Utah History to Go
History Matters
The Salt Lake Tribune Arch
Landlocked Utah's Place Names Have Proved Seaworthy
Will Bagley
Published: 10/22/2000 Edition: Final Section: Utah Page: B1

For a state 800 miles from the nearest seaport, Utah has a spectacular naval history. Some of the U.S. Navy's proudest fighting ships have carried the names of the state and its cities, counties, rivers, mountains, tribal nations, parks and fallen heroes. From battleships to nuclear submarines, historian Terry L. Overturf has found thirty-three Utah names gracing American warships past and present.

Vessels named after Daggett, Garfield, Iron, Kane, Millard, Morgan, Sevier, Summit and Tooele counties have all served the nation, as have ships bearing the names of the Escalante, Grand, Green and White rivers. USS Paiute helped recover Mercury and Apollo spacecraft. The patrol frigate Ogden did convoy duty during World War II and then was sold to the Soviet navy before ending its days under the Japanese flag as the Kusu.

The heavy cruiser Salt Lake City was the most battle-tested of Utah's namesakes. It escaped disaster at Pearl Harbor while escorting an American carrier and helped turn back the Japanese assault on Alaska during the Battle of the Komandorskie Sea. After hard duty in the South Pacific, it survived two atomic test blasts before being sunk off Southern California in 1948. Today a nuclear submarine carries its name.

The destroyer USS Bennion was named after Annapolis graduate Mervyn Sharp Bennion of Vernon. Captain Bennion died in action as commander of the battleship West Virginia at Pearl Harbor, conduct that won him a posthumous Medal of Honor. Other Navy ships honored Utah seamen and Marines that made the ultimate sacrifice. Provo native Howard D. Merrill died at Pearl Harbor on the USS Arizona a year after graduating from the Naval Academy. Airman Robert Bryce won the Distinguished Flying Cross during the Battle of Midway. Lyman Swenson and Marine pilot Melvin R. Nawman gave their lives at Guadalcanal.

Perhaps the best known of the state's Navy namesakes was the battleship USS Utah. Launched in December 1909, she was obsolete by 1931. The Utah became a target ship outfitted with innovative remote control technology, but it was the imperial Japanese navy that targeted the Utah at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. It still lies on the bottom near Ford Island, but the ship's bell now stands before the Naval Science Building at the University of Utah.

As with most Utah history, there's a humorous side to this story of heroism and sacrifice. The state's schoolchildren raised $2,277.42 to purchase the battleship's elegant silver service. A picture of Brigham Young's statue on the coffee server generated an intense controversy, but not for the reason you might think. Erna Von R. Owen considered the Mormon prophet's image an insult to women and protested so forcefully that the issue was finally aired at a congressional hearing. The Salt Lake news media had a field day with the dispute. Never a great fan of Young, The Salt Lake Tribune sided with Owen. Young's image stayed on the coffee tray, but Owen gave the ship a substitute tray that wound up hanging in the captain's cabin.

The service returned to Utah in 1931 and was displayed at the Utah State Historical Society. During its stay in the Kearns Mansion, burglars made off with several pieces. You can see part of the set at the now-Governor's Mansion, where it is still put to good use. But hurry. Should the navy commission another ship named Utah, the service could be called back to active duty.

Bagley writes history books. He lives in Salt Lake City.

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