Tradition, Valor and Victory are the Navy’s heritage from the past. To these may be added dedication, discipline, and vigilance as the watchwords of the present and the future.
At home or on distance stations, we serve with pride, confident in the respect of our country, our shipmates, and our families.
Our responsibilities sober us; our adversities strengthen us.
Service to God and Country is our special privilege. We serve with Honor.
-Navy Ethos, 2nd Stanza
Cordage and Cordite –
Chief Warrant Officer Edwin J. Hill was watching quietly from his traditional bird nest, a small observation post next to one of the anti-aircraft guns on USS Nevada (BB-36), as a new Ensign began to assemble the morning color detail. A soft thunder echoed through the harbor, the final cry of the low clouds retreating to the north. It was a beautiful morning, but little did Hill know it would be his last.
The distant thunder Hill had heard as it turns out wasn’t the weather, it was man made. Nearly 10 miles away from where the 29-year Boatswain’s Mate enjoyed his coffee, a Japanese submarine had just been sunk by a United States destroyer while attempting to enter Pearl Harbor. It was December 7, 1941, and the first hostile shots the United States would fire in World War II went relatively unnoticed. The Japanese surprise attack however, would go down in history.
Hill had spent his morning in a flurry of activity. He occupied his time getting the ship’s fantail ready for the Sunday morning church service. Periodically he would return to his gun mount above the fantail, keeping silent watch on the new officer. There was more than a fair share of grumbling from the crew as the ship slowly came to life on the chilly morning.
As morning colors began to play, more than a hundred Japanese fighters and bombers broke the peace that usually presided over the harbor, strafing and bombing every ship they came across.
Bo’sun Hill snapped into action. Rushing to a watch station, he retrieved a hatchet and raced down the deck of Nevada. Due to the harsh Pacific sun, large awnings had been placed over the anti-aircraft guns that were to be manned during the day. While the bugle still called the notes of general quarters, the Boatswain’s Mate ran from station to station, clearing the guns of any obstructions he could with swift strikes from his hatchet.
Only a few moments later, a pair of bombs struck Nevada’s bridge. The battleship reeled in her berthing, unable to escape the blows pummeling her.
A handful of lines secured the ship to a concrete pier close to the water-line. Inaccessible to the Sailors on board the ship, the wire ropes were designed with the intent that a tug-boat would release the ship and push her out to sea.
Ignoring the enemy gunfire and the flames dancing above the waves, Bo’sun Hill gathered a handful of Boatswain’s Mates and jumped into the water. Swimming onto the small quay, the team cut loose the wire cabling holding the ship in place, allowing her to steam away from the dangerous pier.
[At eight thirty, the quartermaster standing watch on the beleaguered bridge recorded in the ship’s log: “Urgently necessary to get underway to avoid destruction of the ship.”]
USS Nevada leapt away from her restraints, cutting her way through the water and away from the deathtrap that had become her mooring.
After 29 years in the Navy, the career Sailor wasn’t about to let his ship continue without its Bo’sun. The Sailors jumped once again into the deluge, avoiding debris and enemy fire to catch up with the wounded Nevada. An alert Sailor watching for torpedoes lowered a ladder, allowing the drenched sea and anchor detail to climb aboard.
Normally requiring two to three hours to build steam, four tugs and a Captain to get underway, USS Nevada began her sortie with a skeleton crew. Bo’sun Hill began throwing line and rope into the water for the Sailors knocked overboard from the earlier detonations on the Nevada and USS Arizona. As he gained more fighting men, he would assign them to anti-aircraft guns.
Due to the damage, the remaining leadership on the Nevada called for the ship to be grounded in the mouth of the harbor. Bo’sun Hill told the bridge crew to simply have someone wave their hat as a signal to drop anchor. Once again braving the enemy fire, the Boatswain’s Mate cleared the foc’sle of junior Sailors. A handful of the crew remained, waiting to drop anchor when a trio of bombs struck the forward section of the ship.
USS Nevada was then sunk after a 30-minute-long battle through the bay. Three officers and 47 enlisted men, including Bo’sun Hill were killed in action, with five officers and 104 enlisted wounded.
Despite great odds and in disregard to his own safety, Warrant Officer Hill upheld naval tradition, refusing to quit his job until it was accomplished to his satisfaction, doing what was right until the end. For his service and duty, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
[Honor: “To fulfill an obligation, or agreement”]
Fighting Fear Itself –
The USS California (BB-44) was in trouble. Before the morning’s hostilities, it was often joked within the fleet that the California couldn’t pass the mouth of the bay any more than she could pass an admiral’s inspection. California was one of the oldest battleships in the harbor at the time and one of the newest crews. While the anti-aircraft batteries of California responded to the onslaught of the Japanese attack, one Sailor silenced any jokes about the California with his actions that morning.
Gunner’s Mate Jackson Pharris was in charge of an ordinance repair party on the third deck when the first torpedo found California. Several bombs had already struck the upper decks, killing several Sailors and causing flooding throughout the ship. The repair party was only one level above the torpedo strike, its explosion throwing the men like ragdolls against the bulkhead. Though badly wounded, Pharris re-organized his party to help pass ammunition up two levels to the anti-aircraft guns.
While his men continued transferring ammo, Pharris moved down a level to search for survivors. Through the flames and harsh smoke, he repeatedly ran into flooding compartments to rescue unconscious Sailors and take them to safety. Passing out in a passageway from the fumes, Pharris was discovered by a member of his repair party who had gone to search for him.
The gunner’s mate refused to retreat to the deck outside, and after regaining his bearings, he once again returned to the depths of the ship. Pharris ignored his wounds as he encouraged the panicking Sailors around him, leading them to safety while ignoring his own.
Pharris was once again knocked unconscious by a bomb strike and after regaining consciousness again, had to be restrained from continuing to search for wounded shipmates. Pharris’ courage inspired the crew of USS California. He is credited for maintaining the flow of ammunition which allowed the ship to shoot down at least two enemy fighters.
Pharris’ ability to ignore the destruction around him and focus on the task at hand, allowed him to perform a vital function that kept his ship from destruction. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions and was commissioned as a Lieutenant less than a year later.
[Courage: strength in the face of pain or the ability to do something that frightens one]
Bridges and Bombs –
Captain Mervyn Bennion refused to quit moving. His ship, the USS West Virginia (BB-48), had taken several hard hits, but at least two bombs had failed to explode, one of which had pierced into the magazine of the ship.
Captain Bennion was popular among the crew. He had been spotted on more than one occasion helping load ammunition or swab the decks with the enlisted, activities far from the area of responsibility of the 30-year Navy man. It was of little surprise to the crew to see him among the gun turrets, shouting inspiration and direction to the crews of the anti-air guns while they did their best to mount a response to the attack on their ship.
A brief reprieve between the first and second wave of the attack gave the Captain a chance to rest. He had been moving between multiple decks, preferring to get eyes on the damage of the ship himself, rather than taking in reports from within the safety of the bridge.
Returning to the conning bridge, Captain Bennion was anxious to speak to his crew, having spent a majority of his morning on the deckplates. As soon as he opened the rear door of the conning tower, West Virginia came under assault. The second wave of the attack had begun.
Running to the flag bridge, the commanding officer had barely cleared half of the walkway before a bomb fragment struck him in the spine.
In immense pain and unable to walk, he was dragged to the flag bridge by an alert corpsman, where he refused further treatment knowing the severity of his injuries. From a stretcher on the flag bridge, he exercised a precise control over the remains of his ship, directing the evacuation of the wounded off the ship and the damage control efforts to fight the fires and flooding.
The captain refused all efforts to remove him from his bridge, his only concern was that of the casualties in his gun crews and how to replace them.
As the ship burned underneath him, Captain Bennion told his men to abandon the bridge and the ship as his final orders before passing away.
Due to his sacrifice and his commitment to fighting the ship until his final moments, many more sailors were able to get away from the burning wreck, with only 106 sailors perishing on West Virginia that day.
The Japanese navy struck Pearl Harbor as hard as they could, killing and wounding over 2,500 Sailors. 18 ships were either sunk or severely damaged. While any Sailor could face disaster, it takes a certain character to meet adversity in such a way as the men of that day. These stories of courage and sacrifice are just three of many that could be told from the remaining service members during WWII. These service members, and those who have gone before them represent the fighting spirit of the Navy at its core, a standard every Sailor can hope to match now and in the future.
Story by PO3 Samuel Bacon