When Woodrow "Woody" Wilson Derby enlisted in the Navy on December 7, 1938, in his hometown of Wapello, Iowa, he, as everyone else, was completely unaware how significant the date would become. "I spent my third anniversary in the Navy fighting for my life and fighting alongside my shipmates," said Derby.
Derby, now 82 years old and in Hawaii to participate in the December 7th ceremony on the USS Arizona Memorial, just happened to be stationed aboard the USS Nevada (BB 36) in Pearl Harbor when Sunday December 7, 1941, rolled around. "My battle station was below gun turret two," he said. "We were hit by a torpedo and started taking on water, so there I was, in the magazine a few decks below the gun turret, wondering if we were going to make it."
Derby and most of his mates 'made it' that fateful day, as the Nevada was able to survive the attack. On December 7, 1941, Nevada was moored singly off Ford Island, and had a freedom of maneuver denied the other eight battleships present during the attack. As her gunners opened fire and her engineers got up steam, she was struck by one torpedo and two, possibly three, bombs from the Japanese attackers, but was able to get underway. While attempting to leave harbor she was struck again. Fearing she might sink in the channel, blocking it, she was beached at Hospital Point. Gutted forward, 50 Sailors were killed and 109 wounded.
Today's USS Nevada (SSBN 733), a trident submarine stationed in Bangor, Wash., also happened to be in Pearl Harbor and provided Mr. Derby an opportunity to tour his namesake ship. "This submarine is fabulous," said Derby. "I can't get over the size of this baby. Our battleship was huge too, but it was above water and you could see everything."
"It was certainly a joy hosting Chief Derby," said Cmdr. Walt Luthiger, commanding officer of today's Nevada. "His devoted service to the Navy is his legacy and his place in history is stamped forever. I simply enjoy sitting around listening to his recounts of what happened here almost 60 years ago," Luthiger added. Derby retired as a Chief Storekeeper in 1958 and resides in San Diego, Calif. with his wife Christine. The couple met in Los Angeles following the war and have been married for 54 years. His old ship, however, wasn't so lucky. Nevada (BB 36) is resting on the bottom of the Pacific. "They fixed her up in the yards after Pearl Harbor and we went back to war," said Derby. "Then after the war they took her out for target practice one day and sunk her somewhere off the coast of Hawaii."
Built between 1912 and 1915 at Fore River Ship Building Co., USS Nevada (BB 36), the ship was completely modernized in 1929 at Norfolk Navy Yard. After repairs following the Pearl Harbor attack she rejoined the Fleet in 1943. Nevada then sailed for Alaska where she provided fire support for the capture of Attu in the Aleutian Island chain.
In June 1943 she sailed for further modernization at Norfolk Navy Yard, and in April 1944 reached British waters to prepare for the Normandy Invasion. In action during June, her mighty guns pounded not only permanent shore defenses on the Cherbourg Peninsula, but ranged as far as 17 miles inland, breaking up German concentration and counterattacks. Shore batteries straddled her 27 times, but failed to diminish her accurate fire.
"We were the only battleship that was attacked at Pearl Harbor and was also a key figure in the war against Germany," said Derby.
Between August and September, Nevada fired in the invasion of Southern France, dueling at Toulon with shore batteries of 13.4-inch guns taken from French battleships scuttled early in the war. Her gun barrels were relined at New York, and she sailed for the Pacific, arriving off Iwo Jima on February 16, 1945 to give Marines invading and fighting ashore her massive gunfire support.
A month later, Nevada massed off Okinawa with the mightiest naval force ever seen in the Pacific, as pre-invasion bombardment began. She pounded Japanese airfields, shore defenses, supply dumps, and troop concentrations through the crucial operation, although 11 men were killed and a main battery turret damaged when she was struck by a suicide plane. Another two men were lost to fire from a shore battery.
Serving off Okinawa until June, she ranged with the Third Fleet which not only bombed the Japanese home islands, but came within range for Nevada's guns during the closing days of the war. Returning to Pearl Harbor after a brief occupation duty in Tokyo Bay, Nevada was surveyed and assigned as a target ship for the Bikini atomic experiments.
The tough old veteran survived the atom-bomb test of July 1946, returned to Pearl Harbor to decommission August 29, and was sunk by gunfire and aerial torpedoes off Hawaii July 31, 1948. Nevada received seven battle stars for World War II service.
"My old ship is gone," lamented Derby, "but this submarine is a fine vessel and more than capable of carrying on our tradition as a strong force," he added.
"Strategic deterrence is the primary mission of my ship," said Luthiger. "Since its inception in 1960, the trident submarine provides the nation's most survivable and enduring nuclear strike capability."
"All seven warships that have carried the name Nevada have established a history of service to the nation that even predates the statehood of their namesake state," added Luthiger. "The citizens of this nation and Nevadans in particular can take great pride in the selfless, valorous service of all Nevada Sailors, past and present."
" We all serve in the Navy for similar reasons," said Derby. "I was proud to serve my country because I was motivated by values that included more than earning a living. I was also motivated by honor, patriotism, integrity, and, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, a fighting spirit. It's that spirit that helped us win the war and keeps us going today. We have the best Navy and the best submarine force in the world and I don't see that changing any time soon," he added.