USS UTAH BB-31 / AG-16
The Forgotten Ship of Pearl Harbor
Beneath the waters of Pearl Harbor, 54 sailors, who died when the USS Utah was sunk by Japanese fighter planes on Dec. 7, 1941, silently guard the remains of a shipmate: the ashes of a baby girl.
Chief Yeoman Albert Thomas Dewitt Wagner had been waiting for a chaplain to be assigned to the Utah, hoping for a proper burial ceremony at sea for his daughter when the Utah went out on maneuvers. An urn carrying her ashes was in his locker in the Utah's chief's quarters.
But the surprise attack changed everything. Wagner was among those who survived the bombs that day, but he was not able to rescue his baby's ashes.
"Frogmen did go down about two weeks after the attack and tried to enter the quarters," said Mary Dianne Wagner Kreigh, "but it was too badly smashed to get in."
In retrospect, "I don't think there is a better tribute to my twin sister than to have all those wonderful and brave men guarding her," Kreigh said during a telephone interview from her home in California.
"It would have been wonderful if she had lived, but since she did not, I feel nothing but pride and pleasure that she is in such magnificent company. I could have not asked for anything better than for her to be tenderly, carefully looked after by America's finest."
Nancy Lynne and Mary Dianne Wagner were born prematurely on Aug. 29, 1937 in a Catholic hospital in Mekati in the Philippines.
"My sister lived only two days," Kreigh said.
She said her mother told her that doctors there "pronounced me dead three times ... It was four months before they could take me home." Before he died, her father made several trips to Hawaii and Ford Island, where the rusting remains of the Utah can still be seen today.
Utah monument built in 1972
Back then, there was no pier or any monument to the sunken warship resting off the north shore of Ford Island.
"There was nothing but mud then, and no indication that there are men still aboard," said Kreigh of her father's last visit in 1971."He never saw the finished monument."
A concrete pier and a memorial slab were built and dedicated in 1972. A Navy detail now raises and lowers daily an American flag honoring the sailors still entombed in the Utah. Kreigh herself has been a frequent visitor to the islands, returning every Thanksgiving holiday since 1990 and taking time "to put a lei in the water and to say aloha to my twin sister." It has been a family tradition to bury relatives at sea, Kreigh said, explaining why her sister's ashes were aboard the Utah.
"My father was waiting for an appropriate time to scatter my sister's ashes. Another sister (Helen) already had been buried at sea."
In his journal, Wagner said he had been assigned to the Utah, a battleship which had been converted to an aircraft training vessel and used as a target-and-school ship for aircraft bombing practice.
Ship sunk in surprise attack
On Dec. 7, 1941, the 521-foot Utah was anchored at Ford Island, across from the Waipio peninsula, in the berth normally used by the aircraft carrier USS Lexington. Its decks were covered with two layers of heavy timber, about 12 inches thick, and its guns were covered with protective steel so U.S. planes could drop practice bombs on the ship without damaging it. From the air, the Utah could easily have been mistaken for a carrier.
Wagner had just finished breakfast when, "Suddenly, the air was rent by a terrific explosion. Rushing to a porthole I saw a huge column of black smoke bellowing high into the heavens."
As he rushed to his third-deck battle station in the aft portion of the ship, Wagner said the Utah was rocked by a direct hit of three torpedoes dropped by Japanese fighters.Wagner was not able to reach his battle station.
He said the ship was listing so badly that he headed for one of the heavy lines used to secure the ship in the channel. From there, he had hoped to climb down to one of the pilings on a cement shelf and swim the quarter-mile to Ford Island. But lacking the strength to pull himself onto the line, Wagner just jumped into the water. From Ford Island and the confines of a partially dug sewer trench, Wagner watched the remainder of the battle unfold.
"Shells and bombs bursting everywhere with puffs of smoke and flame filling the atmosphere, and with the Japanese planes flying high above our fire, obtaining their objectives and zooming right down into certain death -- several planes dashed themselves against the ships, knowing it was impossible to make their return," he wrote.
Sinking claims 58 lives
Within 14 minutes, the Utah had turned over, Wagner said. Rescuers, who could hear hammering from inside the hull, were able to borrow an acetylene torch from the heavy cruiser USS Raleigh to cut a hole in the hull and free a sailor. By listening for knocking sounds, rescuers eventually freed at least 10 sailors from the overturned hull. In all, 30 officers and 431 men survived the sinking of the Utah.
But six officers and 52 sailors perished, either trapped inside the ship or as they tried to swim ashore. Only four of their bodies were ever recovered and identified.
After 34 years of service in the Army and Navy, including two wars, Wagner hung up his khakis in 1951, and went to work in Olympia, Wash., for the state's civil defense agency.
To the end, his daughter says, Wagner was "an old battleship sailor." He told his family, "You joined the Navy to make sure the country is free," she said. "The flag, your uniform, come before anything else -- without them you don't have a family."
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