Excerpted from Saints at War:
Experiences of Latter-day Saints in World War II
Editor’s Notes: Captain Bennion was the first Latter-day Saint to receive the Medal of Honor during World War II. The destroyer, USS Bennion, was named for Captain Bennion and was launched July 4, 1943.
Captain Bennion’s story is included in the film Pearl Harbor and his is the only readable name in the makeshift morgue seen in the movie.
A graduate of the Naval Academy at Annapolis, Mervyn was a distinguished naval officer and captain of the USS West Virginia. Married to a daughter of President J. Reuben Clark of the First Presidency, Mervyn was one of the earliest American Latter-day Saint casualties of the war. For his heroism at Pearl Harbor, he was posthumously awarded his nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. The following is an excerpt from an account written by Mervyn’s brother, Howard. This account is based on eyewitness interviews.
Sunday, December 7, 1941, at a few minutes before eight, Mervyn was in his cabin shaving preparatory to leaving the ship to go to Sunday School and fast meeting in Honolulu when a sailor on watch from the bridge nearby dashed in to report a Japanese air attack approaching at hand. Mervyn instantly gave the commands, “Japanese Air Attack! To your battle stations!”
Then he ran to his own-the conning tower on the flag bridge. There he verified the readiness of the several gun crews, the preparations for bringing up ammunition from the holds, the preparedness of the other elements of the ships’ crew for their roles in action. In a minute Japanese torpedo planes flew in close from the outside, letting go three torpedoes that struck the West Virginia in rapid succession, tearing a great hole in the exposed side. Almost simultaneously Japanese bombers flew overhead, barely clearing the masts and hit the West Virginia, once in the region already damaged by the aerial torpedoes and once a deadly blow into the magazine. Fortunately that bomb did not explode; otherwise, the ship would have been blown up as was the Arizona, immediately astern the West Virginia.
When the first fury of the attack was over, Mervyn, anxious to see better what had happened to his ship and the guns and gun crews before giving orders to meet the developments, stepped out of the door at the rear of the conning tower and started around the lateral walk to the flag bridge. He had scarcely taken two steps when he was hit by a splinter from a bomb, evidently dropped from a high level and exploding on a turret of the battleship Tennessee alongside the West Virginia. This splinter tore off the top of his stomach and apparently a fragment hit his spine and the left hip, for he lost the use of his legs, and the hip appeared to be damaged. He fell to the floor of the walk, got on his back, and with nerves of steel put back in place the entrails that had spilled out.
In a minute or so his plight was observed, and a pharmacist’s mate came to place a bandage over the abdomen and to try to ease the pain. It was clear to him and undoubtedly to Mervyn that the wound was beyond any hope of mending, though Mervyn said not a word to indicate he knew he was dying. As soon as the wound was given the simplest dressing, Mervyn sent the man below to work with the wounded and refused to be attended further while there was work to be done.
As men and officers came to him he briefly asked what was transpiring and gave orders and instructions to meet conditions as they arose. The well-trained crew knew their duties thoroughly. It was easy for him to exercise control. The ship was well handled to prevent capsizing and to keep damage from fire to a minimum. Admiral Furlong, one of the commanders at Pearl Harbor, gave the West Virginia’s guns credit for bringing down twenty or thirty Japanese planes. Only two lives were lost from the ship’s complement of officers and men-Mervyn and one seaman.
The wounded were attended to promptly and evacuated from the ship with dispatch. Mervyn was courageous and cheerful to the last moment of consciousness, and his spirit was reflected in the conduct of his crew. When the first attack was over he allowed himself to be placed on a cot and the cot to be moved under a protecting shelter on the deck. There he remained during the second Japanese attack which occurred an hour after the first one. He resisted all efforts to remove him from the bridge with a firmness and vigor that astonished officers who thought they knew him well, but did not realize how much force there lay behind his gentle ways.
He talked only of the ship and the men, how the fight was going, what guns were out of action, how to get them in operation again, casualties in the gun crews and how to replace them, who was wounded, what care the wounded were receiving and provisions for evacuating them from the ship, the fate of other ships, the number of enemy planes shot down, the danger of fire from burning oil drifting around the West Virginia from the exploded Arizona, satisfaction over the handling of the ship, satisfaction with effectiveness of the gun crews in shooting down attacking planes, and satisfaction with the conduct under fire of officers and men of his ship. His only expression of regrets were of horror for the treachery of the Japanese and of concern because of this paralyzing loss of warships.
Thus passed an hour and a half. About 9:30 A.M. fire broke out in the kitchen, lockers, and officers’ quarters beneath the flag bridge and began to envelop it in stifling black smoke and bursts of flame. This cut off from escape Mervyn, Lieutenant Commander Ricketts, a pharmacist’s mate, and Lieutenant Commander White, whom he had permitted to stay with him. Mervyn had grown weaker from continuous loss of blood. The officers tied him on a ladder and twice tried to lower him to the deck below to get him away from the fire.
The aft part of the ship was free of fire, but the smoke and flames swept over the forward deck to make it impossible for men to receive him. At this point the smoke and flame on the flag bridge became so terrible that all of the small group concluded their end had come, but just as they were being overpowered by suffocation, a small gust of wind came seemingly out of nowhere and gave them air and vision. Quickly they seized Mervyn and by superhuman effort carried hum up a ladder to the navigation bridge to a corner at the rear that seemed to be free from smoke. While being carried up the ladder he had lost consciousness, but as soon as they laid him out flat on the bridge floor, the blood returned to his head, and he told them to leave him and save themselves if that was possible. They made him as comfortable as they could and leaving the pharmacist’s mate at his side the two officers spent the next half hour trying unsuccessfully to put out the fire. Twenty minutes after they left Mervyn, the mate reported that Mervyn had slumped over and breathed, “I’m gone.”
2004 Meridian Magazine. All Rights Reserved.