When we arrived at the USS West Virginia BB48 Annual Reunion reception in Seattle, I was in awe. I was sitting with two of my father Vernon’s only surviving shipmates from that fateful day, December 7, 1941.
Jim Downing was the Ship’s Chaplin and Post Master. He remembered my father. I couldn’t wait to talk with Jim.
I felt a kinship right away when looking into his eyes. Jim was 103 years old in the fall of 2016. He was as sharp as a tack and very alert.
Jim was one of the oldest Pearl Harbor survivors at that time. And he was famous.
Jim authored several books. He traveled around America each year until he couldn’t to share his stories.
Jim passed away in 2018 at age 105. A long life of serving America, indeed…
Jim Downing was and always will be my hero, and shipmate of my father.
Bob Benefel knew my father too. But not that well. He mentioned an encounter with Vernon once. I don’t think Bob liked Vernon, but he didn’t say that.
Vernon was a bad ass…at times.
Bob was a a Radioman just like me! So, we talked about that as if we both served together on the ship.
Bob loved to talk about radio communications, cryptography in those days and tubes he had to replace all the time.
Bob would say, “90% of the problems were fixed by replacing tubes back then.”
I learned that in radio school too, in 1963…
So, I reflect on my conversation with both.
Jim knew Vernon pretty well. After all he was the ship’s Chaplin and Post Master.
Jim was like a father to Vernon. “Vernon would often talk about his wife and new son.” Jim said with a kind smile.
“I recall Coxswain Sparks mentioning his new son… can’t remember the name, though” Jim would say as we talked.
I was so moved. Jerry was was born 3 months before Pearl Harbor.”
Vernon sent post cards and letters home to Marcella and his family in St. Paul each week without fail. I knew this fact…
Tears flowed from my eyes as I listened to Jim talk about my father.
Vernon was a sweet young man on one side, and a fierce warrior on the other side. I’m like my father in that way…
“Vernon was worried that he would never see his family again…” Jim would say was we talked. I asked a few questions for sure.
A few more tears later…
I felt my father’s soul in that moment and thought, “I am my father’s son!”
I was so moved and honored to meet Jim Downing and Bob Benefel. They are with with father and all the USS West Virginia shipmates now.
Bless them all! “They will never ever be forgotten…” Vernon would say often in his life.
So, let me leave you with my father, Vernon’s 1st hand account of that Sunday morning 8am December 7, 1941…
National Park ServiceSurvivor MNQuestionnaire – Persons Present December 7, 1941, Oahu, Territory of HawaiiVernon H. Sparks, US Navy, Battleship USS West Virginia, CoxswainHometown: St. Paul, Mn
Brief Account of What Happened to You Before, During, & After the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor.
“I was on the 3rddeck heading for the anchor windless room when the first torpedo hit the USS West Virginia.
From there, more bombing and torpedoes-when all hell broke loose. Men in the brig were screaming for help.
I could not respond, there was no time…to check where the Marine guard was with the keys to the cells. Evidently, he had already been hit.
The men in the brig were engulfed in water and perished. I worked my way up to the 2nd deck with water up to my waist.
By this time, I came to a hatch with the manhole still open leading to the main deck. I barely made it out of the escape hatch and was ordered by Lt. Stark to close that hatch.
The men were still down there but it was too late for them. That was the first time I heard that the Japs were attacking our fleet…and the whole island.
I watched one of my best shipmates get himself killed-Roy Powers. He stuck his head out the portside close to the ship-fitters shop; and about that time another torpedo hit and the concussion blew his head off. His body fell back on deck headless.
After that it was a matter of surviving. There was no defense, the ship was already listing to port at about 35 degrees angle.
I worked myself up further on the deck and observed the Commanding Officer, Captain Mervyn S. Bennion heading for the bridge. The strafing and bombing was still on.
When I arrived on the main deck going forward to the number one turret…strafing still going on…I dived under the overhang of the turret.
Communications was out, so by word of mouth heard the order, “all hands abandon ship.” Capt.Bennion was lying on the wing of the bridge mortally wounded…He asked the doc, “What kind of chance he had?” And was told, “Not much Captain.”
Then, Captain Bennion said, “Leave me on the bridge and this is my last order, ALL HANDS ABANDON SHIP!” He died right after that order…
After that order I jumped over the side to starboard and swam to Ford Island…
Us guys that made it were standing on the beach watching the USS Arizona blow up sky high…what a helpless feeling.
I had torn my white uniform up to use as emergency treatment bandages for the wounded.
Anyway, to make a long story short, we dashed across the field under strafing conditions to shelter. In the BOQ, we were able shower in there and salvage clothes from the lockers, and helped organize the Harbor Patrol.
And was with that duty for a few months – then assigned to new construction with the 5th Amphibious Force hitting the beaches of the South Pacific, all the way, then finally Iwo Jima, & Okinawa until the Peace Treaty was signed aboard the USS Missouri in Toyko, Japan.
People like myself could go on & on…but that would take a book…
”Vernon H. Sparks, December 7, 1941, Battleship USS West VirginiaFrom Ship’s Crew Muster:Sparks, Vernon H. 328-41-29 Cox. 13 Jan. 36 10/12/39