The surprise 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor resulted in an incredible amount of death and destruction. Nineteen ships were sunk or damaged, and over 2,400 people were killed. That’s a big figure, and contains any number of horrors within it. But one horror in particular deserves attention, because of how long it took to play out. One of the ships damaged in the attacks was the U.S.S. West Virginia. And if getting hit with two bombs, seven torpedoes, and losing over a hundred of her crew didn’t ruin her day, she did have a terrible secret waiting for the crew tasked with salvaging it.

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Doomed Sailors Were Trapped Underwater For Two Weeks After Pearl Harbor. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md

In the aftermath of the attack, the Marines standing guard over the wreckage reported hearing banging noises emanating from the ship’s hull. It was first thought that these noises were coming from cooling metal, or salvage teams, or ghosts. But as they continued, it became clear what was truly going on: There were people alive and trapped in the wreckage. Worse still, they were doomed to stay there. Cutting a hole in the hull could flood the ship or spark an explosion. There was nothing to be done for them.

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Battleship USS West Virginia sunk and burning at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. In the background is the battleship USS Tennessee. National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md

It wasn’t until six months later that teams were able to raise the ship. Inside an airtight storeroom, they found the bodies of three sailors – Ronald Endicott, Clifford Olds, and Louis Costin – alongside piles of opened food rations, flashlight batteries, and a freshwater tank. According to a calendar that was found in the room, the men had survived for 16 days before suffocating.

This story was so heartbreaking that a movie has been made:

Their families were told that the men died on December 7, the day of the Pearl Harbor attack itself. It wasn’t until years later that the truth came out. And even to this day, monuments list December 7 as the day of their passing.

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