War is full of heartbreaking stories. And in my seemingly infinite amount of researching anything and everything, I stumbled across a story that brought tears to my eyes. It’s about the remains of a child that is entombed forever aboard the U.S.S. Utah.

The story of what they’re doing aboard the Utah is almost as heartbreaking as to their fate.

To understand the story, we need to step into the way back machine. No, we’re no going to that famous date of 7 Dec 1941. Or even further back by a few years to 29 Aug 1937 and a hospital in the Philippines.

U.S.S. UTAH BB-31

If the story starts anywhere, it starts it starts in 15 March of 1909. The U.S.S. Utah would be the second and last of the Florida class battleships and the first ship named for the State of Utah. Her keel was laid at the New York Shipbuilding Corporation and launched in a few days before Christmas of the same year. They completed her in August of 1911. Armed to the teeth with ten 12 inch guns, she was a vessel that commanded respect.

The U.S.S. Utah in better times.

Some of her first missions were very close to home. There was trouble in Mexico and one of her first jobs was to intercept a German ship named the Ypiranga that was running guns to the Mexican Dictator Victriano Huerta. The arrival of the German ship at Veracruz prompted the US to occupy the city. The Utah and her sister ship the Florida put marines ashore on 21 Apr 14. The battle lasted three days, and saw 94 marines casualties and hundreds of Mexicans killed.

She stayed at Veracruz for two months, and following a refit at the New York Navy yard, she spent the next several years training and doing workups with the Atlantic fleet.

In 1918 she sailed for Ireland and tasked with job of protecting convoys from surface raiders as they approached the last leg of their perilous run across the Atlantic.

Wars end saw her return to normal training duties. Using lessons learned in WW I, she was given anti-torpedo blisters, oil fired boilers, and her cage masts were replaced with pole masts.

The Utah during her 1941 refit

But despite the upgrades, the Utah was doomed to be almost forgotten. As per the London Naval Treaty she was soon regulated to a secondary support role. Her primary and secondary weapons were removed as was her torpedo blister. Much of her crew was removed and radio controlled equipment installed. The idea was she became a target for training purposes.

In 1935 she carried a contingent of Marines as part of a fleet exercise. The same year saw the installation on anti-aircraft guns and for the next several years she was little more than a training ship. She still continued in her job as a training ship and now served as a target for planes from land installations and for carrier based planes.

Her last refit came in 1941, just months before her death. She’d sail for Pearl harbor on the 14th of September where she’d continue training sailors.

-The Twins

There’s nothing unusual about twin girls. Twin girls are born everyday around the world, but these two, Nancy Lynne and Mary Dianne Wagner were born premature. In the 1930s and without the advances in medicine we have today, that made survival difficult. Nancy passed away two days after she was born. Her sister Mary would be declared dead three different times. Each time she came back.

But Nancy didn’t. Her small body was cremated and years alter, when her father, Chief Albert Wagner was transferred to the U.S.S. Utah, he took her remains with him. He kept the small container containing the ashes of his daughter in his locker. He was waiting for the arrival of a new Chaplin so her ashes could be scattered at sea.

It was a ceremony that fate had deemed would never happen.

-7 Dec 41

Now, let’s flash forward to 7 Dec 1941.

Much has been written about that day and I’m not going to attempt to try to cover those fateful hours. But I still need to add a little window dressing for you. The old Utah was moored just off Ford Island in berth F-11. This berth was normally used by the American aircraft carriers, none of which were there.

The ship had just completed another round of training for anti-aircraft gunners and had come in for the next batch of trainees. It was a little before 8 AM and Chief Wagner had just finished his breakfast. History doesn’t say exactly what he was doing. maybe he was dumping his tray. Maybe he was taking a final drink of coffee.

Chief Albert Wagner

But up on deck, some of his crewman were watching several aircraft approach. Not a one of them thought they were hostiles. That changed a moment later.

Whatever Chief Wagner was doing, it was interrupted by an explosion that rocked the ship. Wagner would write in his journal that he rushed to a porthole and looking out “saw a huge column of smoke bellowing high into the heavens.”

He still didn’t have a clue what was happening, but his training had taken over. His battle stations was on the third deck aft, and while he was rushing to it, a torpedo struck the ship.

The Japanese torpedo bombers came in looking for the carriers. They bore down on the Utah, but the flight leaders recognized her as an obsolete ship that was used as a training vessel. Their torpedo’s could be used more effectively elsewhere and so they broke off the attack.

But several bombers didn’t get the signal and six torpedo’s were dropped on the ship.

Several of them struck.

The blast shook the old battleship like a dog would shake a toy. Wagner says he was tossed off his feet, and as he regained them, the ship was already tilting. The ship was taking on water and threatening to capsize. If that happened, he’d drown.

The Utah within minutes of rolling over.

Deep in the ship, one man -Chief Watertender Peter Tomich – stayed below decks keeping power up and pumps going to buy a few more precious seconds for his shipmates to get off. He paid for those seconds with his life. He’d be awarded the Medal of Honor.

Along with the majority of the crew, Chief Wagner abandoned ship and swam for shore. At 8:12 AM, minutes after taking the torpedo hits, the Utah rolled onto her side into the mud. The senior Officer aboard, Commander Solomon Isquith, when informed that trapped crewman could me heard beating on the hull, got a rescue party together. using a cutting torch from the damaged cruiser Raleigh (It had taken one of the torpedo’s meant for Utah), they began cutting into the hull of the ship. Their efforts saved four more crewman.

Only later would Chief Wagner realize that in the panic and confusion of battle, he’d left his daughter’s remains behind.

Nancy’s surviving sister Mary would say years later that divers tried to collect them. But the area where the Chief’s quarters were was so badly damaged, they couldn’t enter it.

An attempt was made to salvage the ship but failed. Since the Utah had no real military value, she was stricken from the naval registry on 13 November 1944.

The U.S.S. Utah today

And for years, the remains of the Utah lay all but forgotten. After all, the loss of life on her was less than her more famous sister, the Arizona. For the longest time she lay neglected in the harbor, her remains thrust down in the harbor mud and her superstructure gently breaking the surface while 58 (some sources say 54) men and 1 child slept inside her.

In 1972 a memorial was finally erected for the men still entombed inside. Unlike the grand monument that straddles the grave of the Arizona, this is little more than a viewing area. A plaque has the names of the men entombed inside. Nancy isn’t mentioned on it.

Mary said that every time her father would visit pearl Harbor, he’d go to the wreck and pay his silent respects to his daughter, crewmates, and ship.

Years later she’d continue the tradition and on Thanksgiving Day, her and her family would go out and lay a wreath in the water next to the rusting ship for a sister she never knew and the men who watch over her while she sleeps.

References:

USS Utah History – Baby Nancy (ussutah1941.org)

uss-utah.pdf (npshistory.com)