Crew of Minnesotans credited with firing the first American shot of WWII

Minnesotan Crew Credited with First Shot of WWII

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(ABC 6 News) – On December 7th, 1941, Japanese fighters descended upon Pearl Harbor and launched an attack that would claim the lives of 2,403 Americans.

Less than 24 hours later the United States would declare war on Japan, thrusting the U.S. into the deadliest war in history; a global conflict that killed an estimated 53 million people worldwide.

It’s a history that most Americans are all too familiar with. But, what you may not know is the role a group of Minnesotans played 82 years ago that has since been memorialized on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol. 

It’s a story that largely played out on the day Japanese fighters rained bombs onto the U.S. naval fleet back in 1941, but to fully understand the history, we have to rewind all the way back to 1899. 

The Establishment of the Minnesota Naval Militia

The origins of Minnesota’s role in the Pearl Harbor attacks begins with a law passed by the legislature in 1899, which established the first naval reserve chapter in the state. 

In 1903, both the State Department and the War Department gave their permission to allow the state of Minnesota to establish a naval militia based in Duluth. 

The men enlisted in the Minnesota Naval Militia were first activated under the state banner during WWI when they traveled to Philadelphia, where the sailors were integrated into the U.S. Navy command structure. Following the war the militia unit largely involved itself in training, that is, until 1940.

The USS Ward

The destroyers USS Ward (DD-139) and USS Chew (DD-106) visit Hilo on July 22, 1941.

On July 24, 1918, the USS Ward was commissioned as U.S. Navy destroyer before being deployed into the Atlantic. 

The ship would be decommissioned approximately three years later, in July of 1921.

But, the outbreak of WWII brought the Ward back into service. Recommissioned in 1941, the ship was sent to Pearl Harbor to engage in local patrol duties in Hawaiian waters, and was largely staffed by a crew of St. Paul natives enlisted in the Minnesota Naval Militia. 

It was during their patrol duty on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 that the crew spotted what they believed to be a Japanese submarine moving into the unauthorized waters of Pearl Harbor. Upon alert, the crew fired two shots towards the enemy sub. 

The first shot would end up missing its target. But it was the second shot, fired by gun three aboard the deck of the USS Ward that would end up making history. 

December 7, 1941

View from Ford Island showing an explosion on the USS Shaw during the Peal Harbor attacks

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the waters surrounding Pearl Harbor were calm and the skies above were clear. It was in those waters that the crew aboard the USS first spotted, fired upon, and sunk a small Japanese submarine. 

“They never thought they would be in the thick of the fight on Dec. 7,” said Randal Dietrich, Executive Director of the Minnesota Military & Veterans Museum, “That’s where they were, that’s where they took action.”

Approximately one hour later, the first wave of Japanese air attacks began.

It’s the proceeding devastation left behind those attacks that pushed popular American opinion from a stance of neutrality, towards an eventual declaration of war. 

It was that declaration of war, made by then President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the afternoon of Dec. 8, 1941, that would gain the two shots fired by the men aboard the USS Ward a place in history. 

The First American Shots of WWII

Crewman aboard the USS Ward

The sinking of that Japanese submarine was, to an extent, routine. The USS Ward was on patrol duty, which meant the engagement of unauthorized ships traveling into the restricted waters of Pearl Harbor was their responsibility.

It wasn’t their intention to thrust themselves into history, but that’s what they did. 

The historical significance of the two shots fired on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 represent the first shots fired by an American in World War II. 

“That number one gun fired that first shot, it did miss. Given the closing speed of the Ward on its target, that mini sub, there wasn’t time for that number one gun to reload,” said Dietrich, “That number three gun took kind of a desperation shot, I suppose, at the last minute, but successfully hit its mark, and goes down in history as the gun that did fire that first shot.”

The Fate of the USS Ward

As fighting raged on in the Pacific Theater, the Ward was involved in a number of significant landings in the Southwest Pacific.

One such landing occurred in July 1944, when the crew was present during the taking of Cape Sansapor.

Crewman from the USS Ward circa 1944

The image shown above featured a caption from Commander of the Seventh Fleet, which read, in part:

“Sansapor, New Guinea, falls to the Allied Forces, July 30, 1944. One might say, Sansapor falls to the boys of St. Paul, Minn.; as all but two of these men come from that city.”

But it was months later, three years to the day that the crew aboard the Ward fired the offensive shot of WWII, the ship would meet its fate. 

“The USS Ward, ironically, was hit by a kamikaze airplane on December 7, 1944. So, three years to the day later,” said Dietrich, “It was later sunk by a U.S. Navy boat, the O’Brian, that put it out of its misery.”

Following WWII

Although memorialized in history today, the claims from the Ward’s crew that they had sunk that Japanese sub were largely disputed. 

That is, until approximately 58 years later.

“It was well documented that there were mini-submarines [that were] part of the Japanese attack, however the specific one that the Ward fired on wasn’t found until 2002,” said Dietrich. 

Pictured: Japanese minisub sunk by the crew of the USS Ward

In August 2002, scientists at the University of Hawaii located the sunken sub approximately four miles outside Pearl Harbor. 

Despite the dispute over the validity of the claims made by the Ward’s crew, the historical significance of the shots fired on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 had already been recognized by the State of Minnesota long before the wreckage was discovered. 

Gun Three on the grounds of the Minnesota State Capitol

In 1958, the gun that fired the shot that sank that sub became a permanent installation at the Minnesota Capitol, where it can still be viewed today.

“It’s a symbol. 82 years removed from that historic day, it’s a symbol, it’s an artifact of that war and that kind of bravery and courage that Minnesota veterans showed on that day,” said Dietrich, “World War Two might seem like a long time ago in the minds of some people. Probably happened in a place far away. Obviously that’s not the case when you can look at the Ward gun here in Minnesota and understand that Minnesotans were in the South Pacific on the first day of World War Two.”