It was truly an emotional and spiritual connection with my father, Vernon, during this annual reunion of WWII veterans who served aboard the USS West Virginia (BB48). Jim Downing and Bob Benafel both served with my father on December 7, 1941. This was one of the most humbling and healing experiences of my life. I had the honor to speak at the Saturday evening banquet to veterans and family members of the heroes who attended the reunion celebration. This was indeed a personal experience that will go down as a significant life changing event…Honor and Remembrance…
USS West Virginia Association Annual Reunion, Seattle, Washington…October 8, 2016
Honor and Remembrance…Children and Families Serve Too!
Pearl Harbor and WWII Survivors:
- Robert Benafel (PH)
- Jim Downing (PH)
- Arthur Rinetti
- Tony Reiter
- Herbert G. Crask
- Robert John Andler
- John Brown
- George Gackle
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 share my family’s post WWII story of forgiveness and healing in my book, Reconciliation: A Son’s Story.
Writing this non-fiction memoir gave me new perspective and a deep appreciation for the human sacrifice of war, especially on generations of families, who live with the legacy of war long after the war is over. I was able to achieve a peace of mind for the first time in my life, and see the importance of preserving our family legacy as both a post WWII military child and US Navy veteran. We should never forget our heroes who served America in all wars. We should never forget the sacrifice of the children and families who serve too. By honoring and remembering the legacy of service to our country, we are able to build a more loving, compassionate and empathetic society for future generations. As the children of warriors, we have a duty to honor and never ever forget the sacrifice of war.
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 the50th 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 thePearl Harbor Survivors Medal. The unexplained part of this story is that my father never shared theUS 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…
“I was on the 3rd deck 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 the2nd 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 him-self 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 Tokyo, 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!”