Home / People / Pearl Harbor Toughness Takes Flight – Ensign Theodore W. Marshall
Awards Card courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command Archives

Pearl Harbor Toughness Takes Flight – Ensign Theodore W. Marshall

By Robert J. Cressman, historian, Naval History and Heritage Command

What does ‘toughness’ mean to a U.S. Navy Sailor? Navy toughness means you take a hit and keep going, tapping all sources of strength and resilience. This is one such story; how, a young ensign embodied the fighting spirit of our U.S. Navy, put his toughness into action, and refused to stop – even as the bombs rained down.

The first Japanese bombs to fall on Ford Island Sunday, 7 December 1941, landed close to Patrol Squadron (VP) 22’s hangar. The surprise attack by the Japanese, delivered with devastating precision at a number of places almost simultaneously, served as a rude and deadly form of wake-up call for Sailors.

Planes and a hangar burning at the Ford Island Naval Air Station's seaplane base, during or immediately after the Japanese air raid. The ruined wings of a PBY Catalina patrol plane are at left and in the center. Note men with rifles standing in the lower left. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.
Planes and a hangar burning at the Ford Island Naval Air Station’s seaplane base, during or immediately after the Japanese air raid. The ruined wings of a PBY Catalina patrol plane are at left and in the center. Note men with rifles standing in the lower left. Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the National Archives.

Ensign Theodore Wood Marshall, A-V(N), USNR, VP-21’s assistant flight officer, found himself without a plane when the Battle of Oahu began. The squadron’s sole Consolidated PBY-3 Catalina flying boat on the island lay under repair. The rest had been deployed to Midway, some to serve as a ready strike and search force, and others prepared to rendezvous with in-bound Marine Corps scout bombers being delivered by the carrier Lexington (CV-2).

Amidst the tumult of battle, Ensign Marshall left the New Bachelor Officer’s Quarters, located at the opposite end of Ford Island from where the attack on the Navy’s long-range search capabilities had begun, and commandeered one of VP-21’s trucks. During the height of the first wave of Japanese attacks, he drove between the officer’s quarters, the enlisted men’s barracks, and the squadron area, ferrying men to their battle stations. Bomb fragments and machine gun bullets riddled his vehicle.

Once he completed his transportation duty, Ensign Marshall spied an unmanned Grumman F4F-3 Wildcat fighter. Despite the fact that he had never flown that type of plane, he climbed up into the cockpit, coaxed the Grumman’s engine to life, and began to taxi. The movement apparently attracted unwanted attention; attacking Japanese planes in the second attack wave badly damaged the F4F, leaving it unfit for flight.

Douglas TBD-1 "Devastator" from VT-3 at N.A.S. North Island, California in Barclay's camouflage design No. 7 on 22 August 1940. Courtesy of NHHC Photographic Collection, NH 96162
Douglas TBD-1 “Devastator” from VT-3 at N.A.S. North Island, California in Barclay’s camouflage design No. 7 on 22 August 1940. Courtesy of NHHC Photographic Collection, NH 96162

Fortunately unharmed, and undaunted, the intrepid ensign rushed over to the next carrier plane he saw, a Douglas TBD-1 Devastator, normally used as a torpedo or high-level bomber. As Comdr. George T. Mundorff, VP-21’s commanding officer later pointed out, the TBD was “a type [as the F4F had been] with which [Marshall] was entirely unfamiliar.” He managed to get the big aircraft started and took off to follow the retiring Japanese, chasing them for 150 miles. “Because of the slowness of his airplane,” however, he proved unsuccessful in his attempt to overtake the enemy. Dwindling fuel compelled Marshall to return to Oahu, where “through his skill and ingenuity,” he “was able to land the airplane without damage, even though he had never before flown that or any other service type land plane.”

Awards Card courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command Archives
Awards Card courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command Archives

For his heroism, his toughness, that momentous morning, Marshall received the Silver Star. He would again demonstrate “superb airmanship, initiative and courage” on 29 September 1944 when he brought his damaged patrol plane and its 11-man crew back to base after flying over 1,020 miles of open ocean. Ultimately, he retired from the Navy with the rank of commander in 1959, and was advanced to captain on the basis of combat awards. It’s his story, and that of many others from the Greatest Generation that continue to inspire the Sailors of today.

Marshall, born in Kansas City, Missouri, on 26 October 1917, had attended Rockhurst College, where he played polo. Beginning his service career as an aviation cadet in July 1938, he received his Naval Aviator wings (heavier-than-air) on 19 November 1939.

For more information about the Pearl Harbor attacks, go here.