Pearl Harbor heroes: the Medal of Honor 15

In their resilience, these 15 men symbolized the nation itself. At a stroke, Pearl Harbor united America and brought it fully into the war. 

Ross D. Franklin/AP
Participants place wreaths at the base of the USS Arizona Memorial during the Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day ceremonies in Phoenix on Monday. In Pearl Harbor, the US Navy and National Park Service hosted a ceremony in remembrance of those killed by the Japanese bombing on Dec. 7, 1941.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, Chief Petty Officer John W. Finn was in bed in his apartment near the Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station, about 12 miles from Pearl Harbor’s Battleship Row. Suddenly aircraft began zooming by his window. He heard the rasp of machine gun fire.

Throwing on clothes, he jumped into his car and drove to his post. At first he obeyed speed limits. Then a plane roared overhead, the red rising sun on its wing clearly visible. At that point, Finn floored the accelerator.

Meanwhile, Capt. Samuel G. Fuqua was below decks on his ship, the USS Arizona. Hearing an air raid siren, he rushed up to the quarterdeck. He told the officer of the deck to sound general quarters.

“About this time I heard a plane overhead,” he later told a congressional committee. “I glanced up. I saw a bomb dropping, which appeared to me was going to land on me or close by.”

Lt. Jackson C. Pharris was a gunner on the nearby USS California. He was in charge of an ordnance repair party on the third deck when a Japanese torpedo struck almost directly below his station.

The explosion blew him to the steel ceiling. He fell back stunned and injured by the concussion.

Yes, the Japanese attack on Pearl America took the United States by surprise. It ended a military disaster for US forces. Twenty-one major Navy ships sunk. More than 300 aircraft damaged or destroyed. Two thousand four hundred and three service personnel and civilians killed, almost half on the battleship Arizona.

But many sailors and soldiers quickly recovered from their shock to fight back. Fifteen would eventually be awarded the nation’s highest military award, the Medal of Honor. Ten of these awards were posthumous.

In their resilience, these men symbolized the nation itself. Pearl Harbor was a tactical victory for Japan but a great strategic failure. At a stroke, it united America and brought it fully into the war.

Of the Medal of Honor winners, Petty Officer Finn may be the best known. His was the first such award of World War II.

Finn was in charge of maintenance of weapons for a flight of Navy PBY Catalina flying boats. When he arrived at his base, he found most of the aircraft already burning from Japanese bombs. Some of his men were trying to fire back at the enemy from machine guns still on the planes. Some were removing the guns for separate use.

Finn took a .50 caliber machine gun from the squadron painter. He mounted it on a tripod platform used for training and pushed it into the open. He then fired on waves of Japanese aircraft for the next two hours.

He received 21 wounds. One bullet went through his foot. He lost use of his left arm.

Finn thought he hit one plane. The official record is dubious. No matter – on Sept. 15, 1942, Pacific Fleet commander Chester Nimitz hung the Medal of Honor around his neck for “magnificent courage in the face of almost certain death."

Captain Fuqua, for his part, was knocked unconscious by the bomb he saw exploding. He awoke about six feet from a hole in the deck. The bomb had glanced off the armor of a turret, penetrated the deck, and exploded in the captain’s pantry.

“I glanced up forward and saw the whole midship a mass of flames,” he told the congressional committee.

He began to direct rescue and firefighting efforts. Then there was another tremendous explosion, which made the ship appear to rise out of the water, shudder, and begin to settle rapidly at the bow.

At that point, Fuqua realized that the ship was doomed and he was the senior surviving officer. He stayed at his post and continued to calmly direct the movement of wounded and surviving men to launches and other rescue boats. He did not leave until he was satisfied that all who could be saved had been rescued.

“It inspired everyone who saw him and undoubtedly resulted in the saving of many lives,” reads his Medal of Honor citation.

On the California, Gunner Pharris recovered and organized surviving crewmembers to pass ammunition hand-to-hand for use on topside antiaircraft guns. Water and oil were rushing in through gaping holes and men began to be overcome by oil fumes. The ship was listing heavily to port due to a second torpedo hit.

Pharris ordered counter-flooding to try and right the battleship. He twice fainted from fumes but entered flooding compartments to drag to safety unconscious shipmates who were being submerged in oil.

“He saved many of his shipmates from death and was largely responsible for keeping the California in action during the attack,” reads his Medal of Honor citation.

Pharris survived the attack but was hospitalized until March 1942. Aboard a heavy cruiser in Japanese waters near the end of the war, he was injured again while helping down a kamikaze aircraft aiming at his ship.

President Harry Truman awarded Pharris his medal in 1948.

Of the remaining 12 Medal of Honor winners, three were commanding officers who died at their posts: Capt. Mervyn S. Bennion of the USS West Virginia; Rear Adm. Isaac C. Kidd, commander of Battleship Division One and senior officer afloat on the USS Arizona; and Capt. Franklin Van Valkenburgh, the Arizona’s commander.

One was the commanding officer of a repair ship. Capt. Cassin Young of the USS Vestal. Blown overboard by the explosion of the Arizona, to which his ship was moored, Captain Young swam back to his ship through burning oil, boarded it, and directed its movement away from the doomed battleship to a safe anchorage.

Others were lower-ranking Navy personnel who showed unusual courage. Ensign Francis Flaherty remained in a turret of the capsizing USS Oklahoma, holding a flashlight so that others could escape, thus sacrificing his own life.

Chief Boatswain Edwin J. Hill of the USS Nevada, ashore, helped release his battleship from its mooring. Then he jumped into the water, swam after the ship, and climbed aboard to continue the fight. He was later killed when the force of bombs blew him overboard.

Perhaps the most poignant story is that of Chief Watertender Peter Tomich of the USS Utah. Realizing that his ship was capsizing, he remained at his post in the engineering plant of the ship, trying to secure boilers and ensure firefighters had left their stations. He died when the ship finally capsized.

Tomich was an Austro-Hungarian immigrant and World War I veteran. President Franklin D. Roosevelt awarded him a posthumous Medal of Honor. But the US Navy was unable to find any surviving family members to receive the honor. It went unclaimed for 65 years, until it was awarded to a relative in Split, Croatia, in 2006.

Perhaps fittingly, John Finn was the last surviving Medal of Honor winner from Pearl Harbor. He passed away in 2010, aged 100. In a 2009 interview, he responded dismissively when asked if he was a hero.

He replied, in essence, that heroism is in everyone.

“You gotta understand that there’s all kinds of heroes, but they never get a chance to be in a hero’s position,” he told CNN.

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