On this day in 1941, just before 8 o'clock in the morning, hundreds of Japanese fighter planes descended on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. The surprise attack left more than 2,400 Americans dead. It also destroyed or damaged 188 U.S. aircraft and nearly 20 naval vessels.
It was a national tragedy, but there were also many acts of heroism from that day. A new book by Greensboro native Colonel Charles A. Jones, retired U.S. Marine Corps Reserve, chronicles the efforts of servicemen who were awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery in defending Pearl Harbor.
WFDD's David Ford visited Jones at his home to discuss Pearl Harbor's Hidden Heroes: The 18 Medals of Honor Awarded For Bravery In The Hawaiian Islands During WWII.
Why did you write this book?
I probably committed the writer's sin and I fell in love with the subject. I just couldn't not do it. Once I started it, I really wanted to get the story out in correct content, because I found so many errors and so many omissions. It bothered me that these men who earned the nation's highest medal for combat bravery were not being portrayed accurately, or in many cases were not being portrayed at all, and so I wanted to set the record straight. It took me many years to do so, but that's really why I did it.
What do these medals mean among servicemen and women?
Well, this is of course—the Medal of Honor—the highest award for combat bravery in the military. The respect is so great that, let's say a corporal earns a Medal of Honor. Ordinarily a corporal would salute a general officer or a higher-ranking officer. But with a Medal of Honor recipient, the saluting runs in reverse. For example, when I was a colonel, I saluted a sergeant major—who is an enlisted man—who had earned the Medal of Honor. That's the level of respect that is accorded a Medal of Honor recipient approved by the president of the United States.
On Medal of Honor recipient, Warrant Officer (Gunner) Jackson Pharris, U.S. Navy.
One of the biggest categories [for receiving a MOH] is sacrificing your life to save the lives of others. For the men who live, for example Jackson Pharris on The California, the key thing he did was he kept the ship from capsizing. He also repeatedly entered compartments that were filled with oil and water to save other men. And at one point he was taken to the hospital because he was so exhausted, because he had been working in oil and water and oil fumes are very noxious. He left the hospital and went back to the ship to continue his efforts. That's how dedicated he was.
On Medal of Honor recipient, Lieutenant Commander Samuel Fuqua, U.S. Navy.
What stands out with Fuqua is [that] he in effect—and I hate to use this term, but I'll use it—he closed down The Arizona. He saw that it was hopeless to save the ship. So, he did damage control by assisting the men who were so badly burned [and] injured. And his day started out badly. He looked up and saw a Japanese plane, and the next thing that happened he was knocked out by a bomb dropped by a Japanese plane. So, he recovered from that, and he functioned I would say brilliantly in saving as many men as he could when he saw the ship situation was hopeless.
“I saw men on fire burning to death, and they fought the fire until they fell dead at their battle stations. When we picked them up, flesh fell from their hands.” —Lieutenant Commander Samuel Fuqua, U.S. Navy.
What is it that enables someone to rise to the occasion during horrific circumstances like these?
Men react as they have been trained. Fuqua trained as a damage control officer. But also, there's an element of personality. And where I hit the jackpot on that was the yearbook entries for the five naval academy graduates who received Medals of Honor for December 7th. There were comments in that yearbook that were very eerily foreshadowing of how these men would react. For example, there were words to the effect in the yearbook that [said] "Fuqua was the type of guy who was going to make sure everybody gets home okay from the party." That's a personality aspect that you can't train or you can't quantify, but you see that exactly happening here. [Fuqua] could have easily left the ship, but he stayed there and set that example for the junior officers and the junior sailors. And that was his role, to bring as much order as he could to the worst of circumstances.