WASHINGTON CITY — For those Washington City residents wondering why the bell kept ringing, it was the sound of freedom — 67 times.

Mayor Kress Staheli gives a speech at the city’s first annual Pearl Harbor and USS Utah Remembrance Day in Washington City, Utah, Dec. 7, 2023 | Photo by Haven Scott, St. George News

Military veterans and residents gathered at Veterans Park to brave the cool morning temperatures on Thursday. The mission of many in the crowd was one of remembrance.

Mayor Kress Staheli and councilman Kurt Ivie both gave speeches during the city’s first Pearl Harbor and USS Utah Remembrance Day, to be held annually on Dec. 7 — the day the United States was attacked in Hawaii during World War II.

The story of the USS Utah was told, a ship originally not fired upon by Japanese planes who were targeting aircraft carriers that day. For reasons unknown, six planes strayed from the attack formation while firing torpedoes on two ships near each other.

“As legacies of that tragic day, the hulls of two battleships — the USS Arizona and the USS Utah — remain in the waters of Pearl Harbor,” Staheli read from a proclamation. “Washington City will conduct a ceremony to begin at 8:01 a.m. on Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day to honor the lives lost on the USS Utah so that the ship and her sailors are forgotten no more.”

A local florist donated a bouquet featuring 58 white roses for those who died on the USS Utah, and one for baby Nancy who was buried with the ship, for an event in Washington City, Utah, Dec. 7, 2023 | Photo by Haven Scott, St. George News

Shortly after 8 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941, two explosives hit the dreadnought bearing Utah’s namesake, killing 52 servicemen and six officers. By 8:12 a.m. the military ship was listing onto its side.

Still inside the ship are the ashes of Nancy Wagner. Her father, Chief Yeoman Albert Wagner, survived the attack. He was awaiting the appointment of a chaplain to the ship after her death at just 2 days old.

Washington County Veterans Coalition Chairman David Cordero told the plight of the seamen, who woke up to an otherwise beautiful day with temperatures in the 70s.

“Flooding began almost immediately, the Utah began to list towards the portside,” he said. “Surrounded by the explosions and water quickly filling compartments of the battleship, the sailors began leaping from the deck and swimming to shore.”

Miraculously, 461 stationed on the ship survived the attack, with two known survivors remaining, Cordero noted. If it weren’t for the efforts of Chief Watertender Peter Tomich, the death toll could have been greater.

An onlooker gazes at a flag found on the USS Utah during World War II, found by a local veteran and donated to Washington City, Utah, Dec. 7, 2023 | Photo by Haven Scott, St. George News

“As his ship was capsizing and his shipmates were fighting for survival, Tomich went to work,” he said. “Disregarding his own safety, he remained at his post in the engineering plant until all the boilers were secured and all fireroom personnel had left their battle stations.”

In August, St. George News told the story of a flag donated to the city that had been found by a war memorabilia collector who stumbled on a small flag found on the USS Utah with a 1941 date stenciled on it.

Fort Douglas Military Museum Director Beau Burgess attended the event to authenticate the historical flag. He said stenciling flags was common in the era when soldiers wanted to preserve war memorabilia.

Although he believes the flag was originally just a keepsake, due to the age of the material, discoloration caused by aging, fading of the ink and the fact that it was stenciled, Burgess believes the flag is authentic.

“You also have to look at, would people have a reason to fake something?” he said. “Because if there is not much of a value on something, there would be no reason to fake it. There is no market for it.”

Washington City veteran John Olsen, Mayor Kress Staheli and Fort Douglas Military Museum Director Beau Burgess pose in front of a historical flag donated to hang in city hall in Washington City, Utah, Dec. 7, 2023 | Photo by Haven Scott, St. George News

Washington City resident Melanee Olsen gave a prayer for those who died 82 years ago. Her husband, veteran John Olsen, said those who join the military only fight for three reasons. The soldiers fighting them, the American dream and for peace, “hoping it’s the last war.”

“When a soldier falls, their dreams become a debt to the rest of us,” he said. “And we have to live our lives, not only for our dreams but for their dreams.”

Throughout the event, the bell in the city tower kept ringing, 58 times for the USS Utah crew, once for baby Nancy and an additional 8 for the airmen who recently died in Japan when their military aircraft went down unexpectedly. As previously reported, Eric Spendlove, an Air Force flight surgeon from St. George was among those inside the Osprey.

Staheli told those in attendance of the need for a statewide memorial day to recognize the USS Utah and crew, saying he was proud Washington City residents were leading the effort.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2023, all rights reserved.