Sept. 25 | Day 19: They say the Japanese pilots who bombed Pearl Harbor at dawn in 1941 hear a Japanese children’s song — Menkoi Kouma1 sung by a teenaged girl — as they follow a Honolulu radio station broadcast to their unsuspecting targets ahead.
The pilots listening to that sweet song are carrying death to the battleships, destroyers and other ships of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet. The carnage defies description.
More than 2,400 people2 die in the attack. Three battleships — the Arizona, Oklahoma and Utah — are sunk. Eighteen other ships are damaged.
One of them is the battleship USS West Virginia (BB-48). One hundred and six of her crew are killed. The ship is later raised, repaired and sent into the Pacific theater. It earns five battle stars.
I’m thinking of the West Virginia as our motorcycle ride to New Orleans comes to an end. This is our last day on the road and we’re about 230 miles from Falls Church. We’ll be home this evening.
But first we’re stopping here in Clarksburg, W. Va. I’ve researched the West Virginia’s history for a story that was published on the 75th observance of Pearl Harbor and there’s something from the ship I need to see.
Linda and I park the motorcycles on West Main Street and cross over to the Harrison County Courthouse. It’s a typical county government building, except for its art-deco entrance, which favors two fierce eagles that look uncomfortably close to something you’d find at a Nuremberg rally.
A flagpole from the West Virginia is supposed to be here. We check the two poles outside the building, one with an American flag, the other with a state flag, but don’t see anything special about them. I carry my helmet into the courthouse to find someone to ask.
Inside, I find three uniformed sheriff’s deputies ensconced behind inch-thick plexiglass and a heavy duty metal detector.
Speaking though a hole in the plexiglass — it’s like shouting down a well — I tell them why I’m here and ask where I can find the relic from the West Virginia.
The deputies look at one another, puzzled. “I’m not sure,” one says.
I thank them and go back outside, determined to look at the poles more closely and check the perimeter of the courthouse.
One of older deputies comes out and motions us over to the American flag pole. Ah, he’s made some inquiries and has come to find us. Good man.
That’s when we see the plaque at the base, plain as day, maybe 15 inches wide.
The West Virginia was hit by seven torpedoes port side, began to burn, and threatened to capsize. The crew counter-flooded the starboard side and the ship sank upright into the harbor, its main deck nearly even with the waterline.
Fire crews extinguished the flames aboard ship and preparations were soon made to raise the vessel and take her stateside for complete repair.
That’s when the salvage workers started hearing noises, a banging sound, coming from inside the ship, below the waterline. They realize there’s someone still alive on the ship, trapped below decks, making noise in hope of rescue.
There’s no way to get to the trapped men. The harbor water is still thick with diesel fuel; cutting with torches could cause an explosion. There’s a risk of explosive decompression if the hull is breached below water. There’s no way to get to them.
The salvagers keep working. The banging sound continues. Legend has it that the men on guard duty at night put their fingers in their ears to keep from hearing it.
The West Virginia is refloated on May 17, 1942, 162 days after the attack. In a dry forward storage room, workers find the bodies of three sailors, Ronald Endicott, 18; Clifford Olds, 20; and Louis “Buddy” Costin, 21.
There’s an eight-day clock with them, and a calendar with days crossed off in red. The last day marked is Dec. 23, 1941. The men had survived 16 days after the attack.
A Navy officer retrieves the storeroom calendar and sends it to the Pentagon, where it is lost and never seen again. The eight-day Seth Thomas clock was saved and is now on exhibit at the West Virginia State Museum in Charleston, W. Va.
The families are never officially told how the three sailors died. Their grave markers have Dec. 7, 1941, as the date of death. The story slowly seeps out to relatives, other sailors in the Navy.
After extensive repair at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Wash., the West Virginia takes part in significant battles in the Pacific, including Leyte, Mindoro, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
The battleship is also part of the massive Navy presence in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945, when the Japanese formally sign documents of surrender aboard the USS Missouri. The West Virginia and the light cruiser USS Detroit3 are the only two ships from Pearl Harbor that are in Toyko Bay that day.
The West Virginia was decommissioned in January 1947 and sold for scrap in August 1959. Her jackstaff4 was given to Harrison County in 1963.
One of the three: Clifford Olds, right, with shipmates Jack Miller, left, and Frank Kosa on the night before Pearl Harbor. Kosa was killed in February 1944.
I think about Pearl Harbor as Linda and I wheel away from Clarksburg. The attack is a story of tragedy, horror, courage5 and profound grief, and America does its best to honor it.
But I believe history would’ve been better served if the documents of surrender had been signed aboard the West Virginia instead of the Missouri6. The ship paid a heavy price at the war’s beginning; she should have been the setting for its end. The ship and her crew — especially Endicott, Olds and Costin — deserved it.
1 — Which translates to Come on a Pony.
2 — The official count is 2,403.
3 — The Detroit was not damaged in the attack.
4 — The flag pole is the West Virginia’s jackstaff, the pole in the bow of the ship.
5 — Doris “Dorie” Miller, a cook aboard the West Virginia, was awarded the Navy Cross for his heroism — he fired an anti-aircraft gun at Japanese planes and helped injured men to safety when the ammo ran out. He was the first African American sailor to receive the medal. (If you need further reference, he was played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the 2001 movie “Pearl Harbor.”) Miller was killed on Nov, 24, 1943, when his ship the USS Liscome Bay was hit by a torpedo near Butaritari Island.
6 — They say the Missouri was chosen because Harry Truman was from Missouri and had a personal connection with it; his daughter christened the ship. But it was also the flagship of the Third Fleet and served honorably in the war. You could also make a reasonable case for other ships. I can understand that, but I still would have argued strenuously on behalf of the West Virginia.