervisor Commander S.L. Ward, Jr. Half a year later when it became apparent that almost all of the Navy’s battleships was laid up and that she had virtually no chance of ever going to sea again, the West Virginia was officially decommissioned, on January 9, 1947.”

Throughout the late 1940’s and into the 1950’s, the West Virginia lay in peaceful retirement at Bremerton. Her situation was not different from other battleships also inactivated there. One ship, the Indiana, attracted a number of visitors and reports concerning BB-58 could apply equally well to the “Wee Vee”.

“There she lies, her guns sealed, her decks and magazines closed, her turnets actual bubbles of cellophane, her tremendous power plants buttered inches deep in the monder developments of cosomoline. Only the heels of an occasional watch echo on her hollow plates.”

On March 1, 1959, the Navy Department announced that in an age of nuclear bombs, jet planes, and guided missiles, the battleships of the Colorado-class were no longer needed.”

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