ST. GEORGE — Eighty-two years ago, 7:48 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 its left side, snapping the mooring lines before turning turtle and resting upside down on the far side of Ford Island. The ship was a total loss. In all, 58 sailors were killed while 460 survived the sinking.

Clark Simmons, USS Utah mess attendant third-class, was one of the lucky survivors. So that America did not forget the treachery of that morning, Simmons conducted several interviews before his death on April 18, 2017.

The weekend of Dec. 7, 1941, the USS Utah was finishing up six weeks of conducting gunnery training as well as serving as a mobile target for planes to practice bombing raids, as it sailed into an unoccupied berth – Fox 11 – on the west side of Ford Island.

Simmons, unaware his life would change in a few days, busied himself Friday and Saturday with shopping in Honolulu, Hawaii. He returned to the Utah shortly before midnight, hitting his rack for a good night’s sleep by 11:30 p.m.

Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, dawn

The weather at Pearl Harbor was partly cloudy with good visibility. The temperature was 73 degrees Fahrenheit, with winds out of the northeast at 21 mph. Light precipitation had fallen throughout the morning but had ceased at 5:40 a.m.

Shortly before 8 a.m. as her crew raised her ensign (flag) several men noted planes over the mountains to the north. Japanese pilots, seeing the battleship lines of the Utah, focused their attention on her first as they pressed home their attacks.

During the initial moments of the attack, the Japanese made a run on the Utah.

Clark Simmons (left), USS Utah mess attendant third-class was one of the lucky survivors aboard the ship on Dec. 7, 1941, as the first Japanese torpedoes of the war hit home. Following a second torpedo hit the Utah rolled to her port side. It took less than 10 minutes before she capsized. Fifty-eight sailors died during the attack. Simmons went on to enjoy a long career in the Navy, date and location undefined | Photo courtesy U.S. Dept. of Defense, St. George News

The first torpedo had missed the Utah but had gone through the bulkhead of an adjacent ship, USS Raleigh, and ran up onto the beach. Simmons then saw yet more planes making another run on the Utah.

“As she dropped her, the torpedo, the wing dipped and then straightened up, and the torpedo headed for the Utah. And another one right behind it did the same thing,” Simmons said. “As it hit the ship, we felt the jar, but the torpedoes did not explode. They went right into the hull of the ship and let water in. And at that time, the bugler sounded, ‘Man your battle stations.’ My battle station was below deck. (I) went down and there was water coming through the ship. It was knee deep.”

When Simmons and others arrived at their battle stations, “we all were frightened,” he said.

“We didn’t know what was going on. But we knew the ship was taking water in, and there was no way to close the watertight doors … it was just a matter of time before the ship was going to sink. And actually, it took eight minutes … eight minutes, the ship was history.”

The next command was “abandon ship.”

“Well, at that time, the bugler was blowing abandon ship (because) there was no public address system,” Simmons said. “I took off going up to the officer’s country where I knew there were life jackets and there’s a way of getting off the ship.”

Simmons, along with Lt. Cmdr. Solomon S. Isquith (Utah’s commanding officer), joined by Lt. Windsor the communications officer, and the ship’s engineer officer escaped the dying ship through port holes in the captain’s cabin.

“I don’t know, just a sixth sense – we did not put the life jackets on – so we just threw them on the deck in the cabin, and at that time, the furniture was beginning to break loose,” Simmons said. “So, we went through the ports.”

Photo of USS Utah moments before rolling over on port side, Dec. 7, 1941, Ford Island | Photo courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command, St. George News

As the ship began to capsize, Simmons, in the water, began his swim for safety at Ford Island.

“It’s just as vivid in my mind today as it was that day,” he said. “I was hit either in the water or as I got on the beach. I don’t know whether it’s shrapnel or a gun wound. I was hit in the head, the shoulder and the leg. I think my worst moment was when I woke up in the hospital, and I listened to the radio, and they were saying what had really happened here.”

Lack of watertight integrity and the topside weight of thick lumber boards used to absorb impact from practice bombs caused the Utah to take a sharp list to Port and by 8:12 a.m. the weight of in-rushing water proved too great for her mooring lines to withstand. Rolling completely over on her beam ends, the Utah’s war ended at 8:13 a.m. on Dec. 7, 1941.

Salvage and rescue efforts began in earnest before the Japanese planes had cleared out of the area, and due to quick action by her crew, several men were cut out of her overturned hull and saved.

Simmons survived the day, receiving a Purple Heart for the wounds he sustained. He went on to serve for 29 years and retired from the Navy as a lieutenant commander. Simmons was interred aboard the Utah in 2017.

Although Simmons survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, his ship was not so lucky.

The USS Utah’s keel was laid on March 9, 1909, at Camden, New Jersey, by the New York Shipbuilding Co. When she was launched on Dec. 23, 1909, she displaced nearly 22,000 tons. After the final touches were made on the Utah, she was completed in 1911.

She served in World War I and throughout the 1920s. In 1931, the Utah was demilitarized and converted into a target ship. She was also equipped with anti-aircraft guns for gunnery training.

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 Britain.

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.

USS Utah being painted at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, Wash, 1941 | Photo courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command, St. George News, St. George News

The dreadnought began in 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 and 367 sailors along with the ship’s Marine Corps guard. Marines from other ships also joined the improvised fighting force known as 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 country 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 onboard 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 and 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, the Utah’s days were numbered.

USS Utah firing her fifth salvo of the day during a June 26, 1920, exercise with her main battery of 12-inch guns, location not specified | Photo courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command, St. George News

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 5-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, the Utah sailed into Pearl Harbor to carry out antiaircraft training and gunnery training through the late autumn. Completing these maneuvers, the ship 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 hangars 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 torpedoes crippled the ship, sinking it just off its berth at Fox 11.

Men below deck scrambled to leave the sinking 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 the Utah alive. He was awarded the Navy Cross.

Vaessen was not the only sailor who demonstrated exceptional valor that day.

Chief Waterender and Peter Tomich also remained below to make sure the boilers were secured and that all the men had gotten out of the sinking ship.

Peter Tomich, date and location not specified | Photo courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command, St. George News

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.

After being declared “in ordinary” (no longer required for active service) on Dec. 29, 1941, the Utah was partially righted to clear the channel for the berth Astern of her resting place, but aside from the removal of topside structure and usable gun turrets, she was left where she sunk and placed out of commission on Sept. 5, 1944.

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 USS Utah received one Battle Star for its World War II service.

The Naval History and Heritage Command, National Geographic and United States National Park Service contributed to this article.

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