Shortly before 8 a.m. on December 7, 1941, the skies over the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii filled with the drone of more than 350 Japanese fighter planes and bombers. During a two-hour ambush, the Japanese strike force rained fire on the unprepared Pacific Fleet, damaging or destroying some 20 ships and 200 aircraft and inflicting 3,500 casualties. The attack thrust the United States into World War II, but it is also remembered for the many scenes of heroism and self-sacrifice that played out as sailors and airmen mounted a desperate defense. From the man who led the evacuation of USS Arizona to the fighter pilot who took to the skies in his pajamas, learn the stories of eight of the many servicemen who distinguished themselves on one of the darkest days in American military history.
Missouri-born Samuel Fuqua had a front row seat to the devastation at Peal Harbor from aboard USS Arizona, a battleship that was heavily bombed during the first wave of the attack. The 42-year-old lieutenant commander was having breakfast when the ship’s air raid sirens first sounded around 7:55 a.m. He immediately rushed to the quarterdeck, only to be strafed by enemy fire and then knocked out cold when a bomb fell just feet away from him. Though dazed, Fuqua jumped to his feet after regaining consciousness and began directing firefighting operations. Moments later, he became the Arizona’s senior surviving officer after another bomb detonated the ship’s ammunition magazine, killing more than 1,000 men. As burned and maimed sailors poured onto the deck, Fuqua ignored gunfire from passing aircraft and calmly led efforts to evacuate his sinking ship. “I can still see him standing there,” Arizona crewman Edward Wentzlaff later remembered, “ankle deep in water, stub of a cigar in his mouth, cool and efficient, oblivious to the danger about him.” Fuqua was among the last men to abandon ship. He and two fellow officers then commandeered a boat and braved heavy fire while picking up survivors from the fire-streaked waters. He went on to win the Medal of Honor for his actions at Pearl Harbor, and was later promoted to rear admiral upon his retirement from the Navy in 1953.
Around the same time Arizona was being bombed, the training and target ship USS Utah was rocked by two torpedo strikes from Japanese aircraft. The aging vessel soon began to list to one side as water flooded into its hull. Inside the boiler room, Chief Watertender Peter Tomich ordered his crew to abandon ship. After ensuring that his men had escaped their engineering spaces, the Austro-Hungarian immigrant and World War I veteran returned to his post and singlehandedly secured the boilers, preventing a potential explosion that would have claimed many lives. USS Utah rolled over and sank just minutes later. Fifty eight men—Tomich among them—went down with the ship. The 48-year-old was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for his lifesaving actions, but in an unusual twist, the Navy was unable to locate any of his family members. His award went unclaimed for nearly 65 years until 2006, when it was finally presented to a relative during a ceremony in Split, Croatia.
George Welch and Kenneth Taylor
Army Air Corps pilots George Welch and Kenneth Taylor spent the evening before the Pearl Harbor attack attending a formal dance and playing poker until the wee hours of the morning. They were still sleeping off their night of partying when they were awakened around 8 a.m. by the sound of exploding bombs and machine gun fire. Not wanting to miss out on a fight, the pair threw on their tuxedo pants and sped to Haleiwa airfield in Taylor’s Buick, dodging strafing Japanese planes along the way. Just minutes later, they became the first American pilots to get airborne after they took off in their P-40 fighters. Welch and Taylor went on to wage a lonely battle against hundreds of enemy planes. They even landed at Wheeler airfield at one point and had their ammunition replenished before rejoining the fray. By the time the attack ended, the second lieutenants had shot down at least six fighters and bombers between them. Both were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for their high flying exploits, and Taylor was given a Purple Heart for a shrapnel wound he received when his P-40 was struck by machine gun fire.
Doris Miller’s skin color usually relegated him to the role of cook and laundry attendant aboard USS West Virginia, but when the ship was struck by multiple bombs and torpedoes on December 7, he became one of its most vital crewmembers. Miller had rushed to his battle station amidships as soon as the shooting started. Finding it destroyed, the amateur boxer sprinted to the quarterdeck and used his hulking frame to help move the injured. Miller was among the men who carried the ship’s mortally wounded skipper to safety, and he then helped pass ammunition to the crews of two .50 caliber machine guns. Despite having no weapons training, he eventually manned one of the weapons himself and began blasting away at the Japanese fighters swarming around the ship. “It wasn’t hard,” he later remembered. “I just pulled the trigger and she worked fine…I think I got one of those Jap planes. They were diving pretty close to us.” Miller continued to operate the gun for some 15 minutes until ordered to abandon ship. His actions earned him the Navy Cross—the first ever presented to an African American—and he was widely hailed as a war hero in the black press. He later toured the country promoting war bonds before being reassigned to the escort carrier Liscome Bay. Sadly, Miller was among the 646 crewmen killed when the ship was torpedoed and sunk in 1943.
Chief Petty Officer John Finn was still lying in bed with his wife when Japanese fighter planes descended on his post at the Kaneohe Bay air station some 15 miles from Pearl Harbor. After throwing on clothes and driving to the base, he commandeered a .30 caliber machine gun and dragged it to an open area with a clear view of the sky. For the next two-and-a-half hours, Finn kept up a near-constant rate of fire against the strafing hordes of Zeroes, and may have been responsible for destroying at least one plane. “I can’t honestly say I hit any,” he remembered in 2001. “But I shot at every damn plane I could see.” Finn suffered more than 20 wounds from bullets and shrapnel during the battle. One shot left him with a broken foot; another completely incapacitated his left arm. He received medical aid after the attack ended, but returned to duty that same day to assist in arming American planes. Finn’s machine gun heroics won him the Medal of Honor—the only one awarded specifically for a combat action during Pearl Harbor. He would go on to survive the war and live to the age of 100.
One of the many civilians to win plaudits during the Pearl Harbor attack, George Walters was a dockyard worker who manned a massive rolling crane positioned alongside the dry-docked battleship USS Pennsylvania. When the yard came under fire during the early stages of the raid, he valiantly moved his crane back and forth on its track, effectively shielding Pennsylvania from low flying dive-bombers and fighters. Walters even tried to use the crane’s boom to swat the enemy planes out of the sky. The gunners on Pennsylvania initially considered the dockworker a nuisance, but they soon realized that his 50-foot-high cab gave him an excellent view of incoming aircraft. Using the movements of the crane arm as a guide, they were able to return fire against the enemy to devastating effect. Walters continued his suicidal maneuvers until a Japanese bomb exploded on the dock and sent him to the hospital with a concussion. His actions may have helped save Pennsylvania from destruction, but his story went largely untold until 1957, when it appeared in author Walter Lord’s famous book “Day of Infamy.”
USS Nevada was the only ship from Pearl Harbor’s Battleship Row to make a break for the open ocean, but its great escape might never have happened if not for the efforts of 47-year-old Chief Boatswain Edwin Hill. Shortly after the battle began, Hill and a small crew braved heavy fire and strafing to go ashore and cut the moorings holding the Nevada to the quay at Ford Island. He then dove into the oil-stained water and swam back to his ship to continue the fight. As Hill directed an ammunition train, Nevada ran a gauntlet of enemy fire and tried to steam out of the harbor. The lone battleship was an obvious target, however, and after taking repeated hits from Japanese dive-bombers, its captain opted to beach his vessel to avoid bottling up the rest of the fleet. Chief Hill was soon called into action a final time. He was on the forecastle working to drop anchor when a group Japanese planes rained bombs on the deck, blowing his body off the ship and killing him instantly. Hill was later posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. USS Nevada, meanwhile, survived Pearl Harbor and went on to participate in the Normandy invasion in 1944.
Phil Rasmussen was one of the handful of American pilots who managed to take to the skies during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Like many others, the 23-year-old second lieutenant was still sleeping when his post at Wheeler Field was bombed, but he rushed outside and found an undamaged P-36 fighter sitting on the runway. Still clad in a pair of purple pajamas, Rasmussen took off and joined three other pilots in a dogfight against 11 Japanese aircraft. His plane was slower and less maneuverable than the enemy Zeroes, but he quickly managed to shoot one of them down. He then crippled another plane before two Japanese pilots raked his P-36 with machine gun and cannon fire, leaving behind some 500 bullet holes. Another Zero just narrowly missed when it tried to ram him. Rasmussen’s canopy was blown off and he briefly lost control, but he managed to right his damaged plane and make a miraculous landing without breaks, rudders or a tail wheel. The young pilot was awarded a Silver Star for his bravery, and went on to serve in the Air Force for another 24 years before retiring as a colonel.
On December 7, 1941, these Pearl Harbor heroes rose above and beyond the call of duty to serve their fellow man and country. Though there was so much death and destruction, these brave souls risked their lives to help their fellow crewmen.
Read more about these Pearl Harbor heroes and remember that even in the darkest times, there are those who will always turn on the light.
Born in Springfield, Ohio, First Class Seaman James Ward sacrificed his life on that fateful day to help his crewmen escape to safety. Ward was stationed on the USS Oklahoma, one of the ships the Japanese sank that day.
When it looked clear that the ship would sink, Ward didn’t flee or hide. With only a flashlight, Ward stayed in a turret where some crewmen still remained. Without his light, the crewmen never would have seen the exit. Thanks to him, they followed the light and safely escaped.
Unfortunately, Ward was unable to escape the turret himself. He lost his life that day. Ward was later honored with a Medal of Honor and a Purple Heart.
The morning of December 7, 1941, was just like any other morning for Doris Miller, an African American Mess Attendant, Third Class on the USS West Virginia. After serving breakfast, Miller started on the day’s laundry when a Japanese torpedo struck the side of the ship. Rather than caving to the chaos around him, Miller sprung into action, helping the injured get to safety by moving them back and forth across the deck.
When his superior officer asked him to help load ammo into two Browning .50 caliber anti-aircraft machine guns, Miller loaded the guns and then began firing them at the Japanese plans above. Though it is unknown whether he hit any planes, Miller helped keep the planes at bay, despite having no training with the gun.
Miller survived the attack and received several promotions, but two years later, he was killed when a torpedo sank the USS Liscome Bay. For his acts of bravery, Miller received the Navy Cross and a Purple Heart. He became the face of recruitment posters for the Navy, and in 2010, his face appeared on a first-class postage stamp honoring great sailors.
Miller wasn’t the only hero on the USS West Virginia. In fact, he briefly crossed paths with another hero – Captain Mervyn Bennion.
During the attack, shrapnel mortally wounded Bennion, but instead of allowing Miller and other officers to carry him away to safety, Bennion insisted he remain on the ship. Though he was in great pain, Bennion continued to give orders and direct his men as they tried to defend the ship. He eventually died from his injuries, but not before doing everything possible to save his men.
For his bravery, Bennion was awarded a Medal of Honor and a Purple Heart.
Machinist Donald Ross never knew what the USS Nevada would bring him, but when the Japanese began attacking her in their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, Ross launched into action.
First, Ross cleared his station – the forward dynamo room – which was quickly filling with heat, smoke and steam. It was nearly impossible to see, but Ross didn’t care. After his men escaped to safety, he remained to keep the room working until he become completely blind and unconscious.
Luckily, he was saved and resuscitated, but Ross didn’t remain in safety for long. He went right back to that forward dynamo room to secure it. Once he finished, he moved on to the after dynamo room, but the smoke and heat finally got to him. He passed out once more, but managed to regain consciousness. He left the room and returned to his station until told to abandon the station altogether.
Ross later received the Medal of Honor for his valor.
We often think heroes wear capes and masks, but as these Pearl Harbor heroes show, anyone can be a hero. All it take is courage and a strong will to do the right thing. These are just a few Pearl Harbor heroes, and there are many more. Come to Pearl Harbor to honor these great men and show your appreciation for their sacrifice.