The Battleship USS West Virginia was among the ships that burned during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941.

The Battleship USS West Virginia was among the ships that burned during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. (National Archives and Records Administration)

PRINCETON, W. Va. (Tribune News Service) — Almost 82 years ago, Charles House Morgan Sr., U.S. Commander of Harbor Defense at Pearl Harbor, was walking to his headquarters at Diamond Head with his son Charles when some fighters and bombers appeared suddenly over the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

The day was Dec. 7, 1941, and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was underway. The Morgans were only 200 feet away from the Japanese aircraft as they commenced their bomb and torpedo runs. Morgan ran to his headquarters while his son, Charles House Morgan Jr., who was 16 and enrolled in the U.S. Navy flight training school, ran to a nearby air station to help.

A few days later, Morgan Jr. found a life preserver floating in the oily, bloodstained waters of Pearl Harbor and retrieved it.

It is a life preserver made of foam covered with treated canvas and ringed with attached ropes. Painted across it are the words “U.S.S. West Virginia. 1st Fire and Rescue Div.”

The life preserver was from the battleship U.S.S. West Virginia, one of the Navy ships sunk or damaged during the surprise attack that brought the United States into World War II.

This tangible link to one of the pivotal moments in the history of the United States and the state of West Virginia is now on loan at the Those Who Served War Museum at the Memorial Building in Princeton.

It will be on display until the end of June, said Tony Whitlow, the museum’s founder and director. The relic then goes to Morgantown where it will be displayed at West Virginia University (WVU).

The Kendrick family, which owns the life preserver, agreed to let the local museum display it. Whitlow said he hopes school groups can come and see it along with the general public. Part of the display outlines the West Virginia’s history and her contributions to the war effort in the Pacific Ocean.

The U.S.S. West Virginia was a Colorado-class battleship that was built in Newport News, Va. and commissioned in December 1923, according to the background posted at Naval History and Heritage Command. She was the last battleship built for the U.S. Navy in almost 20 years.

During the Japanese attack, two bombs and at least seven torpedos struck the battleship, but her crew’s quick and skillful action kept her from capsizing as she sank. More than 100 members of her crew were lost.

Whitlow said after the battleship was raised so repairs could begin, the bodies of 66 members of her crew were found belowdecks. Surviving by using air pockets, they had kept a calendar until Dec. 23.

Salvaged and then modernized, the West Virginia returned to the Pacific combat zone in October 1944 and participated in pre-invasion bombardments at Leyte in the Philippines. On Oct. 25 that same year, Japanese battleships and smaller warships attempted a nighttime attack on the landing zone. The West Virginia was among the Navy ships that stopped the attack during the Battle of Surigao Strait, the last time in history that battleships fought each other with their big guns.

The West Virginia also used her 16-inch guns at Mindoro, Lingayen Gulf, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. On April 1, 1945 while serving off the island of Okinawa, she was hit by a Japanese suicide plane known as a kamikaze, but she was able to stay in action.

The battleship that was sunk at Pearl Harbor and later went on to fight saw both the beginning and the end of the war in the Pacific. On Sept. 2, 1945, the West Virginia was among the Navy ships in Tokyo Bay when the Japanese formally surrendered to the Allies.

The Those Who Served War Museum is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

(c)2023 the Bluefield Daily Telegraph (Bluefield, W.Va.)

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