Guns firing. Bombs exploding. Screams of terror piercing the air. That is what December 7, 1941, sounded like to the men and women in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Shortly before 8 a.m., the skies over the naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii filled with the drone of more than 350 Japanese fighter planes and bombers. During a two-hour ambush, the Japanese squadron rained fire on the unprepared American Pacific Fleet, damaging or destroying more than 20 ships and 200 aircraft and inflicting around 3,500 casualties.
Although the event is remembered for its tragic loss, it also brought about great acts of heroism and courage. From an Army nurse who saved dozens of lives, to the man who led the evacuation of the USS Arizona, to a ship’s cook whose bravery and self-sacrifice goes above and beyond, learn the stories of three of the numerous servicemen and women who distinguished themselves on one of the darkest days in American military history.
Decades ago, women were more commonly viewed as bystanders in war stories — never properly given the heroine title that so many deserved. One of the best examples of this involves Grace Lally, Chief Nurse aboard the USS Solace, a state-of-the-art floating hospital that was going to be an important addition to the fleet in Pearl Harbor.
On the morning of December 7th, Lally was getting dressed for the weekly church service, when she suddenly heard the distinct sound of machine gun fire coming from outside. After rushing to the nearest window and seeing an explosion, she realized that something terrible was occurring. For a moment, she seized with panic, however, her professional training kicked in and she quickly stepped up to meet the challenge. As bombs fell and bullets flew, Lally and her staff quickly set up emergency wards for the wounded and began tending to those in need.
The USS Solace was the only one out of 96 ships that was fully equipped to provide emergency medical and surgical care. Lally understood how important she and her staff consisting of 12 other nurses were to the thousands of men stationed at Pearl Harbor. By the end of the day, her and her staff had attended to over 300 wounded men and woman and inspired many others to join their effort. Miraculously, the USS Solace was not destroyed or sunk in the attack. Over the next couple months, Lally and her team continued to tend to the survivors of the attack until they could be moved to land-based hospitals. Lally’s story is one of many showcasing the heroic efforts of brave American’s during the tragic attack.
Next up, we have the incredible story of Samuel Fuqua, the lieutenant commander on the USS Arizona. He had a front-row seat to the devastation at Pearl Harbor from aboard the Arizona, a battleship that was heavily bombed during the first wave of the attack.
The 42-year-old Fuqua was having breakfast when the ship’s air raid sirens first sounded around 7:55 a.m. Immediately, Fuqua sprang into action. He rushed to the deck, only to be strafed by enemy fire and then knocked out cold when a bomb fell just feet away from him. Although dazed, Fuqua jumped to his feet after regaining consciousness and began directing firefighting operations. Soon after, Fuqua became the Arizona’s senior surviving officer as an explosion under deck killed over 1,000 soldiers. As burned and distraught soldiers poured over the decks, Fuqua ignored the dangers of the situation and started to calmly lead efforts to evacuate his sinking ship.
Arizona crew member Edward Wentzlaff later recalled the situation, “I can still see him standing there – ankle deep in water, the stub of a cigar in his mouth, cool and efficient, oblivious to the danger about him.”
Fuqua was one of the last people to leave the ship; he and fellow officers then led a mission through the water to pick up survivors from the burning water and shuttle them to safety. He went on to win the Medal of Honor for his actions at Pearl Harbor and was later promoted to rear admiral upon his retirement from the Navy in 1953.
Finally, we have the impressive tale of Doris Miller. Miller was African-American which meant he was stuck to the role of cook and laundry attendant aboard the USS West Virginia, but when his ship was struck by torpedoes on the morning of the 7th, he became one of the ship’s most important crew members.
After rushing to his battle station only to find it destroyed, he sprinted to the quarterdeck to start carrying injured crew members to safety. He also helped feed two of the vessel’s 50-caliber machines with ammo to help try and fight off some of the Japanese fighters. Despite having no formal weapons training, he eventually stepped up and manned one of the weapons himself and began shooting away at the Japanese planes swarming the harbor. He recalled shooting down a couple enemy fighters which is extremely impressive for someone operating an unfamiliar weapon.
Miller continued to man the post for almost 20 minutes until ordered to abandon ship. His actions earned him the Navy Cross—the first ever presented to an African American. He was also widely hailed as a war hero in the black press.
These heroes define what it means to be brave and courageous with your life on the line. We hope you found these stories to be as moving as we did!