The well recognized photo of the USS West Virginia (BB48) is very personal to me. I know my father, Vernon, was swimming to Ford Island at the time the photo was taken of his ship sinking in Pearl Harbor.
The heartfelt feelings are healing and provide a special spiritual connection to my father. When asked, Dad talked of his experience on that fateful day so long ago… I could tell it was hard for Dad to speak of the events because the memories were so vivid and painful for him. He lost his best friend and shipmate Roy Powers on that day, and could never get past the memory of seeing his battle buddy falling back headless from looking out the porthole of the ship during the bombing.
Dad rarely spoke of the rest of WWII and the many months he spent in hard combat in the South Pacific. He finally came home in June of 1945 just before WWII ended. I tell my family’s post WWII story of forgiveness and healing in the books listed below.
My cousin, Dawn, in Minneapolis, Mn., sent me Dad’s written account of his experience aboard the USS West Virginia (BB48) before he finally abandoned ship as ordered. Dad wrote his account for the US Park Service on the 50th Anniversary (1991) of the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor.(click on this powerful ABC video clip)! This was the first time he returned to Pearl Harbor following WWII to receive the Pearl Harbor Survivors Medal.
The unexplained part of this story, is that my father never shared the US Park Service document with his immediate family. He mailed it to his sister, Dolly, for safe keeping. My guess is that it was too painful for him to share the tragic details with us by revisiting the experience over and over again…
In honor of all those who served, and the families who waited for weeks to learn of the fate of loved ones, following is my father Vernon’s transcribed first person account of those minutes following the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941…
Vernon H. Sparks Handwritten Account
Following is a transcription from the National Park Service…
National Park Service
Survivor Questionnaire – Persons Present December 7, 1941, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii
Vernon H. Sparks, US Navy, Battleship USS West Virginia, Coxswain
Hometown: St. Paul, Mn
Brief Account of What Happened to You Before, During, & After the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor.
I was on the 3rd deck heading for the anchor windlass 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 port side 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, 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.”Note: 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 Virginia
From Ship’s Crew Muster
Sparks, Vernon H.328-41-29Cox.13Jan.3610/12/39
“Remember Pearl Harbor!”
You can also purchase the Pearl Harbor 50th Anniversary Edition…by clicking the highlighted text or on my sidebar…