ST. GEORGE — Seventy-eight years ago at 8:01 a.m., Dec. 7, 1941, “a date that will live in infamy,” the USS Utah was broadsided as its first torpedo hit during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Moments later, a second torpedo slammed into the battleship causing serious flooding.
Within 10 minutes the gallant ship rolled onto her left side, snapping her mooring lines before turning turtle and resting upside down on the far side of Ford Island. She was a total loss. In all, 52 sailors were killed while 461 survived the sinking.
“I still have flashbacks,” said Clark Simmons in a 2009 interview with Deseret News. “Some nights it is worse than others; it just depends on how I feel.”
For Bob Ruffato, the attack was a blur, playing out in slow motion.
“I’d never seen a dead person before,” Ruffato told Deseret News. “It was gruesome. And seeing your shipmates die, it was bad, very bad.”
The USS Utah’s keel was laid on March 9, 1909, at Camden, N.J. by the New York Shipbuilding Co. When she was launched on Dec. 23, 1909, she displaced nearly 22,000 tons.
The ship was built during a time of rapid naval expansion under the Teddy Roosevelt administration.
“The Roosevelt administration was intensely concerned about great powers going to war,” Branden Little, associated professor of history at Weber State University told St. George News. “They anticipated we would encounter a global war with a European power or even perhaps Japan. As a result of the anxiety, Roosevelt made a major effort to awaken Congress to an urgent need to appropriate considerable funds for ship construction.”
While some in congress felt that building a modern Navy was provocative, Roosevelt’s argument of speaking softly, but carrying a big stick, prevailed.
“Teddy believed it was better to be prepared for war as a deterrent to aggression,” Little said.
Within a decade the U.S. was second in size and power to Great Brittan.
After her shakedown cruise that took her down the east coast, eventually docking at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, the USS Utah was assigned to the Atlantic Fleet in March 1912. She operated with the fleet in early spring, firing her 12-inch guns and conducting torpedo exercises.
During the next two years, the USS Utah maintained a grueling schedule of operations off the eastern seaboard. During that time she made an Atlantic crossing, visiting Villefranche, France in 1913.
The dreadnought began 1914 at the New York Navy Yard in Brooklyn.
However, because of growing tensions with Mexico, and intelligence reports that the German steamship Ypiranga was en route to Veracruz carrying a shipment of weapons, President Woodrow Wilson ordered the Navy to take the necessary steps to seize the customs house at Veracruz and stop the delivery.
Utah was dispatched with a naval battalion of 17 officers, 367 sailors along with the ship’s Marine Corps guard. Marines from other ships also joined the improvised fighting force known at the First Marine Brigade.
America wanted to show its determination.
Newspaper reports at the time noted that a battle was inevitable.
When the smoke cleared, Utah’s bluejacket battalion had distinguished themselves in battle. Seven Medals of Honor were awarded to the crew of the ship including its battalion commander and several company commanders.
“During this time, the government of Mexico had undergone a series of revolutionary leadership change,” Little said. “The internal cohesion of Mexico was in disarray. In the port cities such as Veracruz, the main challenge the U.S. government was experiencing was a direct threat to American lives and property from revolutionary violence.”
Under the Wilson administration, America was poised to invade Mexico, ordering National Guard units from across the county including a contingent from Utah to the border.
Although a widespread invasion never occurred, on April 9, 1914, Mexican officials in the port of Tampico, Tamaulipas, arrested a group of U.S. sailors, including at least one taken from on board his ship which was considered U.S. territory.
After Mexico refused to apologize in the terms that the U.S. had demanded, the U.S. navy bombarded the port of Veracruz and occupied the city for seven months.
The USS Utah remained at Veracruz for almost two months before returning to New York in late June 1914 for a major overhaul.
Three years went by, with Utah conducting battle exercises from the eastern seaboard to the Caribbean. At the onset of World War I, the ship had been operating off of Chesapeake Bay as an engineering and gunnery training ship before setting sail for the coast of Ireland to serve as an escort ship for convoys approaching the British Isles.
After the armistice was signed and the cessation of war on Nov. 11, 1918, the USS Utah returned to conducting regular battle practices, maneuvers, and for a time, serving as the flagship for the United States Naval Forces in European waters.
Although the ship underwent a 1925 modernization retrofit that included the ability to burn oil instead of coal as fuel, and improvements to her armament, Utah’s days were numbered.
Under the terms of the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty, Utah was selected for conversion to a floating target for other ships as well as carrier-based airplanes and in 1939 a target for submarines. For obvious safety reasons, the ship was fitted with a radio-controlled apparatus to sail these maneuvers.
Along with its many lives, the USS Utah became a floating school for gunnery students who trained on the ship’s five-inch batteries, firing at radio-controlled drones as well as firing with .50-caliber machine guns and 1.1-inch pounders, a projectile about the size of a fist.
On Sept. 14, 1941, she sailed into Pearl Harbor to carry out antiaircraft training and gunnery training through the late autumn. Completing these maneuvers, she returned to Pearl Harbor in early December 1941 and soon into history.
Shortly before 8 a.m., Dec. 7, 1941, sailors attending to their duties topside noticed three planes heading in a northerly direction from the harbor’s entrance. Mistaken for American fighters, they began a low dive at the southern end of Ford Island where seaplane hangers were located.
Then all hell broke loose.
The attack at Pearl Harbor lasted nearly two hours, but for Utah, it was over in less than 12 minutes.
Sailors had started raising the colors on the ship’s fantail, but never finished their task. The first of two torpedos crippled the ship, sinking it just off its berth at F-11.
Men below deck scrambled to leave the dying ship. Many were trapped alive as the ship sank.
Fireman 2nd Class, John B. Vaessen remained at his post in the dynamo room to make sure the ship’s lights stayed on as long as possible.
Vaessen was saved when a shipfitter from another vessel heard him hammering on the hull of the ship. Bill Hill used a torch to cut open Utah’s bottom and free Vaessen. He was the last man to leave Utah alive. He was awarded the Navy Cross.
Vaessen was not the only sailor who demonstrated exceptional valor that day.
Chief Waterender Peter Tomich also remained below to make sure the boilers were secured and that all the men had gotten out of the sinking ship.
Tomich knew that when a lit boiler came into contact with seawater an explosion was inevitable.
As the last of the crew escaped, Tomich reportedly became trapped in the boiler room. For his selfless actions, Tomich was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Although Nancy Lynne Wagner may not have anything to do with the USS Utah, her remains have been entombed within the vessel since it sank.
Prior to the attack on the USS Utah, her father, Chief Yeoman Albert Wagner, suffered the loss of his baby girl during birth. To honor his daughter, Wagner had intended to scatter her ashes while the ship was at sea. He never got that opportunity.
To this day, her ern rests in her father’s locker aboard the ship.
Although salvage efforts began in 1943, the ship was later deemed a lost cause because of its lack of seaworthiness.
In 1970, Congress authorized the construction of a memorial over Utah’s rusting hull. Today, visitors to the northwest shore of Ford Island can view what has become “the forgotten ship”. The USS Arizona on the other side of the island has become the premier destination for visitors.
The Naval History and Heritage Command contributed to this article.
Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.