Pearl Harbor – The Mervyn Bennion Story

Mervyn was born 05 May 1887, in Vernon, Tooele County, Utah, a small farming and stock raising community on the edge of the desert. He was the second child and […]
December 7, 2015

Mervyn was born 05 May 1887, in Vernon, Tooele County, Utah, a small farming and stock raising community on the edge of the desert. He was the second child and oldest son of a family of nine children of Israel and Jeannette Sharp Bennion, His father, born 1860 in Taylorsville, Utah, is the son of John and Esther Birch Bennion. This grandfather was born in Moors Lane township, Hawarden parish, Flintshire, Wales; six miles from Chester, England. The records show that for many hundred of years his forebears had lived in this same spot of North Wales. The Bennions were primarily Welsh, but mixed with English blood for generations back, Esther Birch Bennion was born in Selsted Township, Wooten Parish, Kent; about six miles south of Canterbury. Her forebears, a mixture of Anglo Saxons, Normans and Flemish, lived in that general vicinity for at least several hundred years. The grandfather, John Bennion, heard John Taylor and Joseph Fielding preaching the restored Gospel of Jesus Christ in Liverpool in 1840 and in May 1841 joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and on 23 February 1842, with his first wife, Esther Wainwright, sailed for America and settled in Nauvoo.
An incident occurring when he was nine showed his eager but disciplined spirit. One spring morning his father was getting the team and tools ready to drive to his new dry farm at the foot hills eight miles away. Mervyn wanted very much to go along but the cows had to be driven to the pasture a mile away. Without a word of complaint he completed this chore and then on foot he tracked his father’s wagon over the lonely and to him unknown way through the sagebrush to the farm site at the foot of the mountains. The following year Mervyn’s teacher described him as follows: “Mervyn was a stalwart young fellow at ten years. Larger than his associates at the same age. Erect in posture and particular about his appearance. Straight dark hair. Expressive eyes. Long nose. Even, square white teeth. Suntan complexion. A modest sensitive boy. Reserved. Deliberate in his thinking as well as in his speech.”
When Mervyn was a young boy his father had a store in Vernon; but, observing that his small boys were idling about the town with no serious work and responsibilities other than little chores, and that the prospects were not good for any improvement in that situation so long as he was tied down to the store, he resolved to make a radical change and dispose of his business, His own pioneer upbringing had imposed heavy duties and responsibilities upon him as a very small child and he desired to give his own sons the same chance, He realized that this could only be accomplished if the parents went through the struggle with the children. Therefore, at great sacrifice for the father and more especially for the mother, they took up a tract of sagebrush land at the foot of the West Tintic Mountains, seven miles from the edge of town, far removed from neighbors. Then followed several years of hard, hard work, ditching out of the canyons and around the side hills through rocks and oakbrush to get a small part-time water supply; plowing, grubbing and burning sagebrush; fencing, handling horses and cattle; getting to school in the winter time most of the years but studying at home some winters. As the oldest son of the family, many responsibilities were loaded on Mervyn’s shoulders. The first year, when he was nine, he was driving a partly broken, three horse team, dragging a heavy harrow with a contrivance to enable him to dump the harrow and free it of the sagebrush it gathered. These hard years developed the qualities of endurance and sustained application in the face of heavy tasks, of resourcefulness and of assuming responsibilities. Many others have faced hard work, but few in his generation labored so hard with such little equipment to wrest a home from dry, unyielding ground.
Mervyn’s anxious desire to help and to share responsibilities were remarked by his Uncle Archie Bennion, who borrowed Mervyn the spring he was fourteen years old to help drive 3500 lambs from the spring range to the summer range, high up in the Wasatch Mountains. The young green grass was just starting enough to intensify but not to satisfy the appetite of the lambs. Mervyn had not had previous experience with sheep. The country was all new to him. He had to learn how to cook, to move camp, to go after supplies and to tend the sheep. But what he lacked in experience he made up in devotion to the task, indefatigable effort and native good sense. Illustrating Mervyn’s character and disposition to share responsibility, his uncle related this incident: “We were camped for the night three miles south of Riverton (in the south end of Salt Lake Valley). The lambs were thirsty, having had no water for two days. We thought best to night herd, because below was the Big Canal and above a rough terrain covered with oakbrush. I chose the first watch, Mervyn the second. All was calm and peaceful for an hour, when a lamb began to kick his bell strap vigorously, probably to dislodge a sheep tick. Instantly out sprang Mervyn from the camp without breeches, hat or shoes. His subconscious mind, alert to danger, and a driving force that was dominant in his nature, snatched him from a sound sleep. He simply landed straight up, ready to sprint.”
These episodes, not important of themselves, serve to disclose Mervyn’s character and to mirror his youthful spirit.
Mervyn’s parents, by their own constant lives but also by thoughtful and industrious teaching from infancy, planted and nurtured in him the splendid qualities and the foundation of knowledge and understanding that distinguished his later years. This was no occasional nor spasmodic nor lick-and-a-promise effort on their part, but an unremitting labor of love. It was their dominant purpose. They faithfully and intelligently strove to discharge to the fullest the obligation laid upon parents in the care and training of their children as set forth in the Scriptures and amplified by the church leaders. As is always the case when labors are intelligently and faithfully pursued in the right direction, they bear good fruit, Mervyn was taught faith, reverence, respect and regard for others, confidence in himself, a strong sense of right and wrong, fear of wrong doing and of giving unnecessary offense, a desire to do his full share of the work to be done, to be helpful and willing, a healthy ambition to reach the full stature of his capabilities and to discharge the full measure of his purpose in life. Before he went to school, home teaching had made him a competent reader and writer, had made him adept in arithmetic, had taught him to sing and recite and had developed habits of thought and study that fitted him to become an outstanding scholar. He attended sacrament meetings from the time he was born and in his tender years knew the stories of the Bible and their lessons. His understanding was opened by the teachings of his parents and no amount of misinformation given him in later years of instruction could upset or dislodge this sound foundation laid in childhood. This point is emphasized as a key to his later course and because it affords a lesson to young parents as to the reward for faithful and intelligent training of small children,
Mervyn attended school in the one-room log school house in Vernon. There were usually thirty or more pupils in all grades from the first to the eighth. Their ages ranged from six to twenty five years. The one teacher was usually just out of school, a novice at teaching, and in his or her late teens. There was little time for instruction, especially for the bright pupils; but most of the teachers were happy and cheerful, of good character and wholesome habits and personality. They took part in lively games during recess periods and staged some school programs and plays. All this was stimulating and brought healthy, social and mental growth. School for Mervyn usually started about November 1 and ended about the middle of March, with a week out at Christmas and usually one or two weeks out because of mumps or chicken pox or the like. Mervyn was graduated from grammar school about the time he was thirteen. Evidently elaborate school facilities are not essential to mental growth and development because Vernon afforded little of these; yet this elementary education left him well prepared for later schooling.
During the winter following his graduation, for a few months in the worst weather, Mervyn taught a school at home for his younger brothers. The next spring he trailed sheep from the winter range to the high mountains. That summer he worked for a neighboring farmer and in the fall, at fourteen, he went to Salt Lake City to attend the Latter-day Saints High School for two years. Lack of funds forced him to stay out of school the following year and again during the winter months he taught school at home for his younger brothers. (In this way I learned enough algebra to give me a big advantage in later classes in mathematics.) The next summer he worked for his Uncle Archie on a Nevada ranch and then went back to high school in Salt Lake City. He was graduated two years later in May, 1906. Having established an outstanding record for scholarship for which he received a Heber J. Grant scholarship prize, his instructors remarked that he excelled in all subjects, not simply in one or two. This was also said of his later history by several of his commanding officers. He excelled in every different kind of work given him whether administration or gunnery, navigation or steam engineering, design, writing, teaching or negotiation, in grasping the finest detail of a complicated mechanism or the broadest sweep of naval strategy. He was equally at home in theory or in practice.
Before leaving his high school years, I must write a word about his associations during these first years away from home. At first he and his Vernon cousin, William Sharp, boarded in a fine home in Salt Lake. Then sometime later when he became ill, he stayed for a time in the home of his Uncle Samuel R. and Aunt Mary Bennion in Taylorsville. This association proved so attractive that he took advantage of their generous hospitality for several months, His third and fourth years he lived in Salt Lake with his Uncle Harden and Aunt Vilate Bennion. This became a second home to him ever after. These pleasant and healthful associations, together with his school friendships helped importantly to round out his social character and greatly enriched his life.
Near the close of his high school studies he took a competitive examination and later passed the entrance examination for Annapolis. When a young boy, although living in an isolated spot, he read considerably and gave thought to things far and wide. He heard of West Point and, after reading all he could find about it, early decided he wanted to go there. The first chance that came to him was to go to Annapolis, and he took it. Mervyn reached Annapolis in June, 1906, and was put through the meticulous and trying experience of getting outfitted, drilled and marshaled about. Soon he sailed on a few weeks cruise down Chesapeake Bay on the tall-masted schooner U.S.S. Severn, where he was drilled in nautical terms and practices, particularly in climbing masts, furling and reefing sails, in rope lore, in swabbing decks and standing watch.
Mervyn at the Academy was quickly recognized as an outstanding student. He stood at the head of his class for the first years, dropping back later to third place only when he became so well known as a capable consultant on difficult lessons and as one who would complain at no amount of imposition that he often found no time to read even once his own lessons. He was not a book worm. He took a quiet but important part in athletics, winning the Navy “N” as the two mile runner on the track team, and he took part in various other student activities.
Mervyn was a sought-out companion. He was a rare mimic. A classmate said of him, “His sense of humor was keen and discriminating. He had a faculty of bringing out the humorous aspects of a situation that would have done credit to ‘Punch’.
Mervyn had literary gifts. He wrote for the school publications at the L.D.S. and at the Naval Academy. He could fashion very creditable poetry of a witty, lampooning variety, if occasion provoked it. All these qualities made him a great favorite among his associates.
Upon graduation he was awarded the sword offered each year by the Daughters of the American Revolution for excellence in Seamanship and International Law.
Mervyn’s first assignment upon graduating from Annapolis in June 1910 was on the battleship U.S.S. California, then flagship of the Pacific Fleet, in those days a relatively small flotilla. The fleet was then preparing to leave for a cruise to Chile to be present at an exposition and celebration there. Mervyn was appointed aid to the fleet’s navigator. Upon his return in a couple of months, his letters told of the duties of a very junior officer in drills, at target practice, standing watch, etc.
A year later his ship left for a cruise to the Far East. By chance, his first letter home from Honolulu was written at Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning 07 December 1911, just 30 years to the day from the fateful hour when he was to meet his death in the surprise Japanese attack on the Pacific Fleet. On that earlier occasion he wrote, “Last week we took a cruise around the island of Oahu. General Murray and several other army officers were aboard and spent the time studying the coast line with a view to finding out the best way of fortifying it . . . There was a pilot aboard and he pointed out to me the Laie settlement up on the north coast of the island. It was a beautiful sight. I am sending a check for tithing. It’s time to close my accounts for the year. I shall probably have no chance to write again in time to reach you before Christmas, so I want to send my good wishes and also a small remembrance. M.S.B”
Then followed a cruise to the Philippines, to China and Japan and; after an absence of nearly a year, the return to San Diego in August 1912, Next came a three year stretch of duty on the west coast of Central America; first, on account of a revolution in Nicaragua and, second, because of a state of revolution in Mexico. Almost two years of this service was on the small gunboat, the U.S.S. St. Louis, traveling up and down the coast of Mexico, visiting the ports of Guaymas, Topolobampo, Mazatlan, San Bias and Acapulco. There were American interests to protect, refugees to aid and evacuate, information to obtain, messages to deliver to Mexican officials.
Much of the time the gunboat lay some distance off shore. Mervyn wrote, “We roast by day and broil by night.”
He said he was sure to develop a permanent stoop from having to use the low passageways of the boat so much. Two excerpts from his letters are here quoted as showing the nonintervention views this experience with the warring factions in Mexico engendered in his mind. The first was written after a few months’ experience with Mexican officials and with American refugees. The second letter was prompted by the outbreak of the European war in August 1914 and by the hostilities that followed at once between the German cruiser Leipzig and gunboat Nurnberg on the one hand and the British warship, the Algerine, vessels that had been associated with his own gunboat for several months along the Mexican Coast.
“Guaymas, Mexico, May 27, 1913. I wish these Americans would go back where they belong. Then these bloody-minded people could fight to their hearts’ content, I am more and more a believer in nonintervention. It is a busybody that fusses with other people’s affairs. Nine times out of ten he gets beaten up for his pains. I’d like to let the Mexicans work out their own salvation. I’d say to them by way of advice, Thus did your Uncle Samuel. If you would become a great nation, profit by his example.’ If they were too blind or stubborn to see the point, I’d wash my hands of the whole business,”
“Acapulco, Mexico, August 16, 1914. Least of all do I like to see Japan stepping in (to world war I). The Japanese have no business whatever in European politics. Of course their sole purpose is to put England under obligation to help them in the next war. The parting advice of our first president, ‘Beware of entangling alliances,’ still holds true. A well-defined policy of minding one’s own business, coupled with a firm attitude toward meddlers from without, should carry our nation through to safety,”
After this Mexican service came a year of post graduate school at Annapolis and in eastern gun factories and steel plants, specializing in naval ordnance. With the outbreak of war in 1917 he was assigned as a lieutenant in charge of one of the gun turrets of the battleship North Dakota. The lieutenant who followed after him on this assignment had this to say of Mervyn’s work: “Bennion, with his usual efficiency and quietness, set to work to get his turret crew drilled and in shape. When he was made first lieutenant and gave up his turret, he had a beautifully drilled crew that functioned as well under his successor as it did under Bennion. It was not a one-man turret but was a well drilled team,”
Several of Mervyn’s commanders commented on his extraordinary success in getting his crew willingly to put in hours and hours of their spare time in perfecting their teamwork.
At this juncture Mervyn was detached from the North Dakota for duty in Washington, to prepare an ordnance instruction pamphlet on the use and care of new gun sighting devices of different kinds. The following notes which I made from correspondence attached to Mervyn’s official record show how superior officers fought to hold on to or get him back for his services:
December, 1917 . . Chief of Bureau of Ordnance urgently asked for his services for two weeks. Loaned from North Dakota. January, 1918, Captain of North Dakota wrote asking for him back, saying, “His services can ill be spared.” Chief of Bureau of Ordnance wrote couldn’t possibly let him go inside several months as he is writing instruction pamphlets. Lt. Bennion making great headway. Work must stop if he is taken away. Sent on various missions showing trust and calling for technical knowledge.
This job done, the following spring he was sent to New York to help in fitting out the New Mexico and to serve aboard her when she was commissioned. When the armistice was signed the Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance again asked to have Commander Bennion for duty in the gun section, using him particularly for settling war contracts, to visit gun factories and to serve on various boards. Thus ended his services as a junior officer. He had become known as an able officer with high technical attainments and an extraordinary fidelity to duty, qualities that caused his services to be in great demand. Also, he had attained rank that entitled him there after to more responsible assignments.
It was while in Washington, during this stage in his career, that Mervyn met and later married Louise Clark, eldest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. J. Reuben Clark, Jr. Their wedding took place February 5, 1920, in the home of the parents in New York, where they were living for a time. A few months later, when Mervyn could get leave from his duties in the Navy Department, he and his bride went through the Salt Lake Temple. Their first home was in Washington for a number of months. Thereafter, as is the lot of Navy families, they lived in many places – in Norfolk, in New York, on several different occasions in Long Beach, California, in Dahlgren, Virginia, in Washington again, in Honolulu, in Newport, and finally in Washington again. Nevertheless, home is what a family makes it, and wherever they were Mervyn and Louise made an attractive, congenial and happy home. Their one child, Mervyn, Junior, was born in April, 1925. He got his early schooling and church training in a variety of localities, but he had made a splendid start in every respect and at this writing, July, 1943, is getting medical training after induction into the Navy at the age of eighteen.
The last twenty-one years of Mervyn’s naval service began with the job of helping to fit out the Battleship Maryland at Newport News; and when the ship was commissioned, he became the Assistant Fire Control Officer. In 1923, he became the Gunnery Officer of the U.S.S. Florida. In the summer of that year, this ship with others took the Annapolis midshipman to cruise in European waters; and, while on this cruise at social functions in Copenhagen, Mervyn met members of the Danish royal family; and at a garden party at Holyroad Castle in Edinburgh, he met King George V and Queen Mary, the present King George VI and his bride, together with other members of the British royal family.
The years 1924 to 1926, Mervyn spent at the naval gun proving grounds at Dahigren, Va. Next he spent two years as Gunnery Officer of the battleship Tennessee; and then, after pointing out how much of that particular class of duty he had had, requested another class of service. His commander, Captain G. L.P. Stone, in forwarding the request reported: “Lt. Commander Bennion’s service as Gunnery Officer of the Tennessee has been excellent in all respects. He is, in the opinion of the commanding officer, deserving of every consideration.”
The request was promptly granted and Mervyn was ordered to the Maryland as Navigator, a post in which he served for one year. In this duty he received the official commendation of Secretary of the Navy Adams as one of those who had contributed most to the battle efficiency of the Maryland, that year’s winner of the Navy’s battle efficiency award.
From July 1929 to July 1932, Mervyn served again in the Bureau of Ordnance in Washington. Of this particular assignment his classmate Captain, then Commander, W.E. Brown, wrote: “Mervyn had the busiest and orneriest desk in the Bureau. In charge of turrets, all design, etc. and all machinery. It was always snowed under with letters; every other section was hounding it to get work through the design section and it never caught up. But under Bennion it came nearer getting caught up than I have ever seen it before or since. Whenever I went into his office he would always say that he didn’t see how anything could possibly be done. But it was always done, and done so quietly and completely that it almost passed unnoticed. He had a remarkable memory, and the faculty of going instinctively to the heart of a problem and bringing up the answer. Added to that was a never hurrying but constant application that just ate up details. The engineers who worked in his section were unanimous in their praise of him. He would seldom give them a direct order; but in talking things over with them, after listening to their opinions, he would lay the whole problem so bare that they would see that there was but one logical solution and adopt it as their own. His seniors, from the Chief of the Bureau down, were just as enthusiastic over his work. In fact, I have never met anyone, junior or senior, who served with Bennion that wasn’t loud in his praises of him,”
The next tour of sea duty, 1932-1934, found Mervyn commanding the destroyer U.S.S. Bernadou for a few months, then the destroyer Biddle for a few more months, and then appointed commander of Destroyer Division One of the Fleet with the Destroyer U.S.S. Hatfield as his flagship. While in this post his division visited the town of Anacortes, Washington, and the men and officers so impressed the people with their conduct that the mayor wrote the Secretary of the Navy, Mr. Swanson, saying, “We wish to highly commend the officers and rank and file, but more especially that fine gentleman, Com. M.S. Bennion, who is a credit to any Navy.”
This exercise of command which Mervyn enjoyed and clearly excelled in was cut short because of his reputation as an able staff officer. Before two months had passed in command of the division, a new commander of the U.S. Fleet, Admiral David Sellers, took over and wired Mervyn, asking him to be the Fleet Training Officer. It was this same fleet commander who wrote of him, “His career in the Naval Service was characterized by uniform excellence in carrying out any task to which he was assigned. It was not alone through the high standard set by him in the performance of his naval duties that he commanded the respect of and endeared himself to his brother officers. His quiet manner and many fine traits of character engendered a high regard and affection amongst all those with whom he was thrown in contact.”
One year as a student, followed by another as an instructor at the Naval War College at Newport, R.I., filled up the time from 1934 to 1936, after which Mervyn became Executive Officer of the battleship Arizona for one year. In this duty his commanding officer commented on Mervyn’s disregard for hours of work in looking after the interests of the ship and its men. He marveled at his success in getting junior officers and men also to give up their spare time to finish work that ought to be done; but with others, would have been allowed to slide. Undoubtedly the secrets of this leadership were his own unsparing efforts to attain excellence and a long history of kind attention to the needs and best interests of his men. He had given them a lift or a steer on so many previous occasions that they were glad to repay him in extra effort. In his later years his reputation had so spread ahead of him that everywhere he encountered a predisposition on the part of his men to work right along with him in the most loyal spirit.
From the Arizona, Mervyn went to command the U.S.S. Nitro, an ammunition supply ship plying between the supply ports of the East Coast and the naval bases of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans and the Caribbean Sea. In this post, which he held less than a year, he was commended by the Secretary of the Navy in recognition of the engineering efficiency of his vessel during the year. This authorized him to paint the coveted red Letter E on the ship’s smokestack.
After less than two years at sea Mervyn was called again to Washington for duty in the Bureau of Ordnance, this time in a position of great responsibility, in charge of the financial section of the Bureau during a period of prodigious expansion of the Navy. The assignment required the budgeting and control of vast sums of money and conferring regularly with Congress with respect to needs for appropriations. The following notes extracted from his Navy record serve to show how well he handled this task: “Dec. 1938 (report of Admiral Furlong, Chief of Bureau of Ordnance) Capt. Bennion . . . His high professional ability and special qualification in ordnance has contributed to his eminently satisfactory performance of duty in this important detail, He had rapidly mastered the intricacies of the ordnance budget. He is intelligent and cooperative to a high degree. Recommended for promotion.
Mervyn left the Bureau of Ordnance July 2, 1941 for his last naval assignment and after spending a month on vacation in Utah joined the Pacific fleet in Hawaii on August 12 and assumed command of the battleship West Virginia, which was then the flagship of Rear Admiral W.S. Anderson, commander of the battle fleet. The admiral had a reputation for being a stickler for efficiency and results. Efficient and hard working himself, he was known to expect the same from those under his command. He made only one ‘fitness’ report on Mervyn. It was for the brief period August 12 to September 30, 1941, and was significant and characteristic: “Captain Bennion in the short time in command of the flagship has created an entirely and unusually favorable impression. He has taken hold promptly and definitely, with excellent results already apparent. Character excellent, particularly desire to have him. Promotion recommended.”
The reason for this immediate and extraordinary improvement in morale and efficiency of the ship’s crew was made very plain by the men and officers themselves. Many of them had served under Mervyn before and others had heard of him through shipmates that had served under his command on previous occasions. His reputation as a capable and kindly commander was so great that there was rejoicing when news reached the ship before he arrived that he was to be the new captain. When he took command they were ready to give him their best. His method was to get about the ship often, to see everything, to know every man aboard, to be free with kindly words and commendation, to offer suggestions and, in cases of neglect or failure to make some part or corner clean, to call for a rag or mop and join in cleaning up the spot. This rarely ever had to be repeated. He got extraordinary work out of his men in striving to improve their team work. He was most gentle and kind in all his dealings and as sparing of rules as circumstances would permit, but certain in his punishment of infractions and ready with severe punishment for the gross offender. The well meaning, hard working man on his ship could feel entirely at ease in his goings and comings. The loafer and the undisciplined could not impose upon him. He was kindly, but not good naturedly careless, and thus respected by all and loved by most. He was a model of discipline and efficiency.
In his steadfast devotion to the cause of righteousness and the interests of the restored Church of Jesus Christ was Mervyn most distinguished. There have been many capable naval commanders and many brave men who have fought and died valiantly. But rarely indeed is found one such who at the same time devotedly labored as a minister of the restored gospel.
Mervyn was active in the church from infancy. As a baby he never missed sacrament meeting because his mother carried him there. In a few short years, as a small boy, he was taking his regular turn on the roster of speakers in services, he was teaching a class in Sunday School, singing in the choir, serving as a regular ward teacher and taking part in various other activities. This was a large share of his childhood and boyhood activity. When he left this circle of friends, he never forgot the teaching or standards or requirements~ His tithes were settled when he was in the remotest quarter of the globe. He spared no trouble in seeking out the gatherings of the Saints whenever they could be reached. He would merely slip quietly into the gathering, sing the hymns he loved, humbly take any part should he be called upon, and unostentatiously slip away at the close.
His outstanding characteristic was his genuine humility. It was nothing put on or assumed. He was quite unaware of it himself. He acted precisely as he felt just one of the Saints with no special claim to attention or preference,
His next great quality was his deep conviction and steadfastness. He never varied in his ardor, just moved steadily along the straight path. For years after he left his home and the circle where his church usefulness was known, he had little opportunity to accept important assignments. Nevertheless, wherever he went, he sought out the nearest branch or ward of the Church. It was his custom to introduce himself — and his wife and son when they could be with him — to the presiding officers. He deeply appreciated and enjoyed taking his place quietly in the congregation, whether there were many members or few. When he was asked to address the group, teach a class, or assist at the sacrament table, he was genuinely pleased and took his part in reverent humility.
His many assignments kept Mervyn moving about. By the time a suitable position became available, he was likely to be moved to another assignment. Nevertheless, in most places he was used as much as possible, and his good work was quickly apparent. In Long Beach, particularly, he was able to teach a Sunday School class for considerable time, However, it was not until he was past fifty, in Washington, D.C., that he had the opportunity to shoulder real responsibility.
On ship board, on Sundays, Mervyn faithfully attended “divine service,” along with a handful of men; he was often the only officer present besides the chaplain. One chaplain told me that but for the help and support he got from Mervyn his thankless task would be most disheartening.
It was while on duty in Washington in charge of the Turret Section of the Bureau of Ordnance in 1929 that an elders quorum was organized and the practice of ward teaching was instituted for the first time in the Washington Branch. Mervyn and a companion were given a district to cover, his first church assignment since he was a boy in Vernon. This task was carried out with rare fidelity and capability. His companion and many of those he visited have testified how he stimulated and strengthened the families he visited, for he did his work with faithful regard for its ordained purpose.
Upon returning to Washington in January 1938 for his last tour of duty there, Mervyn was promptly reassigned to ward teaching. This work he carried on as assiduously and effectively as before. A few months later, when the Washington Branch was divided and the Chevy Chase Branch was organized, Mervyn was appointed ward teaching supervisor of the new branch. He proceeded to visit every home in each district to become acquainted personally with every family and to put himself in a better position to see that the work was properly organized and executed. When teachers failed him, he covered the ground himself, visiting in a month as many as thirty homes scattered over an extensive area. Later, when a second quorum of seventies in the Washington district was organized, Mervyn was appointed one of the seven presidents, a position he filled with marked ability. This position gave him part in the missionary work then being carried on and he filled his assignments in that respect with the same devotion and effectiveness that had characterized his ward teaching service.
In May 1940, a vacancy occurred in the Chevy Chase branch presidency and Mervyn was chosen as second counselor, Later, in 1940, when. the Washington Stake was organized and the branch became a ward, Mervyn was chosen as 1st counselor, a position he held until ordered to sea the following summer.
Concerning his service in the ward bishopric, his bishop, Riley A. Gwynn, said that Mervyn was constantly performing more than his share of duties, particularly those ordinarily considered the more humble ones. Bishop Gwynn wrote, “His willingness to serve knew no bounds, I have never known a more dependable man, He was willing indeed to be the servant of all, I say without reservation that he was a great man and a noble character,”
All the while he was laboring to give a full measure of service to the church, he was performing the arduous work and carrying the heavy responsibilities in the Navy Department already outlined and was earning the highest commendation for that service, also. He did not let this hurt his church duties, however, Bishop Gwynn commented that Mervyn seldom mentioned his daily work or responsibility to his church associates, He did not seek any self aggrandizement, or to enlarge himself in the eyes of his fellows. He sought only to do his full duty,
Orders to sea duty soon brought to a close this active period of church service; but again, whenever his ship was in port on Sunday he regularly made his way to the gatherings of the Latter-day Saints; and without any show, joined in worshipping the Lord, In fact, he was getting himself ready for Sunday School and Fast Meeting just a few moments before the perfidious Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor struck him low; and two or three hours later, when his spirit crossed the Great Divide to join the Heavenly Throng, surely his was a spirit schooled and prepared to mingle usefully and joyfully with the Saints of all times.
The following account is based upon interviews with two officers who were with Mervyn in his last hours, upon talks with other officers and men who were at Pearl Harbor on December 7, some of them on Mervyn’s ship, the West Virginia, and upon letters from men and officers who had knowledge of the events. There were some discrepancies in the different accounts given, as can be expected of happenings during intense excitement and emotion. This account will therefore contain errors of fact. It is merely an approximation to what happened
For several weeks and days before Pearl Harbor, the battle fleet had been cruising and drilling in Pacific waters. In the course of these activities, on three or four occasions, they encountered Japanese submarines or evidence of them. This indicated trouble and Mervyn expressed uneasiness, as did others of his colleagues. When the fleet entered Pearl Harbor to lie over Sunday, he expressed to his intimates his feeling that the action was unwise under the existing situation, that he would feel safer if the fleet were permitted to lie dispersed in the open water off shore. Nevertheless discipline is so much a part of a man who has spent most of his life in the Navy that he took his ship into the harbor and anchored it in its allotted position in the shallow and confined waters. This happened to be in the outer line of ships, a fact that proved disastrous for the West Virginia. Mervyn gave 8 or 10 officers and a few enlisted men who had families on Oahu permission to remain ashore over Saturday night, but, with these few exceptions required the crew to spend the night on board ship. Hence when the surprise Japanese attack struck the next morning his battleship was fully manned for action. On Saturday evening he went to dinner at the home of President and Mrs. Ralph Woolley of Oahu stake, his wife’s relatives. After a pleasant evening they pressed him to stay overnight and go to Sunday School with them in the morning; but he said that his place was on the ship and took his leave.
The following morning, Sunday, December 7th, 1941, at a few minutes before eight, Mervyn was in his cabin shaving preparatory to leaving the ship to go to Sunday School and Fast Meeting in Honolulu when a sailor on watch from the bridge nearby dashed in to report a Japanese air attack approaching at hand. Mervyn instantly gave the commands “Japanese Air Attack! To your battle stations!” Then he ran to his own – the conning tower on the flag bridge. There he verified the readiness of the several gun crews, the preparations for bringing up ammunition from the holds, the preparedness of the other elements of the ships crew for their roles in action. In a minute Japanese torpedo planes flew in close from the outside letting go three torpedoes that struck the West Virginia in rapid succession, tearing a great hole in the exposed side. Almost simultaneously Japanese bombers flew overhead, barely clearing the masts, and hit the West Virginia, once in the region already damaged by the aerial torpedoes and once a deadly blow into the magazine. Fortunately that bomb did not explode; otherwise, the ship would have been blown up as was the Arizona, immediately astern of the West Virginia.
When the first fury of the attack was over, Mervyn, anxious to see better what had happened to his ship, the guns and gun crews before giving orders to meet the developments, stepped out of the door at the rear of the conning tower and started around the lateral walk to the flag bridge. He had scarcely taken two steps when he was hit by a splinter from a bomb, evidently dropped from a high level and exploding on a turret of the battleship Tennessee alongside the West Virginia. This splinter tore off the top of his stomach and apparently a fragment hit his spine and the left hip for he lost the use of legs and the hip appeared to be damaged. He fell to the floor of the walk, got on his back, and with nerves of steel put back in place the entrails that had spilled out,
In a minute or so his plight was observed and a pharmacist’s mate came to place a bandage over the abdomen and to try to ease the pain. It was clear to him and undoubtedly to Mervyn that the wound was beyond any hope of mending, though Mervyn said not a word to indicate he knew he was dying. As soon as the wound was given the simplest dressing Mervyn sent the man below to work with the wounded and refused to be attended further while there was work to be done. As men and officers came to him he briefly asked what was transpiring and gave orders and instructions to meet conditions as they arose. The well-trained crew knew their duties thoroughly. It was easy for him to exercise control. The ship was well handled to prevent capsizing and to keep damage from fire to a minimum, Admiral Furlong, one of the commanders at Pearl Harbor, gave the West Virginia’s guns credit for bringing down 20 or 30 Japanese planes. Only two lives were lost from the ship’s complement of officers and men. . Captain Bennion and one seaman. The wounded were attended to promptly and evacuated from the ship with dispatch. Mervyn was courageous and cheerful to the last moment of consciousness and his spirit was reflected in the conduct of his crew. When the first attack was over he allowed himself to be placed on a cot and the cot to be moved under a protecting shelter on the deck. There he remained during the second Japanese attack which occurred an hour after the first one. He resisted all efforts to remove him from the bridge with a firmness and vigor that astonished officers who thought they knew him well but did not realize how much force there lay behind his gentle ways.
He talked only of the ship and the men, how the fight was going, what guns were out of action, how to get them in operation again, casualties in the gun crews and how to replace them, who was wounded, what care the wounded were receiving and provisions for evacuating them from the ship, the fate of other ships, the number of enemy planes shot down, the danger of fire from burning oil drifting around the West Virginia from the exploded Arizona, satisfaction over the handling of the ship, satisfaction with the effectiveness of the gun crews in shooting down attacking planes, satisfaction with the conduct under fire of officers and men of the ship. His only expression of regrets were of horror for the treachery of the Japanese and of concern because of this paralyzing loss of warships.
Thus passed an hour and a half. About 9:30 A.M. fire broke out in the kitchen, lockers and officers quarters beneath the flag bridge and began to envelope it in stifling black smoke and bursts of flame. This cut off from escape Mervyn, Lt. Commander C.V. Ricketts, a pharmacist’s mate and Lt. Comdr. White, whom he had permitted to stay with him. Mervyn had grown weaker from continuous loss of blood. The officers tied him on a ladder and twice tried to lower him to the deck below to get him away from the fire. The aft part of the ship was free of fire, but the smoke and flames swept over the forward deck to make it impossible for men to receive him, At this point the smoke and flame on the flag bridge became so terrible that all of the small group concluded their end had come, but just as they were being overpowered by suffocation a small gust of wind came seemingly out of nowhere and gave them air and vision, Quickly they seized Mervyn and by superhuman effort carried him up a ladder to the navigation bridge to a corner at the rear that seemed to be free from smoke. While being carried up the ladder he had lost consciousness, but as soon as they laid him out flat on the bridge floor the blood returned to his head and he told them to leave him and save themselves if that were possible. They made him as comfortable as they could and leaving the pharmacist’s mate at his side the two officers spent the next half hour trying unsuccessfully to put out the fire. Twenty minutes after they left Mervyn the mate reported that Mervyn had stumped over and breathed “I’m gone.”
The mate went back and, after 10 minutes, discovering no signs of life he so reported and the faithful and heroic little group caught a rope swung to them by an Ensign Graham, who had climbed a crane on the side of the ship to rescue them. They crawled hand over hand above the blazing fire, a distance of 50 feet to the crane, and then climbed down to safety. This occurred about 10:15 or 10:30, or more than two hours after Mervyn was mortally wounded.
In the meantime, on the battleship alongside, a crowd of men, most of them Mervyn’s men, watched the lone, white-clad figure lying on the navigation bridge of his ship. A young Ensign Delano, a mere boy, deeply attached to Mervyn, watched for hours. He said that twice in the first half hour after Mervyn was left alone he saw him stir, rise up on his elbows, look about and then drop back. Perhaps imagination rather than straining eyes saw these moves of the lonely figure. The grandeur of this heroic death scene as it unfolded profoundly moved the men of the stricken fleet.
In his official report on Pearl Harbor after his return from Honolulu on December 15, 1941, the Secretary of the Navy, without mentioning Mervyn’s name, to avoid disclosing the fate of his ship, the West Virginia, paid tribute to him in the following words: “The dying captain of a battleship displayed the outstanding individual heroism of the day. As he emerged from the conning tower to the bridge, the better to fight his ship, his stomach was laid completely open by a shrapnel burst. He fell to the deck. Refusing to be carried to safety he continued to fight his ship.”
Mervyn’s immediate commander Admiral Anderson wrote to his widow, “He was an able officer and fine gentleman, respected by all, a good example to all his juniors. In his tragic but glorious death mortally wounded in action on the bridge of his ship he excelled himself, felled and dying he would not permit his removal, but continued at his post to the end, concerned only with fighting and saving his ship.”
In a subsequent letter Admiral Anderson wrote, “I should like to seize this occasion to express my admiration of Captain Bennion’s devoted and heroic conduct at the attack on Pearl Harbor where he made the supreme sacrifice.”
The devoted Lt. Commander Ricketts who stayed by his side while there seemed to be any purpose in doing so wrote, “It will perhaps give you some measure of comfort to know that the noble conduct of Captain Bennion before and after being wounded met the highest traditions of the Naval service and justified the high esteem in which he was universally held. I consider it my great good fortune to have served under him.”
Mervyn’s executive officer, Commander R. H. Hillenkoetter, wrote, “Be assured, Mrs. Bennion, that every person in the West Virginia shares your grief. We are all proud to have served under Captain Bennion and his kindness, cheerfulness and courage will always be remembered by all of us who had the privilege and pleasure of being under his command,” Many others stirred by his brave conduct, paid like tribute.
Thus closed in glorious death a naval career without fault or blemish.
The West Virginia, moored in shallow water, sank at 2:30 P.M. The following morning when the super-structure of the ship had cooled off sufficiently to permit, Mervyn’s body was removed from the ship. The spot where he lay had been untouched by fire. Later, dressed in temple robes under the direction of President Ralph E. Woolley of the Oahu Stake, his body, along with the many others who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor, was buried in the cemetery at Honolulu.
The president of the United States posthumously awarded Mervyn the Congressional Medal of Honor. A camp in the Farragut Training Station, near Sandpoint, Idaho, was named Camp Bennion. On July 4, 1943, a destroyer was launched at the Boston Navy Yard and christened the U.S.S. Bennion by Louise Clark Bennion. Due to his induction into the navy a few days before, Mervyn Bennion, Jr., could not be present.
If anyone truly and without ostentatious design ever followed the Savior’s advice to seat himself at the foot of the banquet table, Mervyn did, Notwithstanding long demonstrated ability and one success after another he remained humble to the core from the beginning of his days to his last dying moments. His self-effacing manner caused him to be unnoticed by many with whom he came in contact and others were slow to perceive his great abilities and great qualities. One of his navy classmates, writing of his earlier days, said: “Those who served with him admired him inordinately. Those who hadn’t served with him usually didn’t even know of him. He never called attention to himself.”
Mervyn’s devotion to duty and willingness to serve were marked characteristics. These characteristics, together with his eminent capabilities made him the idol of his men on shipboard and the prized staff assistant of the higher commanders. His dying conduct is now cited in naval training classes as one of the outstanding examples to be found in United States naval history, of devotion to duty. It compares with the glorious death of Lord Nelson and the heroic death of Admiral Benbow of Britain’s navy. Admiral David Sellers, in “A Tribute from a Shipmate,” on whose staff Mervyn served when the Admiral was commander of the U.S. Fleet, “Although he was taken from us while at his post of duty on board a battleship under his command on that fateful morning in Pearl Harbor, his complete forgetfulness of self and devotion to duty to the last has set an example that will serve as an inspiration in years to come to the officers and men of the United States Navy.”
Mervyn was magnanimous and generous. These were genuine qualities and were governing in their influence on his actions. He was free with his means and free in giving credit to others. He was impressed with the abilities and accomplishments of others. If he ever felt envy or jealousy or greed he never disclosed it. He seemed to see only his own inabilities and weaknesses. This deep-seated generosity placed him at a disadvantage temporarily in dealing with a self seeking individual, but in the long pull it served and will continue to serve him well, as is the case with all true Christian virtues.

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