What do the Meigs County village of Middleport, the city of St. Paul, Minn., a U.S. Navy warship, and the date Dec. 7 have in common? They are all oddly connected and intertwined by the 1941 Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor – the event that thrust the United States into World War II.
History has a way of making strange twists and turns, coincidence is often the norm rather than the exception, and seemingly unrelated people, places, and dates find a bizarre way to connect and interlock through time.
First the person: Rear Admiral William W. Outerbridge (1906-1986).
Although called a Middleport native, Outerbridge was born in Victoria, Hong Kong. He was raised in Middleport and attended Middleport High School, later graduating from Marion Military Institute in Alabama, and in 1927 from the U.S. Naval Academy (according to a popular, free, web-based encyclopedia).
The warship: the USS Ward (DD-139/APD-16).
As one of 111 members of the Wickes-class of destroyers built by the Navy in 1917-1919, the USS Ward was commissioned in 1918 in the closing days of World War I after being constructed in just 17-and-a-half days at the Mare Island Navy Yard in California.
The USS Ward was a little over a football field in length at 314 feet, 30 feet wide and displaced 1,247 tons with a full load. Its two steam turbines could propel it up to speeds of 40 miles per hour. Armament included four 4-inch deck guns, a three-inch anti-aircraft gun, four torpedo tubes and depth charges.
The date: December 7.
For Americans, the date Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, will always live in infamy, as President Franklin Roosevelt declared. Three December 7ths play into this story.
That morning in 1941 found the USS Ward patrolling off the entrance of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, with a crew largely comprised of Naval Reservists hailing from St. Paul, Minn. At the helm was Lieutenant Commander William W. Outerbridge, who had been given command of the warship just two days earlier.
The USS Ward was looking for a submarine, having been alerted to the presence of a submarine by a Coast Guard minesweeper earlier that morning.
At 6:30 a.m. the crew of the cargo ship USS Antares alerted the USS Ward to the presence of a submarine apparently attempting to follow it into the harbor. Seven minutes later, the crew of the USS Ward spotted the submarine and attacked. The first shot missed the submarine but the second shot reportedly went straight into the base of the submarine’s conning tower. For good measure, the USS Ward dropped depth charges on the sub after it slipped beneath the waves.
Outerbridge immediately notified Naval Command at Pearl Harbor of the incident, but was largely ignored, and an hour later 353 aircraft of the Japanese Imperial Navy descended on the island, relegating the USS Ward to a mere footnote in the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor.
The attack of the USS Ward on the Japanese midget submarine has been called the first U.S. shots of World War II, although in actuality American destroyers pulling convoy duty in the Atlantic Ocean were already at war against German u-boats. In any event, it was the first shots in the war versus Japan.
Fast forward three years to Dec. 7, 1944.
After Pearl Harbor, the USS Ward was converted into a troop transport and redesignated APD-16. It had participated in several amphibious assaults until, during efforts to retake the Philippine Islands, it was struck and heavily damaged by a Japanese kamikaze aircraft. When the resulting fires could not be put out, the crew was ordered to abandon ship, and a nearby destroyer was summoned to sink her.
That destroyer was the USS O’Brien, commanded by Commander William W. Outerbridge, who proceeded to send his old ship, the ship that fired America’s first shots of the Pacific Theater three years earlier to the day, to the bottom of the ocean. According to some sources, Outerbridge didn’t dwell on the significance of that action, but just did his job. Amazingly, no crew members of the USS Ward were lost.
The war went on until Sept. 2, 1945, and Outerbridge went on to bigger assignments. Many of the USS Ward’s sister ships saw service in World War II serving in several allied navies. A dozen of them were destroyed during the war, and the remainder were scrapped immediately afterwards.
Although Outerbridge had earned the Navy Cross for his action on Dec. 7, 1941, some academics doubted that the USS Ward had actually sunk a Japanese midget submarine. However those doubts were put to rest in 2002 when searchers from the University of Hawaii found a Japanese mini-sub a few miles off the coast laying in 1,200 feet of water – complete with a shell hole through the base of the conning tower, and right where the USS Ward reported.
This past Thursday, Dec. 7 (76 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor), an expedition team led by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen announced that it had found the wreckage of the USS Ward near Ponson Island in the Philippines. For the first time in 73 years, human eyes could again behold the USS Ward – on a video screen, probably made in Japan.
On this occasion, Adm. Scott Swift, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet stated, “The USS Ward found herself in the crucible of American history – at the intersection of a peacetime Navy and war footing. She took decisive, effective and unflinching action despite the uncertain waters. Now 76 years on, her example informs our naval posture.”
Today a historical marker in Middleport commemorates its son Rear Admiral William W. Outerbridge, and in St. Paul, the gun that fired the “first shot” is on display at the Minnesota State Capitol, honoring the “First Shot” Minnesotans of the USS Ward, all of whom are gone now.
Time will tell if this is the end of the story, however history rarely works in that manner.
Jim Freeman is the wildlife specialist for the Meigs Soil and Water Conservation District, and an avid history buff. He can be contacted weekdays at 740-992-4282 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.