Pearl Harbor and the Medal of Honor

Action Date: December 7, 1941

Action Location: Territory of Hawaii

On December 7, 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy launched a surprise attack upon American naval and air forces at Pearl Harbor and the island of Oahu, killing 2,403 Americans and wounding another 1,178. This attack led to the United States’ entry into World War II. The Japanese attack devastated the U.S. fleet at anchor, sinking 12 ships and damaging 9 others. Fourteen naval officers and enlisted men earned Medals of Honor for their heroism at Pearl Harbor. A fifteenth Medal of Honor was earned at Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay. The attack on Pearl Harbor remains to this day one of the largest military disasters in U.S. history.

Medals of Honor

The Imperial Japanese Navy Plan

Following the breakdown of diplomatic relations between the United States of America and the Empire of Japan in late 1941, the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) plotted an attack designed to cripple the United States’ Pacific Fleet at its main Pacific anchorage – Pearl Harbor.  Destroying the American Pacific fleet would in turn allow the Japanese to move quickly to secure territory in the Southwestern Pacific.  In mid-November of 1941, the Japanese Navy assembled in secret a task force that would attack the U.S. Pacific Fleet at anchor.

The task force consisted of all six Japanese front-line aircraft carriers, including the Akagi, the flagship of Vice-Admiral Chuichi Nagumo, who led the attack. In addition, the IJN deployed two battleships, two heavy cruisers, nine destroyers, three submarines, eight train vessels, and approximately 360 planes, as well as five midget submarines. This fleet would be one of the most powerful carrier task forces ever assembled. On November 25 (all dates reflect the American date/time), the task force departed Japan and by December 6 was 200 miles north of Oahu. Observing strict radio silence throughout their journey, the mighty Japanese strike force remained undetected.

The Attack on Pearl Harbor

The six Japanese aircraft carriers brought 81 fighters, 135 dive bombers, 104 horizontal bombers, and 40 torpedo bombers – all manned by some of the most skilled naval aviators anywhere. Beginning at 6 a.m. on December 7, the Japanese carriers launched their first wave of 183 aircraft. As soon as the first wave launched, the carriers began launching their second wave of attack aircraft, totaling 167 planes. American investigations of the Pearl Harbor attack broke the fighting down into five phases:

Phase I: Combined torpedo plane and dive bomber attacks lasting from 7:55 a.m. to 8:25 a.m.

Phase II: A pause in attacks lasting from 8:25 a.m. to 8:40 a.m.

Phase III: Horizontal bomber attacks extending from 8:40 a.m. to 9:15 a.m.

Phase IV: Dive bomber attacks between 9:15 a.m. and 9:45 a.m.

Phase V: Warning of attacks and completion of the raid after 9:45 a.m.

At 7:55 a.m., the first IJN attack craft appeared over Ford Island. Within seconds, they concentrated their fire on the heavy ships moored there and on the island’s naval air station. The Japanese pilots found Navy patrol flying boats, float planes, and scout bombers lined up on the field. These planes caught fire and exploded under the onslaught. Thirty-three of the Navy’s planes out of a total of 70 were destroyed or damaged.

At the same time that Pearl Harbor came under attack, the IJN attackers bombed Kaneohe Naval Air Station on the other side of Oahu. During the attack on the station Chief Ordnance Man John W. Finn earned his Medal of Honor. Finn roused from his bed to the sound of machine gun fire he could not recognize. It sounded too slow to be an American weapon to his experienced ear. Eventually, he realized he was hearing the noise of Japanese machine guns. He drove to the station and witnessed the IJN craft annihilating the American planes there on the ground. For the next two hours, Finn defended the station using an exposed machine gun despite receiving 21 wounds from shrapnel.

The Ships Come Under Attack

With the attack raging at Kaneohe Naval Air Station, the Japanese closed in on their primary target: Pearl Harbor. Enemy torpedo bombers targeted the battleships at anchor there. During this phase, the primary attack was made by 12 IJN “Kate” torpedo bombers, flying less than 100 feet off the water. In the course of the onslaught, the battleships U.S.SNevada, U.S.S. Arizona, U.S.S. West Virginia, U.S.S. Oklahoma, and U.S.S. California were each hit by one or more torpedoes which carried as much as 1,000 pounds of explosive charges. As the torpedo bombers continued to attack in waves, more ships took damage from hits or near misses, and Japanese dive bombers also joined the assault.

U.S.S Utah capsizing after being struck by a torpedo (courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command)

Four torpedoes struck the battleship Oklahoma in quick succession during the opening minutes of the attack. The ship started to list immediately following the first torpedo hit. After the third torpedo hit, the battleship tilted to an angle of about 45 degrees. Following a fourth torpedo strike, the Oklahoma began to roll over and sink. As the crew abandoned the ship, Ensign Francis G. Flaherty and Seaman First Class James R. Ward held flashlights to allow their shipmates to escape from flooding gun turrets. Both men lost their lives saving their shipmates, and both posthumously received the Medal of Honor.

Like the Oklahoma, an early torpedo struck the U.S.S. Utah around 8 a.m. The Utah had been converted from a battleship into an aerial target ship and had a minimal crew. The torpedo hit left the Utah badly listing, and the crew abandoned ship. Chief Watertender Peter Tomich earned his Medal of Honor for remaining at his post in the engineering plant, as the Utah capsized, until he saw that all boilers were secured, and all personnel had left their stations. His heroism cost him his life.

Explosion of USS Arizona’s powder magazine (courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command)

During the second dive-bomber attack, a bomb blew up a powder magazine aboard the Arizona. Three men aboard earned the Medal of Honor for their heroism during the attack; the only one to survive, Lieutenant Commander Samuel G. Fuqua, remained on deck throughout the bombing and strafing, supervising the firefighting and rescue of wounded men. Fuqua would assume command of the Arizona during the fight and direct her evacuation, leaving the ship last and only after he believed everyone that could be saved had been rescued. Fuqua took command of the ship after a direct hit to the Arizona’s bridge and the explosion of her powder magazine killed the senior officers aboard, including Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh and Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd. Both men were doing their duty commanding the ship and fleet, respectively, when a bomb struck the battleship’s bridge. Neither man was found after the attack, and both were presumed killed. They posthumously received the Medal of Honor. The heaviest concentration of casualties occurred with the destruction of the Arizona with 1,177 officers and crewmen killed in action.

The Arizona’s powder magazine explosion affected the nearby ship, U.S.S. VestalVestal, a repair ship, was next to Arizona when her powder magazine exploded, and the blast knocked the Vestal’s captain, Commander Cassin Young, overboard. Dazed but alive, Young swam back to the Vestal. As the attack raged, the Vestal took at least two bomb hits of her own, and she caught on fire. Young, now back aboard, moved Vestal away and beached her to save the ship with notable calm. For his heroism during the attack Commander Young received the Medal of Honor.

By 8:25 a.m., the first lull in the attacks, the battleship California had been badly damaged by torpedoes and bombs. It was taking on water, and about to come under attack once more, this time by horizontal bombers, one of which struck the ship. Four men would receive the Medal of Honor for their heroism aboard the California, three of them posthumously.

California slowly sinking; it would take three days before she was fully sunk following the attack (courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command)

Radio Electrician Thomas J. Reeves died while moving ammunition by hand, in a burning passageway, after the mechanized ammunition hoists were put out of action. Similarly, Ensign Herbert Jones died while leading an ammunition passing party after being fatally injured by a bomb. His men attempted to evacuate him, but he refused, saying, “Leave me alone! I am done for. Get out of here before the magazines go off.” Machinist’s Mate First Class Robert R. Scott gave his life, dying at his duty station, to provide compressed air so the California’s guns could continue firing. As his station flooded following a torpedo hit, Scott said to those evacuating, “This is my station and I will stay and give them air as long as the guns are going.” Gunner Jackson C. Pharris also engaged in setting up a hand supply of ammunition for the California’s anti-aircraft gun after being severely injured following a torpedo strike. As water and oil gushed into the ship, Pharris repeatedly risked his life to enter flooding compartments and drag to safety unconscious shipmates who were gradually being submerged in oil. Twice during these rescues, noxious fumes rendered Pharris unconscious, but he persisted. Pharris was the only recipient from the California to survive his heroism.

Five bombs struck the Nevada during the third phase of the attack. Though Phase III primarily consisted of horizontal bombers, some dive bombers organized to attack the Nevada in waves. These IJN dive bombers noticed Nevada’s movement toward open water, an action which made the ship a tempting target. Chief Machinist Donald K. Ross earned his Medal of Honor in the forward dynamo room. Following his station filling with smoke, steam, and heat, Ross ordered his men out and took their duties onto himself until falling unconscious. After being revived, he returned to his station and worked until he fell unconscious again. Revived once more, he again returned until ordered to abandon his station. Chief Boatswain Edwin J. Hill received the Medal of Honor for leading his men in unmooring the Nevada so that the ship could get underway. He died later when bombs exploded near the forecastle as he was attempting to drop the anchors. Eventually, the Nevada ran aground to avoid sinking and blocking the channel.

Two heavy bombs struck the battleship West Virginia during the third phase of the attack as well, in addition to torpedo damage she suffered earlier. Like the California, she had to be abandoned after catching fire. The ship’s commander, Captain Mervyn S. Bennion, posthumously received the Medal of Honor for his heroism commanding the West Virginia. Even after being mortally wounded, Bennion showed no concern for himself, but only for his burning ship and the safety of his men.

By 9:45 a.m. the attack was over. Admiral Nagumo, concerned that the Americans were now better prepared to defend themselves, rejected launching a third wave of attackers against Pearl Harbor. By 1:30 p.m., the IJN fleet had collected its surviving planes and had turned for home.

The Aftermath

As said by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, December 7, 1941, is a “date which will live in infamy.” The U.S. losses included 2,403 killed and another 1,178 wounded. Comparing American losses to Japanese losses makes the toll even starker. The Japanese lost approximately 29 planes; the United States lost 188. The U.S. suffered more than 3,500 casualties, the Japanese fewer than 100. The U.S. suffered severe damage or sinking of 8 battleships, 1 former battleship, 3 light cruisers, 4 destroyers, and 5 other ships of various classes. The attack on Pearl Harbor is one of the greatest military disasters in American history. Despite the great losses suffered, the U.S. Navy was fortunate that none of its prized aircraft carriers was at Pearl Harbor during the attack.  Other precious oil reserves, dry docks, submarines, and other support facilities also remained intact. And in time, the American Navy would raise several of the sunken battleships for use later in the war.

The heroism during the disaster is noted in the Congressional record as one of the only compensating features of the assault. Fifteen Medals of Honor were awarded for heroism during the attack, 11 of them posthumously. The attack on Pearl Harbor had lasted a little under two hours after inflicting considerable damage on American forces and marking the U.S. entry into World War II.

Vestal beached following its move away from Arizona (courtesy Naval History and Heritage Command)


Pearl Harbor: Medal of Honor Facts

•The Medals of Honor earned during the attack on Pearl Harbor were the first awarded for World War II.

•Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd is one of only three rear admirals to earn the Medal of Honor as a rear admiral during World War II. All three were killed in action. Kidd died aboard his flagship, U.S.S. Arizona.

•The Medals awarded for the attack on Oahu represent more than 25% of the Medals of Honor earned by U.S. Navy men during all of World War II.


Recommended Reading:

Day of Infamy, 60th Anniversary: The Classic Account of the Bombing of Pearl Harbor  by Walter Lord

December 1941: 31 Days that Changed America and Saved the World  by Craig Shirley

Pearl Harbor: From Infamy to Greatness  by Craig Nelson

Learn More about the attack on Pearl Harbor:

Pearl Harbor Attack 

Pearl Harbor: A short history before Dec. 7, 1941

Remembering Pearl Harbor