The USS Oklahoma
As the USS Oklahoma rolled slowly to its side, terror reigned below deck. In darkness men sought to find a way out of the burning, metal coffin. Twenty-two year old Ensign Francis Flaherty heard the turmoil around him in the gun turret. Quickly he grabbed a flashlight and flashed its beam on the corridor exits, urging doomed men with him to follow the light to safety. Calmly he stood against the slanting wall to point the way out for others, all the while feeling the giant battleship giving in to the elements as it settled to a watery grave.
Nineteen-year-old Seaman First Class James Richard Ward found himself in a similar situation, surrounded by terrified men all seeking any escape from certain death. In the darkness could be heard the cries of the injured and the shrieks of those facing ultimate death. In the cacophony of a hell even Dante could not have imagined, the brave young sailor from Springfield, Ohio found his own flashlight and played in on the darkened interior others towards escape and safety.
The battle in the sky was barely ten minutes old when the 25-year-old dreadnought Oklahoma finally "gave-up-the-ghost", rolling completely over. Trapped inside were more than 400 sailors and Marines, men who would never again see the light of day. Fires raged on the waters surrounding the overturned battleship, as those who had survived struggled through the thick oil to reach safety. Many survived because of a naval ensign and a young enlisted sailor, two American heroes who had stood fast in the darkness and terror to point others to avenues of escape.
Those who survived because of the brave actions of Ensign Flaherty and Seaman Ward would never have the chance to thank the two brave men. Their bodies were among far too many others permanently entombed in the broken remnants of the USS Oklahoma.
The USS West Virginia
Captain Mervyn Bennion commanded of the USS West Virginia, resting at anchor just ahead of the Oklahoma. When the first torpedoes struck the Oklahoma, 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 the West Virginia opposite the torpedo strikes to balance the weight caused by flooding from the gaping wounds and turn his ship upright.
The counter measures worked, the West Virginia sinking lower in the water but leveling 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 the intrepid Naval officer was in keeping his battleship afloat, the Japanese pilots were equally determined to send the West Virginia to the bottom of the harbor. A bomb falling from 20,000 feet above made a direct hit on the 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. Struggling against unbearable pain, the ship's Captain refused to be evacuated. Fire broke out all over the West Virginia and secondary explosions shook the bridge. Little more could be done to save her. Captain Bennion ordered others on the bridge to get out before it was to late. As they departed to find shelter away from the rapidly sinking battleship, Captain Bennion fought off his pain to receive reports and issue orders 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 the captain 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 Naval vessel had floated peacefully in that location on Battle Ship Row. In its own stirring way however, when the 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.
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