Minnesota State Capitol, at day break on December, 7, 2016: The naval gun from the USS Ward, manned by young sailors from St Paul, that fired America’s “first shot” in WWII, sinking a Japanese submarine that was probing the defenses at Pearl Harbor. Unfortunately, the Ward’s warnings went unheeded and, an hour later, Japanese aircraft caught the U.S. fleet asleep, with devastating effect.

Pearl Harbor, 75 Years Later: Remembering How St Paul Sailors Fired the First Shot

by Nick Coleman | Dec 7, 2016 |

If you grow up in St. Paul, you will hear the story of the Naval Reservists from the city — kids, mostly, ranging in age from 17 to 21 or 22 — who fired America’s first shot of WWII on the morning of Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941–75 years ago today. I know what I’m talking about: My old man, a Navy veteran, told me the story and took me to see the gun that fired “the first shot” when I was a kid.

I’ve done the same for my children.

It’s a story that deserves telling.

Still in WWI-era helmets, the St Paul sailors who fired the first shot of the next Great War pose for history.
Plaque on the gun that fired America’s first shot.

Manning the USS Ward, a WWI-era destroyer that was patrolling the waters outside Pear Harbor, the crew of the Ward spotted a two-man, 80-foot-long Japanese submarine that was trailing a US ship, hoping to sneak inside the heavily guarded harbor, where the U.S. Pacific fleet lay sleeping. The Ward fired two shots at the sub, with the second shot sinking it. Today, the 4-inch gun that fired that first shot of WWII stands on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol in an under-visited spot between the state Veterans Building and a parking lot, pointing out over I-94. (Why the gun has not been moved to the plaza between the Capitol and the Veterans Building, which was turned a few years ago into a large and well-visited memorial to the Greatest Generation, is a mystery. An opportunity lost). My father was a Navy man from St. Paul who was still in high school during the attack on Pearl Harbor (the next year, he graduated a year early to join the Navy as a signalman) but he took special pride in St Paul’s “honor” in firing the first shot. Unfortunately, the Ward’s messages to HQ that it had spotted and fired upon an unidentified sub trying to sneak into Pearl went unheeded: The main Japanese air attack began within an hour, catching the fleet unawares. Below, you can find links to the history of the Ward, including a page and videos of the 2002 underwater exploration that found the sunken sub, vindicating the crew’s story, which had been questioned by others.

Final note: St Paul men fired the first shot and the USS Saint Paul fired the last.

Far from either ocean, the St Paul reservists trained on the Mississippi River and Lake Superior before being called to active duty at Pearl. By coincidence, the city of St Paul’s name also featured prominently on the final day of the Pacific War: The USS Saint Paul, a heavy cruiser that was present during the surrender of Japan, is believed to have fired the final salvos of the war, shelling industrial targets on Aug. 9, 1945. The “Fighting Saint’s” bell is displayed outside the St Paul City Council chambers, and a massive anchor from the Saint Paul, which was decommissioned in 1978, is displayed on Harriet Island, on the Mississippi.

Three years to the day after Pearl Harbor — Dec. 7, 1944 — the Ward, by then converted into a transport, was struck by a Kamikaze during the Battle of Leyte and sunk after being put out of its misery by another U.S. warship, the USS O’Brien. By coincidence, the O’Brien’s skipper was the same man who captained the Ward at Pearl Harbor. If you’re wondering how we got the gun off a ship that sank in 1944, simple: The Navy, which recognized the significance of the Ward’s Pearl Harbor service, had removed the gun for preservation.

Read the USS Ward’s After Action Report from Pearl Harbor

From the Naval Historical Center:

“A Shot for Posterity, the USS Ward’s number three gun and its crew-cited for firing the first shot the day of Japan’s raid on Hawaii. Operating as part of the inshore patrol early in the morning of December 7, 1941, this destroyer group spotted a submarine outside Pearl Harbor, opened fire and sank her. Crew members are R.H. Knapp — BM2c — Gun Captain, C.W. Fenton — Sea1c — Pointer, R.B. Nolde — Sea1c — Trainer, A.A. De Demagall — Sea1c — №1 Loader, D.W. Gruening — Sea1c — №2 Loader, J.A. Paick — Sea1c — №3 Loader, H.P. Flanagan — Sea1c — №4 Loader, E.J. Bakret — GM3c — Gunners Mate, K.C.J. Lasch — Cox — Sightsetter.” (quoted from the original 1942-vintage caption) This gun is a 4″/50 type, mounted atop the ship’s midships deckhouse, starboard side. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, from the collections of the Naval Historical Center.

More links:

Press release announcing discovery of the sunken sub, a finding that proved the Ward’s story

Video of Ward crew and search for the sunken sub

Three years to the day after firing the first shot, the USS Ward fights its last fight.

The USS Ward’s final battle:

December 7, 1944: USS O’Brien DD-725 fighting the fires aboard the USS Ward APD-16 at Ormoc Bay, Leyte, Philippines following a Kamikaze attack. Ward (as DD-139) had fired the first shots of the Pacific War
 on Dec. 7, 1941 when she sank one of the Japanese midget submarines approaching the entrance to Pearl Harbor. The Ward could not be saved and under orders of the Commander of TG 78.3,
 Cmdr. Outerbridge of the O’Brien used his guns to sink the Ward. In a strange twist of fate Outerbridge had been the Commanding Officer of the Ward on Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese submarine was sunk.

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