Medals of Honor at Pearl Harbor

The men who earned the highest decoration on the Day of Infamy

The attack on Pearl Harbor, photographed from a Japanese plane
(Photo: Imperial Japanese Navy)

 The Empire of Japan launched a surprise attack on the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, eighty-one years ago this month. The attack which was designed to knock America out of a war in the Pacific ended up drawing the nation into one. Countless acts of heroism and sacrifice, some by high-ranking officers, others by enlisted men, occurred on the morning that caused America’s entry into World War II. This article wishes to pay respect to the heroes of Pearl Harbor with a brief description of the actions of sixteen men – the men who were awarded America’s highest decoration on that day.
 
Kaneohe Bay. Chief Aviation Ordnanceman John William Finn was not actually present at Battleship Row, but is nevertheless one of the best-known Medal of Honor winners of the day. Finn was in charge of a 20-man unit whose main job was to maintain the weapons on PBY Catalina flying boats stationed at Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay on the eastern side of O’ahu. He was at home on the morning of the 7th, about a mile from the hangars, when he was alerted by the sound of gunfire and a neighbor banging on his door telling him he was needed at his squadron. He drove to the airfield and found most of the Catalinas already burning. His men were firing the flying boats’ machine guns back at the low-flying Japanese attackers, either by climbing into the burning planes to use them, or taking them off and putting them on whatever mounts were available.

Chief Aviation Ordnanceman John William Finn with his Medal of Honor
(Photo: Naval History & Heritage Command)

Finn saw the unit’s painter carrying a .50 caliber M2 Browning machine gun. He commandeered the weapon, placed it on a mount, and deployed it in a wide open area from where he could see the attackers buzzing around. He opened fire and continued firing for two hours, even as he suffered a total of 21 wounds, including a bullet through his foot and another one through his shoulder. Finn died in 2010 at the age of 100, the last surviving Medal of Honor recipient of the Battle of Pearl Harbor, and the only aviation ordnanceman to ever receive the decoration.

A patrol bomber burning at Naval Air Station Kaneohe during the attack (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
A patrol bomber burning at Naval Air Station Kaneohe during the attack
(Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

USS Nevada. The Nevada was the only battleship that managed to get underway during the battle. Trying to leave the harbor made her a primary target for many Japanese bombers, and she was eventually beached after several hits to prevent her from sinking. Chief Boatswain Edwin Joseph Hill was instrumental in getting the ship to move. 47 years old and having 30 years of service experience, Hill enjoyed the same level of respect by the crew as did the ship’s captain. During the attack, he dived off the ship, swam to the dock, and released the ship from her mooring. He then dived back into the water, quickly caught up with the Nevada and climbed back onboard to continue carrying on his duties. He was trying to drop the anchor when a Japanese bomb hit the ship’s bow, killing Hill and 46 other crewmen. When his body was found, it bore several bullet wounds, but it’s not known if was hit before or after the bomb explosion.

Chief Boatswain Edwin Joseph Hill (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
Chief Boatswain Edwin Joseph Hill 
(Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

While Hill released the Nevada, Chief Machinist Donald Kirby Ross rushed to the forward dynamo room to make sure the ship would actually have enough power to get underway. The room was eventually filled with smoke and steam; Ross ordered his men to leave, but he stayed behind to carry on servicing the dynamo until he was blinded and rendered unconscious by the smoke. He was rescued and resuscitated. He immediately returned to the forward dynamo room, then later worked the aft one until he lost consciousness again. Rescued one more time, he then continued fulfilling his duties until the ship was beached. Ross died in 1992; his ashes were scattered over the Nevada.

Chief Machinist Donald Kirby Ross (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
Chief Machinist Donald Kirby Ross
(Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

USS Arizona. The sudden explosion of the Arizona, caused by the detonation of the forward magazines from a bomb hit, killed more than two-thirds of her crew, and roughly half of all the casualties of the day. One of the victims, Real Admiral Isaac Campbell Kidd, became the highest-ranking casualty at Pearl Harbor, and the first U.S. Navy flag officer to die in the war. As the commander of Battleship Division One (Pennsylvania, Arizona and Nevada), Kidd rushed to her flagship, the Arizona, as soon as the battle began, and coordinated defense until he was killed by the explosion. His body was never recovered, but divers later found his Annapolis Naval Academy ring fused to the bulkhead of the bridge.

Isaac Campbell Kidd aboard USS Arizona, circa 1939 (Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)
Isaac Campbell Kidd aboard USS Arizona, circa 1939
(Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command)

Kidd was not the only high-ranking officer to die aboard the Arizona that day. The ship’s captain, Franklin Van Valkenburgh, was in his cabin when the attack began, and quickly ran to the navigation bridge to direct the ship’s defense through a telephone. A quartermaster present suggested he should move to the conning tower, which was less exposed to Japanese strafing attacks, but the captain refused to do so. He and the quartermaster were both killed immediately during the ship’s explosion. Just like Read Admiral Kidd, Captain Valkenburgh’s body as never found, but his Annapolis ring was later recovered.

Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh (Photo: Naval Historical Center)
Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh (Photo: Naval Historical Center)

The Arizona’s third Medal of Honor recipient was the ship’s damage control officer, Lieutenant Commander Samuel Glenn Fuqua.  Fuqua was knocked unconscious by one of the early bomb hits on the ship. Once he recovered consciousness, he directed firefighting and rescue attempts in a cool-headed manner. The explosion that killed most of the ship’s crew left him as the highest-ranking surviving officer onboard. Once he realized he was the man in charge, he ordered the ship abandoned. He stayed on the quarterdeck to direct the evacuation, and only withdrew when he was sure there was nobody else left aboard. Fuqua went on to serve until 1953, when he retired at the rank of rear admiral.

Commander Samuel Glenn Fuqua (Photo: Naval Historical Center)
Commander Samuel Glenn Fuqua (Photo: Naval Historical Center)

USS Vestal. Commander Cassin Young was captain of the repair ship USS Vestal, which was located right next to the Arizona at the commencement of the battle. After giving orders, Young personally manned one of the ship’s anti-aircraft guns and started engaging the attackers. The Arizona’s sudden and tremendous detonation blew him off board and into the water. That was not enough for Young to call it quits. He swam through the burning oil covering the water and climbed back onboard. The Vestal was badly damaged by Japanese bombs and the Arizona’s detonation, so Young ordered the ship steered away to prevent further damage, and had her beached at a safe location.       

Commander Cassin Young (Photo: Naval Historical Heritage Command)
Commander Cassin Young (Photo: Naval Historical Heritage Command)

USS Oklahoma. Both of the Oklahoma’s two Medal of Honor receivers died in action; interestingly, they died in a very similar way. Ensign Francis Charles Flaherty and Seaman First Class James Richard Ward were both in a turret when the ship began to capsize after three torpedo hits. They both grabbed flashlights and used them to illuminate an escape path for their crewmates in confines of the dark turrets. Neither of them had time to go after their comrades, and so they both went down with the ship.

Seaman James Richard Ward and Ensign Francis Charles Flaherty (Photos: Naval Historical Center)

USS California. The California was hit by two torpedoes and a bomb during the attack. The mechanical hoists that carried ammunition to the anti-aircraft guns were damaged, leaving the guns useless after the ready ammunition was expended. Several crewmen took it upon themselves to organize a supply line and bring shells to the guns by hand. Ensign Herbert Charpiot Jones had first rescued a wounded crewman, but he himself succumbed to the fumes filling the ship soon after. Once he came to, he assumed command of a leaderless anti-aircraft gun crew, and he and the men kept shooting at Japanese planes until they had run out of ammunition. Jones then organized a group of volunteers to go belowdecks and bring back more shells. The first of these shells were just starting to reach the guns when the bomb hit mortally wounded Ensign Jones. Two men tried to get him out of the burning area, but he sent them away, saying "Leave me alone! I am done for. Get out of here before the magazines go off."

Ensign Herbert Charpiot Jones (Photo: Naval Historical Center)
Ensign Herbert Charpiot Jones (Photo: Naval Historical Center)

Other men were also organizing relays to get more shells to the anti-aircraft guns. Chief Radioman Thomas James Reeves was part of one such effort, standing in a burning passageway and passing up the ammunition until the fire and the smoke killed him.

Chief Radioman Thomas James Reeves (Photo: Naval Historical Center)
Chief Radioman Thomas James Reeves (Photo: Naval Historical Center)

One Medal of Honor recipient who survived was Gunner Jackson Charles Pharris. Pharris was in charge of an ordnance repair party, and the first torpedo to hit the California struck the ship almost directly below his station. The concussion threw him against the overhead (the ceiling) and back on the deck, causing severe injuries. He nevertheless organized an ammunition carrying party to help the anti-aircraft guns. When Gunner Pharris realized that the ship was flooding and listing to port because of the torpedo hit, he ordered the men around him to counterflood the ship by letting in water on the other side to straighten it out. He was in great pain, but continued to work the ammunition relay and also entered several already-flooding compartments to save unconscious crewmen from drowning. Pharris survived the day, but later suffered a broken back from the impact of an anti-aircraft gun during a kamikaze attack in 1945. He survived that injury, too, eventually dying in 1966 from a heart attack he suffered during a Medal of Honor event.

Jackson Charles Pharris (Photo: Congressional Medal of Honor Society)
Jackson Charles Pharris (Photo: Congressional Medal of Honor Society)

Machinist’s Mate First Class Robert Raymond Scott was not involved with the ammunition. Instead, he was manning the air compressor at his station. His station started to flood after the torpedo strike, forcing his shipmates to evacuate the position. Scott refused to go; he said words to the effect of "This is my station and I will stay and give them air as long as the guns are going." He kept working the air compressor until the station completely filled with water and he drowned.

Machinist’s Mate First Class Robert Raymond Scott (Photo: Naval Historical Center)
Machinist’s Mate First Class Robert Raymond Scott (Photo: Naval Historical Center)

USS Utah. Chief Watertender Peter Tomich was an Army veteran of World War I who went on to enlist in the Navy in 1919. A watertender’s job is to tend the fire which heats the ship’s boilers and thus powers the steam turbines. He was belowdecks in the engineering plant when the attack commenced. When the Utah began to capsize, he stayed behind to secure the boilers and make sure that everyone else could escape. He went down with the ship.

Chief Watertender Peter Tomich (Photo: Naval Historical Center)
Chief Watertender Peter Tomich (Photo: Naval Historical Center)

USS West Virginia. Captain Mervyn Sharp Bennion posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his heroism during the battle, but his name is more commonly mentioned in the context of another man’s actions. He was in the conning tower of his ship when the USS Tennessee, moored nearby, was hit. One of them many pieces of shrapnel flying over to the West Virginia hit Captain Bennion in the abdomen. Two sailors, one of them African-American Cook Second Class Doris Miller, who famously received the Navy Cross, picked him up and carried him on a cot to a sheltered spot on the deck. Though mortally wounded, Bennion refused to leave his post and continued to give orders to his crew while keeping his wounds closed with one arm. He was eventually moved up a ladder to the navigation bridge, where he died of blood loss.

Captain Mervyn Sharp Bennion (Photo: Naval Historical Center)
Captain Mervyn Sharp Bennion (Photo: Naval Historical Center)

Naval Air Station Midway. One Medal of Honor was issued to a man who was not at Pearl Harbor that day. On the day of the attack, several surface ships from the same Japanese fleet also attacked Sand Island in Midway Atoll. A Japanese shell from one of the ships struck the command post of Battery H, mortally wounding First Lieutenant George Ham Cannon. First Lieutenant Cannon refused to be rescued until the other men wounded by the same shell were taken care of. He then directed the reorganization of his command post until he was removed by force, later succumbing to his wound and becoming the only Marine recipient of the Medal of Honor for actions taken on December 7, 1941.

First Lieutenant George Ham Cannon (Photo: United States Marine Corps)

Christmas offer: 
Get 15% off until December 26

Soldiers of the 463rd Combat Engineers near the German border observe Christmas in 1944; note K-ration cans as ornaments (Photo: U.S. Army Signal Corps)

Surprise your loved ones with an unforgettable trip to historic places where American soldiers fought for our freedom. Get a 15% discount on our select tours by paying only the registration fee by December 26, 2022 and transferring the rest of the list price until January 31, 2023. Note that this offer applies only in case of new bookings, and it cannot be combined with other special promotions. The offer excludes those three tours in 2024 which include the 80th anniversary D-Day commemorations in Normandy.
 

Book now
Facebook Facebook
Instagram Instagram
Website Website
YouTube YouTube
Copyright © *|CURRENT_YEAR|* *|LIST:COMPANY|*, All rights reserved.
*|IFNOT:ARCHIVE_PAGE|* *|LIST:DESCRIPTION|*

Our mailing address is:
*|HTML:LIST_ADDRESS_HTML|* *|END:IF|*

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list.

*|IF:REWARDS|* *|HTML:REWARDS|* *|END:IF|*
Plan
yourtour
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"This tour was so moving, I was brought to tears"Band of Brothers Tour, 2022
Review score: 10/10
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"I would recommend this tour to anyone without hesitation"Band of Brothers Tour, 2022
Review score: 10/10
Beaches of Normandy Tours review
"I would definitely recommend this tour to everybody who enjoys history."Band of Brothers Tour, 2022
Review score: 10/10
Total:
4.9 - 54 reviews