Captain Mervyn Sharp Bennion

by Peter

In honor of the upcoming anniversary of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, I thought I'd write about Captain Mervyn Sharp Bennion, commander of the battleship, USS West Virginia, who was killed in the attack and won the Medal of Honor posthumously for his actions to defend his ship and his crew.

Mervyn Sharp Bennion

Mervyn Bennion was born in Vernon, Tooele County on May 5, 1887. Vernon is a very small farming and ranching town at the southern end of Rush Valley, 33 miles south of Tooele. At the time of Bennion's birth, it would have had around 200 residents. His younger brother described him as a responsible, kind, adventurous boy. He spent his late childhood and teenage years working on the family farm 8 miles from Vernon and for relatives around the state. He also attended LDS High School in Salt Lake City, staying with relatives.

Mervyn was very intelligent and an excellent student and won admission to the US Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1906. He graduated 3rd in his class with honors for excellence in seamanship and international law, and had a reputation for helping as many other students as asked in understanding their coursework.

US Naval Academy, 1906

After graduation, Mervyn served on the battleship USS California on cruises to South America and the Far East, the gunboat USS St. Louis for three years off the coast of Mexico, and the battleship USS North Dakota, gaining a reputation as an expert in naval ordinance. During the closing years of World War I, he served in New York City helping to fit out and then serving on the battleship USS New Mexico. While there, he met and married Louise Clark, the daughter of J. Reuben Clark.

Over the next 10 years, from 1921 to 1932, he served in increasingly responsible positions on the battleships USS Maryland, USS Florida, and USS Tennessee, as well as at the Bureau of Naval Ordinance in Washington, DC. In 1932 he was appointed to the command of the destroyer USS Bernadou, then the destroyer USS Biddle. He was then appointed commander of Destroyer Division One, using the USS Hatfield as his flagship. 

In 1935, Mervyn was appointed an instructor at the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, then served as Executive Officer of the battleship USS Arizona and commander of the ammunition supply ship USS Nitro. In the fraught years leading up to World War II, Mervyn was again serving in the Bureau of Naval Ordinance, overseeing the financial concerns of the rapidly expanding fleet.

Captain Bennion took command of the battleship USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor in August 1941. He immediately improved the morale and efficiency of the crew of over 1,500.

His brother wrote of his leadership style, "His reputation as a capable and kindly commander was so great that there was rejoicing when news reached the ship before he arrived that he was to be the new captain. When he took command they were ready to give him their best. His method was to get about the ship often, to see everything, to know every man aboard, to be free with kindly words and commendation, to offer suggestions and, in cases of neglect or failure to make some part or corner clean, to call for a rag or mop and join in cleaning up the spot. This rarely ever had to be repeated. He got extraordinary work out of his men in striving to improve their team work. He was most gentle and kind in all his dealings and as sparing of rules as circumstances would permit, but certain in his punishment of infractions and ready with severe punishment for the gross offender. The well meaning, hard working man on his ship could feel entirely at ease in his goings and comings. The loafer and the undisciplined could not impose upon him. He was kindly, but not good naturedly careless, and thus respected by all and loved by most. He was a model of discipline and efficiency."

Captain Bennion was aboard the West Virginia the morning of December 7, 1941, shaving in preparation for attending LDS church services in Honolulu when the Japanese attack began. The West Virginia was struck in the first wave by at least six torpedoes and two bombs, instantly crippling her and starting her sinking. Captain Bennion rushed to his post on the flag bridge to direct anti-aircraft fire and firefighting efforts. Stepping outside the bridge to get a better view of the situation, he was struck in the abdomen by a piece of shrapnel, he was instantly paralyzed and mortally wounded. A pharmacist's mate bandaged his stomach, but Captain Bennion refused to be removed from the bridge and continued to command his men from a stretcher.

After a fire in the galley began pouring thick smoke and flames up to the bridge, Captain Bennion ordered the officers remaining with him to leave him and save themselves. They continued their efforts to save him, attempting to lower him several times tied to a ladder, but were unable to because of the smoke and flames. They were eventually able to get him to a corner of the navigation bridge where the smoke was less intense. He passed away there, approximately 1.5 hours after being wounded.

The men of the West Virginia counter-flooded its compartments to prevent the explosion of its magazines and it settled to the bottom of Pearl Harbor with its superstructure above the water. The West Virginia lost 130 men, with a further 52 wounded.

The West Virginia 

For his heroic actions, Captain Bennion was awarded the Medal of Honor with the following citation: "For conspicuous devotion to duty, extraordinary courage, and complete disregard of his own life, above and beyond the call of duty, during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, by Japanese forces on 7 December 1941. As Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. West Virginia, after being mortally wounded, Capt. Bennion evidenced apparent concern only in fighting and saving his ship, and strongly protested against being carried from the bridge."

Louise Bennion, Captain Bennion's widow, christened the destroyer USS Bennion in 1943 in his honor. The West Virginia, like most other ships sunk at Pearl Harbor, was raised, rebuilt, and sent back out to fight the war. She sailed again on July 4, 1944, fighting at Surigao Strait, Leyte, Luzon, Iwo Jima, and Okinawa. The West Virginia was present in Tokyo harbor for the formal surrender of Japan.

The West Virginia after repair in July 1944
The account by Mervyn's brother can be found here


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