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The element of surprise had served the first wave a Japanese aircraft well.  Within 20 minutes of the initial attack, all of the big battleships of the Pacific Fleet had suffered devastating losses, and on the ground at Ford Island, Kaneohe Bay and Hickam Field, little was left of America's air power.  Slowly, in that first half hour, the Americans at Pearl Harbor began to recover enough to arm their guns and begin firing back.  A little before 8:30 the first wave of enemy planes turned back north to their carriers, leaving Pearl Harbor in smoking ruin.

Five air stations were scattered across the island of Oahu including the Naval Air Station at Kaneohe Bay and the smaller Marine Air Station at Ewa. The bulk of the American air presence in the Pacific was located at Wheeler Field near Schofield Barracks in the center of the island, Hickam Field located between Honolulu and Pearl Harbor, and the new Bellows Field on the island's southeast coastline. In all, these five fields were home to some 400 aircraft on the morning of December 7, 1941; and all were priority targets for Japanese Commander Mitsuo Fuchida's first wave of 183 fighter planes and torpedo bombers. 

When the first wave approached the north end of Oahu from their carriers just 200 miles away, they split up to attack in all directions. One flight peeled off towards the Naval Air Station at Kaneohe Bay where John Finn determinedly fought back. Despite his courage, and similar valiant efforts by others at Kaneohe Bay, within minutes twenty-six PBYs were destroyed where they sat and six more were severely damaged. Only three planes that were out on a morning patrol survived the attack of that first wave. 

Six Zeroes from the enemy flight that skirted the coastline to attack Pearl Harbor from the west peeled off as they passed the Marine Air Station at Ewa to strafe the fields. Of forty-eight aircraft based there, thirty-three US Marine Corps fighter airplanes were destroyed or damaged. 

Almost before the first bombs fell on American ships around Ford Island, US Naval and Marine Corps aviation in the Pacific had been reduced by half.

The damage was even worse for the Army Air Force.

The threat of sabotage was far greater than the threat of attack at Pearl Harbor late in 1941, and to minimize this risk the Army Air Force Commander Lieutenant General Walter C. Short had ordered his airplanes to be neatly parked in highly visible rows away from the hangers. At 7:51 a.m. Japanese aircraft descended on Wheeler Field and, four minutes later, other enemy aircraft simultaneously launched the assault on Pearl Harbor and nearby Hickam Field.

The bulk of the United States Army Air Force was destroyed on the ground.  By the time the second wave of Fuchida's attack force arrived over Oahu, perhaps as many as 20 American airplanes had risen to the defense.  It was a feeble attempt to preserve what remained.  When the sun set over the Hawaiian Islands on December 7, 1941, of nearly 230 Army aircraft assigned to duty in the Pacific, 64 were destroyed and 82 were damaged.  More than 500 airmen were either killed or wounded.

The one hundred eighty-three Japanese airplanes that attacked Oahu in the first wave on December 7, 1941 may have ruled the skies, but they were not unchallenged. Even as Major Landon dropped from his cloud cover into the exploding skies below, American pilots were responding. By the time Landon's B-17 taxied to a stop amid a hail of bullets and bombs, daring pilots were climbing into any available and undamaged airplanes to respond. 

Lieutenant Philip Rasmussen was still in his pajamas as he raced across Wheeler Field in the center of Hawaii and climbed into to his aging P-36 fighter. Ground crews were rushing around trying to arm the few planes that had survived the initial onslaught. Ammunition had been locked up in storage, for America was at peace, and the process took considerable time during which bombs continued to fall and grounded airplanes on the tarmac continued to explode. 

Climbing quickly to 9,000 feet, Lieutenant Rasmussen managed to shoot down one Zero before his own aging fighter was raked with bullets. With two 20mm cannon shells buried in the radio behind him and without rudder, brakes or tail wheel, he managed to get back Wheeler Field. 

In the confusion the 45th Pursuit Group squadron operations officer Lieutenant Gordon Sterling grabbed the first available plane. Whipping his watch from his wrist he handed it to the crew chief and said, "Give this to my mother! I'm not coming back!" Then he was airborne, engaged with enemy fighters...and then gone. When Pearl Harbor survivors held their 60th reunion, Second Lieutenant Sterling was still counted among the missing, the first such airman of World War II. 

When the smoke cleared, not only was the Navy's Battleship Row awash in flame and debris, so too was every major air field in Hawaii. The enemy had struck with complete surprise, throwing 360 airplanes in two waves at the Hawaiian Island. American airmen rose in that early morning to meet the surprise, just as they would rise to repeated challenges in the years to come. One hundred and eleven Japanese airplanes were damaged in the battle, twenty of them beyond repair. Nine enemy aircraft were shot down by five young Army Air Force pilots including the victory by the pajama-clad Lieutenant Rasmussen and an impressive four victories by Second Lieutenant George Welch. Both men were awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the first Air Force heroes of World War II.

 

5_shaw_large.jpg (108491 bytes)USS Shaw

The respite lasted for only a brief fifteen minutes before the second wave of nearly 200 Japanese bombers, torpedo planes, and zeroes swooped in to finish whatever remained from the first wave's attack.  Battleships already struggling to stay afloat sustained new damage and as quickly as fires were extinguished in one area, bombs and torpedoes from the fresh wave of Japanese planes caused new eruptions, fires, and death.  The Vestal struggled to free itself from the doomed Arizona, and the Oklahoma nearly pinned the Tennessee to the ground as it rolled over in the finality of death.  In a huge ball of fire, the USS Shaw literally blew apart.  But above the din, new sounds emerged with greater frequency.  American sailors and Marines were fighting back.  Even as their ships bucked and swayed with hit after hit, as zeroes strafed open positions and gun emplacements, and as the metal of many decks heated almost beyond tolerance, resistance mounted.  No longer was all the fire and smoke of battle indicative of American losses. 

Every man, regardless of rank or physical condition, took it upon himself to fight the enemy.  Navy Steward Dorie Miller had never been trained in using a machine gun, but that didn't stop him from grabbing the first one available and shooting back at the incoming airplanes.  The Black Naval Steward shot down his first plane and became a symbol of the resistance that day.  He was ultimately awarded the Navy Cross.  

On the USS Maryland Captain Carter turned to Commander Fitzgerald on the bridge and said, "We can't do much good up here.  Let's go down to the guns and give them a hand."  Minutes later the two officers stood shoulder to shoulder with their enlisted sailors to man the anti-aircraft batteries. 

On the cruiser New Orleans, Chaplain Howell Fogey pitched in, passing ammunition to the men to keep the guns operating.  When one Jap plane was hit and began its fiery drop from the sky, he turned to grasp the next armful with what would become one of the great quotes of the day, "Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition."

Though only a small number of Japanese airplanes were actually shot down that day, each flaming zero was a moral victory, badly needed by the Americans.

 

USS California

Anchored a short distance behind the other battleships was the USS California, a ship considered to be behind not only in positioning at anchor but in its readiness for war.  Other sailors joked that the California couldn't pass an admiral's inspection.  On a day full of the unexpected, more men aboard the California would earn Medals of Honor than any other ship.  The big guns of the California were firing back as the enemy planes targeted her and continued to strafe her decks with bullets.  

Robert R. Scott Machinist's Mate First Class Robert R. Scott was assigned to work in the compartment containing the air compressor.  Suddenly he felt the California tremble as an enemy torpedo ripped through her side.  Water rushed into the gaping wound in the California's side, making its way to the compartment where Scott was worked.   Above he could hear that, despite the severe damage to the California, the big anti-aircraft guns were still firing.  The flooding in the compartment was swift and dangerous.  The other crew members turned to flee to safety, urging Scott to follow them.  He replied, "This is my station and I will stay and give them air (the men above) as long as the guns are going."  The guns kept going, Scott kept supplying air, and the water continued to flood the ship.  Machinist's Mate Robert Scott died at his post.

Thomas ReevesRadio Electrician Thomas Reeves felt the tremor as the California took its fatal hit.  The damage destroyed the mechanized hoists that moved ammunition from below deck to the huge guns that were now firing back at the invading Japanese.  Quickly the 45-year old career Navy man began passing ammunition by hand, up the corridor to the big guns.  Fire erupted and smoke filled the hot corridor, but Reeves refused to give up his post and leave the anti-aircraft guns without supply of ammunition.  Sweating with exertion, fighting back any fear or concern for himself, he continued to pass ammunition forward until the smoke and fire in the corridor stole the last signs of life from his body.   He died, two days before his 46th birthday.Herbert Charpoit Jones

 

Ensign Herbert Charpoit Jones had organized and led a crew of men in a similar ammunition supply effort for the anti-aircraft battery.   Just six days earlier he had celebrated his 23rd birthday.  It would be his last.  As he directed the supply of ammunition towards the guns, another bomb exploded, seriously injuring the young man from the same state for which his ship was named.  Fire erupted in the compartment where his broken body lay, deadly smoke quickly filling every air space.  Two sailors bent to recover the body of the wounded officer.  It was a valiant act, spawned be the desire to save their Ensign before seeking safety themselves.  Ensign Charpoit knew he was dying, knew their efforts might only cost them their own lives.  Gritting his teeth against the horrible pain, he ordered, "Leave me alone!  I am done for.  Get out of here before the magazines go off." 

The USS California was rocked with hit after hit as explosions shook the might battleship. The pounding was too great and inches-thick steel peeled back like tin foil, opening gaping wounds to admit the rush of briny water from the harbor. It was obvious she was doomed and sinking fast. 

Those above deck and able to move began leaping into the oily waters in a desperate attempt to escape the inferno and swim for shore. Hundreds more remained trapped beneath her sinking deck, trying desperately to find a way topside to escape what was rapidly becoming a tomb. Many men below were seriously inured from the earlier explosions and unable to walk or even to craw to safety.

california_large.jpg (70890 bytes)

 

Jackson Charles PharrisLieutenant Jackson Pharris was leading an ordnance repair party on the third deck when the first torpedo hit the California. The explosion occurred directly below him, throwing his body into the air to crash hard back on the metal deck. The Lieutenant was badly wounded, but struggled to his feet to organize the passing of ammunition back to the guns. Water and oil continued to rush in where the port bulkhead had been torn apart by the explosion. The heat of the fires was intense, and the acrid smoke quickly damaged lungs. Despite his pain and heedless of the dangers around him, he still directed the effort to maintain a hand-supply train to the guns. It was evident that the California was sinking, but her crew refused to go down without a fight. 

With the demise of the California beyond doubt and with nothing left to use to return fire, Lieutenant Pharris refused to leave behind any man that could be saved. Repeatedly he ran into flooded compartments to rescue unconscious sailors and drag them to safety. Twice, he was overcome by smoke himself and fell unconscious. Each time, upon regaining consciousness, he fought back the pain of his wounds to return for more injured sailors. His example inspired panicky men around him, encouraging them to not only try and get out themselves, but to render life-saving assistance to their comrades. 

When at last California sank into the mud of the harbor, her crew had given a grand account in her final moments of service. Of fifteen Medals of Honor awarded for heroism at Pearl Harbor on that Day of Infamy, four went to men of the USS California-more than any other ship in the harbor.

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The USS Nevada was the northernmost ship on battleship row, just ahead of the Arizona.  It promised to be an easy day for the crew.  The ship's commander and executive officer had gone ashore leaving the junior officers in charge.  Some of the men were planning a tennis tournament later in the day, others were preparing for a swim at the nearby beach at Aiea Landing.   Moments before the first Japanese planes appeared over the harbor much of the crew had gathered for the 8:00 A.M. presentation of the colors.  When the first enemy planes dove on the American ships the men aboard Nevada held their ranks while the last notes of the National Anthem sounded.  Then they broke formation to head for their guns.

Donald Kirby RossBelow the ship's deck Warrant Machinist Donald Kirby Ross had just finished shaving.  December 7th was the prelude to a special day, his birthday.  Tomorrow the young man who had been born in Kansas, moved about from various foster homes during his early life, and then enlisted in the Navy in Colorado would be thirty-one years old.  His world, after an often-harsh childhood, was looking brighter.  The Navy had become a wonderful home and ashore he had a girlfriend waiting for him.  Helen was a student at the local university and the two had been dating and falling in love.

When the first sounds of warfare reached Ross, he ran to the forward dynamo room.  This was his duty station, an area he knew well.   The dynamo rooms contained the controls for large electrical generators that kept the battleship running, that fed power to the guns, and that illuminated the darkened corridors below deck.  If something were amiss his ship would need power.  If there was an emergency the Nevada might need power to get underway.

"Getting underway" was an impossible dream for all the big ships at Pearl Harbor that December 7th morning, one of the single largest factors in the extent of destruction they suffered.  It takes a long time to fire the huge boilers that power a battleship, often hours to build up the steam necessary to turn the big screws that propelled them into battle…or away from a massacre.  To make matters even more difficult, such large ships usually require the assistance of at least two (and often as many as four) tugboats to maneuver in the confines of a harbor.

Edwin Joseph Hill

Fortunately for the Nevada, two of its boilers were fired up that day.  Normally they could not quickly get up enough steam to move the ship out of harm's way, but that did not keep the junior officers aboard from giving it their best efforts.  While the nearby Arizona was exploding in flames and as bombs ripped into metal all across battleship row, Chief Boatswain's Mate Edwin Hill gathered a crew to head for the wharf to which Nevada was tethered.  Below deck Donald Ross and his crew were feeding electricity to power a "run for it".  Above, Zeroes swooped low to spray the deck and wharf with leaden death.  Ignoring the danger, Hill succeeded in reaching his pier and casting off the mooring lines.  While the second wave of enemy made its run on the ships now dead in the water, the Nevada was pulling away.  

BMC Hill would not let his ship leave without him.  He jumped from the pier and swam to the Nevada to help direct its escape.

Below deck, Machinist Ross continued to supply the power needed to move the battleship.  Amazingly, under the guidance of only junior officers only and without assistance from any of the harbor's tugs, the big battleship was steaming away from the immediate area of danger and towards the open water.  It was an unexpected sight--a thrilling sight--and a badly needed ray of hope in a day that was otherwise devoid of anything to celebrate.

The Nevada, despite its valiant escape, was a badly battered warship.  Water poured through large holes and she was moving under a very limited amount of power.  Halfway to open seas it became apparent the battleship would never reach safety.  The young officers steered her towards the shoreline, hoping to settle her in shallow water where she could continue to fight and survive the damage already done.

Suddenly the current caught the ship, wresting control from the navigators, and turning it completely around.  BMC Hill rushed forward to drop anchor and keep the ship from being crushed against the rocks. Enemy planes screamed from the sky and three bombs landed near the bow.  

Chief Boatswain's Mate Edwin Hill vanished into eternity in their explosion.

5_nevada2.jpg (76179 bytes)More bombs rained from heaven, several landing directly on the huge battleship itself. One even penetrated and exploded through its stack.  The force of that explosion was felt throughout the struggling Nevada, and the heat and smoke it generated whipped through the ship's ventilation system with hurricane force. 

In the forward dynamo room Donald Ross was standing below one of the air ducts and took the blast full in his face.  The searing heat blinding him.  Acrid and deadly smoke poured into the small room. It was the kind of smoke that could quickly render a man unconscious and inflict permanent lung damage...even agonizing death.  Don Ross ordered everyone out.  To remain longer would be to die.  But Ross also knew that unless someone manned the all-important power station the ship would lose power and all ability to fight back.  

Power could be shifted to the aft dynamo room but that would take some time.  Alone in the smoke-filled room he ordered the power switch, then struggled to remain conscious long enough to accomplish the transfer.  It would take about 15 minutes to complete. 

Throughout that period Don Ross made the necessary adjustments and flipped the required switches to give the aft dynamo room control of the ships electrical demands. All the while he maintained communications with the men in that compartment by phone.  When the job was almost finished the phone went dead.  Ross had remained conscious long enough to do his job, then collapsed.  The final tasks of securing the forward dynamo room, shutting it down after the transfer of power, were uncompleted and Ross was either unconscious or dead.

Sailors rushed below and pulled the barely alive body of Donald Ross from the room. Corpsmen did their best to revive him but there were more problems as well.   The forward dynamo room had still not been secured and the temperature inside was reaching 140 degrees.  Slowly Ross regained consciousness.  Then, despite the efforts of his fellow sailors to restrain him and despite the fact that he was blind, he braved the heat to feel his way back inside to secure the forward dynamo room.   When he was at last finished he allowed himself to be helped to the deck where for the first time he could breath fresh air.

When the battle ended the ships still burned.   Ross told no one about his blindness, bluffing his way through organizing a clean up on the Nevada.  Then word came that smoke was filling the aft dynamo room.  No one could restrain Donald Ross from heading below, slowly feeling his way through the corridor to rescue the men still in there.  Moments later he emerged, his lungs filled again with the deadly chemical smoke.  Over his shoulders he carried the prostrate body of a rescued sailor.   It was finally too much for his badly abused body.  As he carried his shipmate the last steps to safety Donald Ross collapsed to the deck, blind and unconscious.

When the smoke slowly cleared around the harbor the USS Nevada sat beached at Hospital Point.  Everything below deck was filled with seawater but the ship was still upright, and salvageable.  She would fight again, all because of the courage and leadership of junior officers, men like BMC Edwin Hill, and a Machinist who always found enough strength to get the job at hand done.

 

 

 

 

moh_navy.gif (3864 bytes)Posthumous awards of the Medal of Honor were made to Warrant Officer Thomas Reeves, Machinist's Mate First Class Robert Scott, and Ensign Herbert Jones of the USS California.  Ensign Jackson Charles Pharris recovered from his wounds and lived to have the Medal of Honor hung around his neck.  He retired from the Navy as a Lieutenant Commander and died on October 17, 1966 at the age of 54.

For his valiant efforts to save the USS Nevada, Chief Boatswain's Mate Edwin Hill was also posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.  The battleship was salvaged four months later the USS Nevada sailed out of Pearl Harbor under her own power for Bremerton, Washington.  There she was rebuilt and returned to action in the Pacific in 1943.

 

 

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