Captain Mervyn Sharp Bennion was the Commanding Officer of the USS WEST VIRGINIA on the fateful morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941. WEST VIRGINIA was moored in Pearl Harbor just ahead of the USS OKLAHOMA. As the Japanese attack began the first torpedoes struck OKLAHOMA, and three more reached out for the WEST VIRGINIA and opened holes in her side. Water poured into the battleship with the force of a flash flood causing it to list dangerously to one side. From the bridge Captain Bennion quickly took control, ignoring the crash of bombs around him and the hail of bullets spewed by the strafing zeroes. He ordered flooding on the side of WEST VIRGINIA opposite the torpedo strikes to balance the weight caused by flooding from the gaping wounds. The counter measures worked as WEST VIRGINIA sank lower in the water but was leveled out. Then more torpedoes were unleashed, followed by bombs dropped from high above. Captain Bennion moved to the starboard side of the bridge, barking out orders and doing everything in his power to save his ship.
As intent as he was in keeping his battleship afloat, the Japanese pilots were equally determined to send WEST VIRGINIA to the bottom of the harbor. A bomb falling from high above made a direct hit on WEST VIRGINIA while a simultaneous strike was made on the neighboring USS TENNESSEE. Fiery eruptions filled the air with flying shrapnel. On the bridge ragged pieces of hot metal ripped into Captain Bennion's abdomen and his spine. Struggling against unbearable pain because of his intense pain and inability to move his legs, Captain Bennion refused to be evacuated after receiving emergency medical aid. Fire broke out all over the WEST VIRGINIA and secondary explosions shook the bridge. Little more could be done to save the ship. Captain Bennion ordered others on the bridge to get out before it was too late. As they departed to find shelter away from the rapidly sinking battleship, Captain Bennion fought off his pain to receive reports and issue commands as long as he could think clearly. At last his horrible wounds became too much for human endurance and he collapsed...unconscious. Then he died.
The smoke of battle filled the heavens as the USS West Virginia slipped beneath the surface of the water. In all, 106 of her crew were killed including Captain Bennion who refused to give up trying to save his ship...or spare his men...until he went down with his ship. Through the smoke little could be seen above the surface of the water to indicate that a once proud Navy vessel had floated peacefully in that location on Battleship Row. In its own stirring way, however, when WEST VIRGINIA settled into the mud at the bottom of the harbor, the United States Flag could be seen through the smoke, still waving from its fantail.
In recognition of his herculean efforts that day, Captain Bennion was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Submitted by CDR Roy A. Mosteller, USNR (Ret)