The Man Who Saved The ‘Wee Vee’

Syl Puccio

Syl Puccio. Photo from John Puccio

From my lanai in Aiea I can see the Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor commemorating the loss of 1,177 sailors and Marines, and the tops of the trees near the entrance to the USS Missouri beneath which stands the lesser known USS Oklahoma Memorial commemorating another 429 lost crewmen. What I cannot see is the USS West Virginia Memorial … because it doesn’t exist.

But it almost did.

During the precision attack by Japanese aircraft on Dec. 7, 1941, the West Virginia (or “Wee Vee” as she was affectionately called be her crew) took no fewer than seven torpedo hits on her port side. She started sinking almost immediately. Worse yet, she was at a 28-degree list and dangerously near capsizing, just as the Oklahoma did, trapping scores of crewmen inside the hull. (One of the saddest stories of Pearl Harbor is the trapped Oklahoma crewmen banging on the inside of the hull while rescuers were helpless to cut through to their rescue).

While the captain of the Wee Vee lay mortally wounded on the ship’s bridge, Shipfitter 2nd Class (SF2c) Syl Puccio knew if the starboard (right side) spaces were not flooded immediately, the ship would indeed “turn turtle” to the port side, thereby sealing off all escape routes from below decks. He and others raced below to the locker that housed the flood valve handles. Alas, the sailor with the key to the sturdy padlock had left it in his quarters.

Puccio, knowing he couldn’t break the lock even with a sledgehammer, impetuously grabbed a steel crank from a “spool cable” and frenziedly started bashing the hinges on the steel door. He was soon able to grab the weakened door itself and rip it the rest of the way off. He and his other SF companions grabbed the valve handles and battle lanterns and raced through the darkened starboard passageways opening the valves, which let in seawater. The Wee Vee, now balanced, settled into the Pearl Harbor mud upright, ensuring the escape of all who could make it to the regular exit hatches.

It has taken decades to piece together the story, mostly by the families of the survivors. One eyewitness was found, and it was his account that resulted in Puccio receiving the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal just this past February. With one more eyewitness – it takes two – it would have been a Navy Cross, the highest Naval award just below the Congressional Medal of Honor. Unfortunately, at this point, that second witness is unlikely to emerge.

Syl Puccio, at a spry 96 years young, was in Hawaii last week (as I was writing this column) at the initiative of the Honolulu chapter of the Navy League, which coincidentally is hosting the national convention of the Navy League of the United States. Syl will share his story with fellow Navy men and women aboard the USS Missouri, as well as at a session of the national convention.

Helping out with Puccio’s sponsorship is Outrigger Hotels and Hawaiian Airlines. In the first week or so of its new direct service between Honolulu and New York’s JFK, Hawaiian provided two first-class tickets for Syl and his son John and two coach tickets for other family members.

As the Hawaiian Air pilot taxied the plane to the gate here, he announced to the passengers that they had a real live hero aboard, whereby Syl received a plane-full of applause.

And before he could even get to baggage claim, he shook many a hand and received many hugs of “Aloha.”

It has been said that history is not just a story “about what happened,” but also a story within a different context – “about what might have happened.”

Warmest aloha, SF2c Syl Puccio!