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Captain William White USN (Ret)

Sunday morning December 7, 1941, I returned to Pearl Harbor to take over the duty. My ship, the West Virginia, was on fire and sunk at her berth. I arrived on board just in time to abandon ship because the added danger of the oil fire from the Arizona had made the ship untenable.

Later, when the Tennessee washed the oil fire away with her screws, we were able to return on board and with water from the Tennessee extinguished the flames.

The West Virginia's crew and officers had dispersed to other ships and shore activities. Remaining were Lt Cdrs William White, Levi J. Knight Jr. and twelve enlisted ratings. We felt we owed it to the ship to stay until some decision was reached regarding salvage.

Near the end of March 1942, word was received that salvage operation would begin shortly. Contact was made with shore activities and we were able to assemble six officers and twenty-five enlisted of our ship's company to begin salvage. We continued to augment these personnel from time to time so that when the ship was floated and drydocked two months later we had a total of thirty officers and one hundred and twenty-five enlisted, all of whom had been attached to the ship at the time of the attack.

The engineering features of the salvage operation are well documented in the book "Pearl Harbor: Why, How, Fleet Salvage and Final Appraisal" by Vice Admiral Homer N. Wallin USN (Ret). Here it is necessary to say only that it was determined, on inspection, that the ship sustained six torpedo hits and two bomb hits. Both bombs failed to explode and were later removed. The plan of salvage called for attachment of two cofferdam patches to the damaged port side and an air pressure blanket on the steering gear room. The rudder was blown off by this hit on the stern. Then Captain Wallin was in charge of fleet salvage and his management led us to a successful operation. This article deals only with the efforts of the officers and crew of the West Virginia toward achieving that success.

A survey of prior salvage operations in the area indicated that if we were to save the ship, cooperation with the salvage engineers must take precedence over any of the ship's activities and that efficient employment of the ship's force must be paramount. The West Virginia had always possessed a fine ship's spirit, so to foster this, a decision was made to spare no effort to conserve the men's energy and to make the crew as comfortable as possible during this difficult oil soaked job. This decision was vigorously pursued during the entire salvage operation.

The Tennessee had been freed from the quay where it was jammed when the West Virginia sank. This left open water from our ship to the quay and from the quay to Ford Island where we were to be quartered. Boating was too slow, therefore, the ship's force built bridges across the open waters to provide us with easy access.

Messing was furnished by shore activities. Not only was time lost going to and fro, but ours was dirty work, which did not allow us to shift uniform at every meal. The crew's galley was destroyed, but with a minimum of repairs the officer's galley was placed in commission. An awning was rigged over the boat deck, tables and benches placed and three meals a day were served from then on in our outdoor mess hall. Canvas covers were made and placed on the benches for use during the noon meal. Soiled work clothes were permitted to be worn and the only requirement was that face and hands be washed before eating. Wardroom and CPO messes were set up in the starboard casemates from which the guns had already been removed. When the crew worked at night, so did the galley.

Target cloth coveralls were made available for work wear. A check room was established to receive the crew's clothes at the beginning of work each day. A gun sponson was rigged with shower heads for bathing at the close of work. Personal clothing was retrieved from the check room and the crew returned to their quarters in clean condition.

A service unit consisting of one officer and five men was formed. This unit assembled soiled coveralls and rags for transport ashore to a contract industrial laundry. The unit cleaned rubber boots and gloves on board and provided clean work clothes for issue the next day. Work for this unit began at the end of working hours and continued into the night until the servicing was completed.

A ship's service store was established in a small building ashore near the quarters. We recovered the store's safe and found that it held $1,500. Our checking account back on the Mainland was useless since these checks were no longer acceptable. The ship's store supply activity demanded cash for all stock. This required a back and forth stocking procedure as sales were made. We were rescued from this inconvenience by the local dairy driver who supplied ice cream and a freezer to hold it. We paid the bill monthly so we operated on the dairy's money. This not only relieved our stocking problem, but resulted in a greater variety of items for sale. We learned from this an economic basic, namely, cash flow. The final audit, when we arrived on the Mainland, showed we had a well-stocked store and $35,000 in cash for use when the ship was again placed in full commission.

The organization for salvage divided the ship into four groups for cleaning purposes with several divisions assigned to each. The division mix was effected as follows: Forward Group, 1st and R; Midship Group One, 2nd and 7th (Marine Detachment); Midship Group Two, 3rd, B, and E; After Group, 4th, A and C. Each group remained as a unit as the ship was cleaned from top to bottom following the receding water. Upon completion of the cleaning phase, the groups were disbanded and each division assumed its own responsibilities.

Removal of the debris was a monotonous, back-breaking job. To keep from exhausting the crew by repeated shoveling at various deck levels, wheel barrows were used for transporting. Holes were burned in each wheel barrow for attaching a wire sling. Air winches equipped with the slings were used at each deck level to effect the hoist. Thus, once a wheel barrow was loaded, the contents were not again moved until the debris was emptied on a barge.

All compartments were then steam cleaned. A large tank was constructed on the boat deck to contain a cleaning solution. This solution consisted of "Turko" plus other magic ingredients added by the chief watertenders. This was This was then piped throughout the ship along with steam from an ex-tug. The hot mix was applied through hose. The s with control nozzles. This process not only removed the oil but loosened much of the paint so that it peeled off in sheets.

The possibility of an attack posed the problem of protecting the ship and the salvage work in progress. This was achieved by the installation of torpedo nets. The ship was furnished with nine 50 cal. water-cooled machine guns. Oil drums were hoisted to the fore-top, filled with fresh water which was piped to each gun, drills were held, and all systems tested GO. We were ready to meet the enemy.

The ship by now, May 17, 1942, was afloat but, with its present draft, entry into the drydock could not be achieved. All ammunition had to be removed for safety reasons and to reduce the draft. If this could be accomplished in time, the drydock would be made available the next day. The 16" projectiles had been removed beforehand by crane through the turret tops as a weight reduction measure. Each can of 16" powder was hoisted topside by air winches, opened, drained, powder debagged, returned to cans, covered with fresh water, cover replaced and then skidded on to a barge. The same procedure was necessary for the 5" powder. The hundreds of 5" ammunition cans posed a different problem. In order to minimize man handling, an adapter was welded to the starboard ammunition hoist's sprocket wheels and with power supplied by pneumatic corner drills the hoists were made operational. This was a slow process but the energy of personnel was conserved. Everybody, officers and crew, turned to with unparalleled enthusiasm to meet the challenge. The ship was drydocked the following day, 9 June 1942. The clearance over the blocks was one foot...We'd made it.

Our ship's force was augmented at this time by 232 survivors from the Yorktown. Having been through survivorship, we were familiar with the steps to be taken to ease the trauma of the loss and the disappointment of not being returned to the mainland. A procedure was set up to process the survivors. Each man was called to the responsible office where new service, pay and health records were originated for him. The personnel office gave assistance in preparing claim forms for compensation of losses and forwarded the forms to the local paying activity. These survivors proved to be an exceptional group. They were assimilated into the crew with a minimum of difficulty and performed with the same enthusiasm. Our personnel now consisted of thirty officers and three hundred fifty-seven men.

Work on the cleanup continued in full force. Electrical equipment was catalogued, tagged and divided into two groups; those needed for return to the mainland and those to be installed after our arrival. Our electrical propulsion units were overhauled under civilian contract but, the coordination of the ship's force with the contractors, was accomplished by the masterful management of our engineering officer, Levi Knight. We were able to return with all our electric drive main propulsion units in commission plus eight new express type boilers.

Speedy preparations were made for quartering all hands on board. The back and forth to the receiving station was unsatisfactory. Prior arrangements had been made to have all members of the duty section sleep in the ship. The living compartments had been cleaned in advance of the docking in anticipation of the quartering problem. Shipyard cooperation supplied us with lockers, bunks and mattresses and, in approximately three weeks, all hands were on board and movies were shown every night. We were a ship alive.

The augmented crew emphasized the necessity for laundry facilities. Our washer and dryer were overhauled but the ironer was beyond repair. A new ironer was located in Chicago and was flown out. We were in operation with an excess of capacity, which we shared with those less fortunate.

The underwater damage was repaired and we were now bouyant. Urgent work required us to be moved from the drydock. At this time, we were asked to take on board Admiral Leary and his staff from the New Mexico. We did some fast footwork, procured furniture, bedding, dishes and other necessities for berthing and messing. With some night work, we took the flag on board in seventy-two hours. We retained them for a short period, at which time we assisted in their decommissioning.

Shortly after Admiral Leary and his staff departed, we became the flagship of the Commander in Chief Pacific Fleet. All services, except messing and berthing, were provided. We were also able to furnish three-hour laundry service for transient VIPs with the acquisition of a small washer from salvage. The West Virginia remained the flagship until shortly before our departure for the mainland.

I have remarked at length on the outstanding performance of the ship's force but, much of our progress was made possible by the cooperation we received from activities ashore and afloat. The concerns for our welfare by our laundry patrons approached the paternal. This leads one to speculate that when evaluating powers, along with the pen and the sword, perhaps one should include the power of a dockside shipboard laundry.

Repairs were completed, Captain L. B. Austin was assigned, I became the executive officer and we were ready to sail. Departure was made in mid-April 1943 with the destroyer CHEW as escort. Three hundred and fifty passengers were placed on board for the trip. We were gratified that many of the passengers asked to remain with the ship after we arrived at Bremerton. We were fortunate in receiving authority to grant some of the requests.

Turret two was placed in commission and two 5" guns were installed for the trip. We were given six rounds of 16" and about one hundred rounds of 5". We scheduled target practice for the 5" guns with the CHEW towing a spar for a point of aim. Target practice ceased after one round from each gun. The fire-weakened deck curled up around the guns on the first blast from each. We fueled the CHEW at sea on the third day out. On entering the Straits of Juan DeFuca, a full power run was started but, we were forced to discontinue after an hour, due to a seized bearing on the port shaft.

Captain Austin was detaching on mooring at the shipyard and I again assumed command. Leave parties were dispatched and the duty crews resumed the small amount of cleanup remaining. We now proceeded with the task of modernizing.

I believe in recognition of their outstanding performance, I should include the names of the other officers who were attached to the ship during salvage:

Lt Cdr L .J. Knight Jr.
Lt (jg)UNSR F. W. White
Lt (jg) USNR T. A. Lombardi
Lt (jg) USNR H. W. Sears
Lt (jg) E. J. Fruechtl
Lt (jg) R. V. Parlett Jr.
Lt (jg) W. G. Barton
EnsUSNR L. D. Brown
EnsUSNR R. S. Blieden
EnsUSNR E. M. Jacoby
EnsUSNR W. K. Bauer
EnsUSNR D. F. Hazelton
EnsUSNR E. H. English Jr.
EnsUSNR R. R. Mayer Jr.
Ens A. P. Kelly
EnsUSNR G. A. Holmes
EnsUSNR W. W. Tidwell
Lt (MC) USNR F. D. Hankins
Ens (SC) USNR M. V. Fowler
Boatswain E. R. Weaver
Boatswain R. L. Herlen
Electrician O. Osheim
Electrician C. T. Duvall
ChMachinist P. N. Wilson
Machinist M. S. Johnson
Machinist P. H. Dece
Payclerk D. L. Westfall
Captain USMC S. W. Trachta
1stLtUSMC H. A. York
1stLtUSMC O. V. Bergren

I was promoted to commander in July. In October I received dispatch orders to the Mississippi as executive officer. Thus was completed four and one half years attached to the Mountaineer ship. I went to the dock to take a last look and, as I walked away, I experienced withdrawal symptoms from a mild addiction to the opiate of proprietorship.

The battle at Surigao Strait afforded me the satisfying opportunity to witness a great ship avenge an indignity.