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The "Wee Vee": West Virginia's Pride and Joy

By Stan Bumgardner

After being refloated, the West Virginia was repaired and sailed to Puget Sound Navy Yard in May 1943, modernized, and dispatched in
September 1944 to the Pacific Theater, where she became the flagship of Battleship Division 4. Courtesy of the West Virginia State Archives.

The USS West Virginia (BB-48) was one of four battleships sunk at Pearl Harbor; four others were badly damaged. The West Virginia, nicknamed the “Wee Vee,” was the second of three ships named for the Mountain State, following an armored cruiser (1905-1916), which was renamed Huntington (1916-1930), and preceding the current nuclear submarine (1989-present).

BB-48 (battleships were numbered consecutively) was commissioned on December 1, 1923, and sailed around much of the world—including the Caribbean, Hawaiian Islands, Alaska, Australia, and New Zealand—on various training exercises. In 1940, with World War II raging in much of the Eastern Hemisphere—the Navy sent the West Virginia to Pearl Harbor to help build up the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

On the morning of December 7, 1941, the West Virginia was blasted by 18-inch aircraft torpedoes and two armor-piercing bombs. The crew valiantly fought the fires for hours and evacuated the wounded to nearby ships. About 2:00 p.m. local time—some six hours after the initial shelling—the West Virginia was abandoned.

The gaping holes in the battleship’s hull were patched, and the water was pumped out. On May 17, 1942, the West Virginia was refloated. During repairs, the bodies of 66 dead sailors were discovered aboard the ship. Three were found in a storeroom. A marked-up calendar indicated the three men had survived on emergency rations and water until December 23.

After the West Virginia was repaired, she was returned to service in 1944. In October of that year, as part of the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf, she participated in the Battle of Surigao Strait—the last major pitched conflict among battleships. The West Virginia also provided fire support during the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

On September 2, 1945, the West Virginia was moored in Tokyo Bay for the official Japanese surrender—making her the only ship present at both Pearl Harbor and the surrender. The venerable battleship was decommissioned in 1947 and sold for scrap in 1959.

An exhibit in the West Virginia State Museum—located at the Culture Center on the State Capitol Complex—celebrates the history of the USS West Virginia. On display are everything from a triptych from the original armored cruiser—paid for, in part, by West Virginia schoolchildren—to items from the modern West Virginia submarine. The display includes several items recovered from the West Virginia when she was refloated from the bottom of Pearl Harbor: the ship’s bell, a toaster and creamer from the ship’s galley, and an eight-day clock.

Most of these artifacts were part Clyde W. Lathey’s extensive collection. He operated a USS West Virginia museum in Parkersburg before donating its contents to the State Museum and State Archives in 2000. Mr. Lathey passed away September 26, 2016, at age 74.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.