Valor Friday

| May 10, 2019

uss west virginia
USS West Virginia

uss west virginia pearl
USS West Virginia, 7 December 1941

Mason comes through again, despite the, ahh, off nominal week here at TAH. Today Valor Friday honors two men who, while serving on board the same vessel could hardly have been further apart in background, education, socially, and in rank. But on that date that will live in infamy, both rose to the occasion together. Read on:

The military is one of those rare places where two men from radically different backgrounds and stations in life can have their paths cross in the most amazing of ways. Today’s story is one such as this.

The morning of Dec 7th, 1941 is a day that, as FDR said, will “live in infamy.” Of the many heroic men and women on duty and off on that fateful morning involved in the unprovoked Japanese attack, two found themselves coming together in the midst of the battle in an unexpected way.

Captain Mervyn Bennion, 54 years old, of the battleship USS West Virginia, which was moored at Pearl, had been educated at Annapolis. Graduating third in his class of 1910, he was known as a fountain of knowledge to his fellow midshipmen, and was well regarded by staff and students alike. A child of Mormon pioneers in the Utah territory, he grew up working ranches and his father’s store in the small town of Vernon.

Bennion became a gunnery officer after his commissioning. He served aboard a number of battleships during his next 30+ years of service, including USS California, USS North Dakota, USS Florida, and was aboard for the commissioning of the battleships USS New Mexico and USS Maryland.

He spent three years at the Bureau of Ordnance in Washington, in charge of the office responsible for turrets, weapons design, and associate machinery. His first command was the destroyer USS Bernadou, then USS Biddle, and then command of Destroyer Division One with his flagship being USS Hatfield. None of these commands lasted long, as he was sought after for higher staff positions due to his consistent excellence as a naval officer.

Bennion served as executive officer of USS Arizona before going back to the Ordnance Division in Washington again, during the massive pre-war expansion of the Navy. On August 12, 1941 he assumed command of the battleship USS West Virginia.

Only 24 years old on the morning of Dec 7, 1941, Doris Miller was a black Messman on the West Virginia. Miller was one of the lowest ranking enlisted men aboard ship. Son of a rancher from Waco, Texas, Miller had dropped out of school after being forced to repeat the 8th grade at the age of 17. He enlisted in the Navy in 1939, being trained as a mess attendant, one of the only ratings open to African Americans at the time. His unusual first name came from the midwife delivering him being convinced he was going to be a girl. Like a Boy Named Sue, Miller grew up big and tough. Standing six-foot-three and weighing just over 200lbs, he started competitive boxing once aboard West Virginia, and quickly became the ship’s heavyweight champion.

These two men were of completely different stations in life before the Japanese attack, but their fates would become inexorably linked that Sunday morning.

USS West Virginia was moored in Pearl Harbor on battleship row. Both men were aboard ship that morning. Miller was on duty, having woke up at 0600 to prepare breakfast. He was collecting laundry when the attack started just before 0800 hours. Bennion was in his cabin shaving, preparing for church service.

When the attack began, Bennion ordered the ship to battlestations. He went to the ship’s conning tower to direct the crew. A minute after arriving there the first Japanese plane let loose three torpedoes at West Virginia, striking the ship in quick succession, rending a giant hole in the side of the ship. At the same time, bombers flying overhead, nearly at mast-height, hit the mighty battleship again, once in the already damaged section and a direct hit to the powder magazines. Luckily this latter bomb was a dud, otherwise the West Virginia would have immediately went down as USS Arizona, moored just ahead of West Virginia, had when a bomb struck its magazine.

Meanwhile, Miller was headed for his battle station, an anti-aircraft battery amidship, right where the torpedoes and bomb had struck moments before. Finding his station gone, he headed to “Times Square”, a central spot on the ship where the fore to aft and port to starboard passageways crossed.

After the first wave of the attack wound down, Bennion went outside the armored conning tower to assess the situation. The conning towers were well protected, but had horrible visibility with only small slits for viewing out. The Captain made it no more than a couple of steps outside when a bomb, probably launched from high altitude, struck USS Tennessee moored alongside West Virginia. Bennion was struck by shrapnel from the blast, tearing into his abdomen. Ripping into his stomach, spilling his guts, with a piece striking his spine, causing him to immediately lose the use of his legs. He fell, rolled onto his back, and grabbed his own entrails and put them back into his stomach.

Arriving at Times Square, Miller reported for duty and was directed by the ship’s communications officer to go with him to the bridge, seeing Miller’s great size as an advantage in helping the mortally wounded captain. A corpsman had seen the captain go down and began to dress his wounds and tried to ease the captain’s pain. The captain, most likely aware of there being little hope in mending his wound, ordered the corpsman below to assist other stricken crew after his own wound was given only the simplest of dressings. Bennion refused to be attended to further while there was work to be done, holding his abdomen together with one arm and issuing orders with the other.

With fires rising up from below, Miller arrived at the conning tower. He and another crewman moved the captain out of his exposed position and to a sheltered spot behind the conning tower. There the captain directed his crew from a cot. As officers and men arrived, he would receive their report, ask them questions, and give orders. Despite having only been in command for a few months, Bennion had been drilling and working the crew, and it showed once they went into action.

Bennion concerned himself only with fighting his ship. He asked about the status of the ship, his crew, which guns were working, how to fix the ones that weren’t, casualties, and what care the casualties were receiving.

As the second wave of Japanese aircraft came in, Miller was ordered to, without any familiarity with the weapon, help load ammunition into the unmanned #1 and #2 Browning .50 cal anti-aircraft machine guns located aft of the conning tower. The officer directing Miller expected him to merely help load ammunition, but as the Japanese came in, he turned around to see Miller firing one of the guns at the approaching enemy. While he isn’t officially credited with personally downing any airplanes, the West Virginia, by one admiral’s assessment, was credited for bringing down 20 or 30 Japanese planes.

After running the gun dry, Miller helped move Captain Bennion up to the navigation bridge, since the flag bridge just below them was on fire and thick, oily smoke was permeating the area of the conning tower. Only partially conscious, the captain awoke after being laid back down long enough to tell the officers and men to leave him and save themselves if possible. As his officers and men fought the fires below, a corpsman checked on him periodically and reported that Bennion slumped over and breathed “I’m gone.” Ten minutes later, the corpsman was unable to find any signs of life from the captain, roughly two hours after he was initially wounded.

Miller, after helping move Captain Bennion to the navigation bridge, went down to the quarterdeck and assisted in getting injured sailors through the oil and water out to the deck, unquestioningly saving numerous lives, as the West Virginia’s after action report read.

Miller and the rest of the crew abandoned ship that afternoon, after preventing it from capsizing by counter-flooding compartments. The ship sunk in place in the harbor. The magnificent work of the officers and men of West Virginia cannot be overstated. Though the ship was sunk, it had been hit by six torpedoes and two bombs after all, West Virginia was raised, repaired, and returned to the war, serving at Leyte, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. She was even present for the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay.

Bennion was awarded the Medal of Honor for his heroic leadership in the face of his own mortality. An early release of commendations for the day of Dec 7th, 1941 listed a single commendation for an unnamed Negro sailor. An intrepid reporter from the African-American newspaper Pittsburgh Courier and Dr Lawrence Reddick (an historian and professor) unearthed the identity of Doris Miller. Bills were introduced into congress to also award him the Medal of Honor and the Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox also favored awarding him the medal.

Perhaps due to racism in the largely segregated military, on May 11, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt approved the Navy Cross for Miller. He was personally presented the medal by Admiral Chester Nimitz aboard USS Enterprise in Pearl Harbor. Miller was the first black man to receive the Navy Cross.

Miller became a fixture in the black press. Only after the Pittsburgh Courier lobbied for it was Miller returned to the US for a war bond tour along with white servicemen. He then became the literal poster child for heroism when he was immortalized in a 1943 Navy recruiting poster titled “Above and beyond the call of duty”.

Promoted to Cook (Petty Officer) Third Class in 1943, Miller was assigned to USS Liscombe Bay, an escort carrier. On November 24, 1943 the ship was hit by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine. The torpedo hit the aircraft bomb magazine, causing the ship to explode and sink in just 23 minutes. Only 272 of the 900 men aboard survived, Doris Miller was not one of them. His family was notified of his missing in action status on Dec 7, 1943, two years to the day after his heroic actions at Pearl Harbor. He was declared dead a year later by the Navy.

Two men, one the commanding officer, one a lowly cook, whose paths crossed on the conning tower of USS West Virginia on the morning of Dec 7, 1941. Both men refused to back down from the fight and through their gallant actions saved the lives of countless Americans and fought back against the enemy surprise.

navy moh

Medal of Honor – Capt Mervyn S Bennion
Service: Navy
Division: U.S.S. West Virginia (BB-48)
The President of the United States of America, in the name of Congress, takes pride in presenting the Medal of Honor (Posthumously) to Captain Mervyn Sharp Bennion, United States Navy, for conspicuous devotion to duty, extraordinary courage, and complete disregard of his own life, above and beyond the call of duty, during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, by Japanese forces on 7 December 1941. As Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. WEST VIRGINIA (BB-48), after being mortally wounded, Captain Bennion evidenced apparent concern only in fighting and saving his ship, and strongly protested against being carried from the bridge.

navy cross

Navy Cross – Messman First Class Doris Miller
Service: Navy
Division: U.S.S. West Virginia (BB-48)
The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Navy Cross to Mess Attendant First Class Doris Miller (NSN: 3561235), United States Navy, for exceptional courage, presence of mind, and devotion to duty and disregard for his personal safety while serving on board the Battleship U.S.S. WEST VIRGINIA (BB-48), during the Japanese attack on the United States Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, on 7 December 1941. While at the side of his Captain on the bridge of the battleship U.S.S. WEST VIRGINIA, Mess Attendant First Class Doris Miller, despite enemy strafing and bombing and in the face of a serious fire, assisted in moving his Captain, who had been mortally wounded, to a place of greater safety, and later manned and operated a machine gun directed at enemy Japanese attacking aircraft until ordered to leave the bridge. The conduct of Mess Attendant First Class Miller throughout this action reflects great credit upon himself, and was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Hand salute. Ready, two!

Category: Historical, Navy, The Warrior Code, Valor, We Remember

Comments (2)

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  1. 11B-Mailclerk says:

    Volens et Potens

  2. 5th/77th FA says:

    True Valor, personified. We are all humbled by their bravery.

    Thanks, again, Mason for bringing us these stories. I knew of this story, but it is always good to be reminded.

    Thanks, too, to Aw1Ed for posting.

    Hand Salute…Ready..Two