Nearly eight decades later, the USS Utah still sits at the bottom of Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor. But a relic from the ill-fated ship resurfaced Thursday in the Beehive State, where it forever will remain a symbol of that “date which will live in infamy.”
The USS Utah’s bell is 2,000 pounds, but the history it carries — stretching back before World War I and lasting through the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941 — along with the heroic lives it honors far outweigh any number on a scale.
The 1-ton bell was retrieved from the ship during the 1940s and had been kept on the quarter deck of the U.S. Naval Station at Pearl Harbor until the 1960s, when then-Sen. Wallace F. Bennett, R-Utah, arranged for the Navy to ship it to the Beehive State on an indefinite loan for display at the University of Utah.
“My Dear Senator, the display of this fine relic should make a splendid memorial to the hardy naval [vessel] that bore the name of Utah for 30 years in our country’s service and to the gallant sons of the Beehive State who contributed so nobly to the heroic traditions of the naval service,” Rear Adm. E.M. Eller wrote to Bennett on March 14, 1961.
After the loan’s approval, it took four more years for the transfer to take place, with the bell arriving in Utah in 1965.
It remained moored outside the U.’s Naval Science Building until August 2016, when it was shipped to Newport, R.I., for display at the Naval War College’s Senior Enlisted Academy.
There, it went up in Tomich Hall to commemorate the 27th anniversary of that facility, named after Chief Watertender Peter Tomich, who died on the USS Utah after he refused to leave the capsizing vessel, remaining below deck in the boiler room to help numerous shipmates evacuate. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Another Pearl Harbor hero, whose picture is displayed in the U.’s Naval Science Building, is Capt. Mervyn Bennion, a Vernon, Utah, native, who commanded the USS West Virginia, which also went down in the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Bennion was mortally wounded by a shrapnel shard from a bomb. His men attempted to move him to a first-aid station, but he refused to leave his post. Using one arm to hold his wounds closed, Bennion bled to death while still commanding his crew.
He, too, was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
After its time in Rhode Island, the USS Utah’s century-old, weather-worn bell was transferred to Richmond, Va., for restoration.
It was always intended for return to Utah, but Navy personnel waited until Dec. 7, because of the date’s obvious significance to the bell itself and what it symbolized, said Capt. Mark Springer, a U.S. Navy commanding officer and professor of naval science at the U.
Springer, who served as emcee of Thursday’s ceremony at the U., noted the significant role Utah played in World War II, with the supply depot in Clearfield, providing 5 percent of the warehouse needs of the military during the global conflict.
Springer also noted the significance of the bell as part of military battleships.
“The bell is an important operational piece of warships,” Springer said. “It is used for signaling, particularly in inclement weather, and for maneuvering between two ships.”
The bell was accompanied to Utah by Karl Knauer, conservator at the National History and Heritage Command in Richmond, where it was restored. Knauer noted that 61 sailors on the USS Utah lost their lives in the Pearl Harbor raid.
The Navy has specified that, from now on, the bell will be housed inside the Naval Science Building, rather than outside, to prevent that erosion it previously suffered.
Rep. Stephen Handy, R-Layton, pointed out that the USS Utah had been an active warship since 1911 and was stationed off the coast of Ireland during World War I.
Later, the ship was part of the honor escort that accompanied President Woodrow Wilson on his voyage to France to sign the peace treaty ending that war.
Handy was selected to speak because of his legislative role in supporting veterans and for his legislation last year that created the Utah World War I Centennial Commission in recognition of the 100th anniversary of the sacrifices Utahns made during WWI.
He quoted from a proclamation signed last year by Gov. Gary Herbert that noted while Utah had been a state for only 21 years when the U.S. entered World War I, the Beehive State sent “21,000 of its sons and daughters” to fight. The proclamation also noted 864 Utahns were wounded in that war and 665 were killed.
So the bell is back in its rightful place in Utah, but it is so much more that just a bell.