World War II: USS West Virginia (BB-48)

USS West Virginia (BB-48)
USS West Virginia (BB-48), 1926. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

USS West Virginia (BB-48) - Overview:

  • Nation: United States
  • Type: Battleship
  • Shipyard: Newport News Shipbuilding Corporation
  • Laid Down: April 12, 1920
  • Launched: November 19, 1921
  • Commissioned: December 1, 1923
  • Fate: Sold for scrap

USS West Virginia (BB-48) - Specifications (as built)

  • Displacement: 33,590 tons
  • Length: 624 ft.
  • Beam: 97.3 ft.
  • Draft: 30 ft., 6 in.
  • Propulsion: Turbo-electric transmission turning 4 propellers
  • Speed: 21 knots
  • Complement: 1,407 men

Armament (as built)

  • 8 × 16 in. gun (4 × 2)
  • 12 × 5 in. guns
  • 4 × 3 in. guns
  • 2 × 21 in. torpedo tubes

USS West Virginia (BB-48) - Design & Construction:

The fifth and last edition of Standard-type battleship (Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Mexico, and Tennessee) designed for the US Navy, the Colorado-class was a continuation of the preceding series of vessels.  Developed prior to the construction of the Nevada-class, the Standard-type approach called for vessels that had common operational and tactical traits.  These included the use of oil-fired boilers rather than coal and the employment of an “all or nothing” armor scheme.  This protection method called for critical parts of the battleship, such as magazines and engineering, to be heavily protected while less important spaces were left unarmored.  In addition, Standard-type battleships were to have a tactical turn radius of 700 yards or less and a minimum top speed of 21 knots.

 

Though largely similar to the preceding Tennessee-class, the Colorado-class instead mounted eight 16" guns in four twin turrets rather than twelve 14" guns in four triple turrets.  The US Navy had been advocating the use of 16" guns for several years and after successful tests of the weapon, conversations began regarding their use on the earlier Standard-type designs.

  This did not move forward due to the cost involved in changing these designs and increasing their tonnage to carry the new guns.  In 1917, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels reluctantly permitted the use of 16" guns on the condition that the new class not incorporate any other major design changes.  The Colorado-class also mounted a secondary battery of twelve to fourteen 5" guns and an anti-aircraft armament of four 3" guns.  

The fourth and final ship of the class, USS West Virginia (BB-48) was laid down at Newport News Shipbuilding on April 12, 1920.  Construction moved forward and on November 19, 1921, it slid down the ways with Alice W. Mann, daughter of West Virginia coal magnate Isaac T. Mann, serving as sponsor.  After another two years of work, West Virginia was completed and entered commission on December 1, 1923, with Captain Thomas J. Senn in command. 

USS West Virginia (BB-48) - Interwar Years:

Completing its shakedown cruise, West Virginia departed New York for Hampton Roads.  While underway, issues emerged with the battleship's steering gear.  This underwent repairs at Hampton Roads and West Virginia attempted to put to sea again on June 16, 1924.  While moving through Lynnhaven Channel, it grounded following another equipment failure and the use of inaccurate charts.

  Undamaged, West Virginia again underwent repairs to its steering gear before departing for the Pacific.  Reaching the West Coast, the battleship became flagship of the Battleship Divisions of the Battle Fleet on October 30.  West Virginia would serve a stalwart of the Pacific battleship force for the next decade and a half. 

The following year, West Virginia joined other elements of the Battle Fleet for a goodwill cruise to Australia and New Zealand.  Moving through routine peacetime training and exercises during the late 1920s, the battleship also entered the yard to have its anti-aircraft defenses enhanced and the addition of two aircraft catapults.  Rejoining the fleet, West Virginia continued it normal operations.  Deploying to Hawaiian waters in April 1940 for Fleet Problem XXI, which simulated a defense of the islands, West Virginia and the rest of the fleet were retained in the area due to increasing tensions with Japan.

  As a result, the Battle Fleet's base was shifted to Pearl Harbor.  Late the following year, West Virginia was one of a select number of ships to receive the new RCA CXAM-1 radar system.

USS West Virginia (BB-48) - Pearl Harbor:

On the morning of December 7, 1941, West Virginia was moored along Pearl Harbor's Battleship Row, outboard of USS Tennessee (BB-43), when the Japanese attacked and pulled the United States into World War II.  In a vulnerable position with its port side exposed, West Virginia sustained seven torpedo hits (six exploded) from Japanese aircraft.  Only rapid counter-flooding by the battleship's crew prevented it from capsizing.  The damage from the torpedoes was exacerbated by two armor-piercing bomb hits as well as a massive oil fire started following the explosion of USS Arizona (BB-39) which was moored aft.  Severely damaged, West Virginia sank upright with little more than its superstructure above the water.  In the course of that attack, the battleship's commander, Captain Mervyn S. Bennion, was mortally wounded.  He posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his defense of the ship.  

USS West Virginia (BB-48) - Rebirth:

In the weeks after the attack, efforts to salvage West Virginia commenced.  After patching the massive holes in the hull, the battleship was refloated on May 17, 1942 and later moved to Drydock Number One.  As work commenced 66 bodies were found trapped in the hull.  Three located in a storeroom appear to have survived until at least December 23.

  After extensive repairs to the hull, West Virginia departed for Puget Sound Navy Yard on May 7, 1943.  Arriving, it underwent a modernization program that dramatically altered the battleship's appearance.  This saw the construction of a new superstructure which included trunking the two funnels into one, a greatly enhanced anti-aircraft armament, and elimination of the old cage masts.  In addition, the hull was widened to 114 feet which precluded it from passing through the Panama Canal. When complete, West Virginia looked more similar to the modernized Tennessee-class battleships than those from its own Colorado-class.

USS West Virginia (BB-48) - Return to Combat:

Completed in early July 1944, West Virginia conducted sea trials out of Port Townsend, WA before steaming south for a shakedown cruise at San Pedro, CA.  Completing training later in the summer, it sailed for Pearl Harbor on September 14.  Pressing on to Manus, West Virginia became flagship of Rear Admiral Theodore Ruddock's Battleship Division 4.  Departing on October 14 with Rear Admiral Jesse B. Oldendorf's Task Group 77.2, the battleship made its return to combat operations four days later when it began bombarding targets on Leyte in the Philippines.  Covering the landings on Leyte, West Virginia provided naval gunfire support for the troops ashore.  When the larger Battle of Leyte Gulf began, West Virginia and Oldendorf's other battleships moved south to guard the Surigao Strait.  Meeting the enemy on the night of October 24, the American battleships crossed the Japanese "T" and sank two Japanese battleships (Yamashiro & Fuso) and a heavy cruiser (Mogami).

   

Following the battle, the "Wee Vee" as it was known to its crew, withdrew to Ulithi and then to Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides.  While there, the battleship entered a floating dry dock to repair damage sustained to one of its screws during operations off Leyte.  Returning to action in the Philippines, West Virginia covered landings on Mindoro and served as part of the anti-aircraft screen for transports and other ships in the area.  On January 4, 1945, it took on the crew of the escort carrier USS Ommaney Bay which was sunk by kamikazes.  A few days later, West Virginia commenced shore bombardment of targets in the San Fabian area of Lingayen Gulf, Luzon.  It remained in this area until February 10. 

USS West Virginia (BB-48) - Okinawa:

Moving to Ulithi, West Virginia joined the 5th Fleet and quickly replenished in order to take part in the invasion of Iwo Jima.  Arriving on February 19 as the initial landings were underway, the battleship quickly assumed a position offshore and commenced striking Japanese targets.  It continued to support operations ashore until March 4 when it departed for the Caroline Islands.  Assigned to Task Force 54, West Virginia sailed to support the invasion of Okinawa on March 21.  On April 1, while covering the Allied landings, the battleship sustained a kamikaze hit which killed 4 and wounded 23.  As the damage to West Virginia was not critical, it remained on station.  Steaming north with TF54 on April 7, the battleship sought to block Operation Ten-Go which included the Japanese battleship Yamato.  This effort was halted by American carrier planes before TF54 arrived.  

Resuming its naval gunfire support role, West Virginia stayed off Okinawa until April 28 when it departed for Ulithi.  This break proved brief and the battleship quickly returned to the battle area where it remained until end of the campaign in late June.  Following training in Leyte Gulf in July, West Virginia returned to Okinawa in early August and soon learned of the end of hostilities.  Steaming north, the battleship was present in Tokyo Bay on September 2 for the formal Japanese surrender.  Embarking passengers for the United States twelve days later, West Virginia touched at Okinawa and Pearl Harbor before reaching San Diego on October 22.

USS West Virginia (BB-48) - Final Actions:

After taking part in Navy Day festivities, West Virginia sailed for Pearl Harbor on October 30 to serve in Operation Magic Carpet.  Tasked with returning American servicemen to the United States, the battleship made three runs between Hawaii and the West Coast before receiving orders to proceed to Puget Sound.  Arriving, on January 12, West Virginia commenced activities to deactivate the vessel.  A year later on January 9, 1947, the battleship was decommissioned and placed in reserve.  West Virginia remained in mothballs until being sold for scrap on August 24, 1959.

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