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Stories of Valor on a Day of Infamy

Dec. 5, 2016 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
Although Pearl Harbor was a devastating tactical defeat resulting in 2,335 U.S. military deaths, the vast majority of U.S. Sailors responded immediately and in many cases with extraordinary acts of bravery, many of which were unrecorded due to the deaths of so many witnesses. Even so, Navy personnel were awarded 15 Medals of Honor, 51 Navy Crosses, and (somewhat anomalously) four Navy-Marine Corps Medals; the most medals for bravery under fire for a one-day action in U.S. naval history.

Medal of Honor recipients included; Rear Adm. Isaac Kidd and Capt. Franklin Van Valkenburgh, killed at their post on the bridge of battleship USS Arizona (BB 39) when she exploded; Capt. Mervyn Bennion, skipper of battleship USS West Virginia (BB 48), who attempted to continue to fight his ship even after being mortally wounded by shrapnel; Commander Cassin Young, skipper of repair ship USS Vestal (AR 4) moored alongside the Arizona, blown clear off the bridge of his ship into the water, nevertheless climbed back on board and got his sinking ship underway and beached it so it would not be an obstruction.

Other Medals of Honor included Chief Boatswain Edwin Hill of battleship USS Nevada (BB 36), the only battleship to get underway during the attack, jumped into the water, swam to the mooring pier, cast off the lines, swam back to the Nevada and got on board, and was leading actions on the forecastle in preparation to beach the ship, which had attracted numerous Japanese dive bombers, when he was killed by strafing and bomb explosions. Among the Navy Crosses was Ensign Joe Taussig, Jr. (son of Commander, and later Vice Adm. Joe Taussig of WWI "we are ready now" fame) who continued to direct the Nevada's anti-air defenses even with a leg amputating wound.

Another Navy Cross was awarded to Messman Third Class Doris Miller, for aiding the dying Captain Bennion on West Virginia under fire, before manning a .50 cal machine gun, on which he had not been trained, and assisting in the downing of more than one Japanese aircraft. Miller was the first African American Sailor to receive the Navy Cross, and of note, Miller's actual battle station, one of the 5" gun mounts, was destroyed by one of the first torpedoes to hit West Virginia, which is why he ended up on the bridge. See pictures and the citations for all 15 Medal of Honor Recipients from Pearl Harbor here.