There was this guy once. His past, according to some, was somewhat questionable. He was a pretty tough guy by all accounts. He probably drank too much, and smoked too much, swore too much, and might even have fooled around on his wife in foreign ports. I don't know - but I wouldn't be surprised. I never knew him, he was dead long before I went to sea, but I know the type and I've met a thousand like him.
His name was Edwin J. Hill, Chief Warrant Officer, United States Navy - and on the morning of December 7th, 1941 he was the Chief Boatswain of USS Nevada, moored at battleship row off Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
You all know what happened on that Sunday. It was about quarter to eight, fifteen minutes to muster and watch turnover. Church services were just finishing up. The ships were in holiday routine. Sailors and Marines had slept in, enjoying a day off from their hectic training schedule, enjoying their tour in paradise. By most accounts, on that beautiful peaceful morning, Hill was somewhere topside, on the main deck of the Nevada. Nobody knows for sure what he was doing, but having been a Warrant myself I imagine he was shooting the breeze with his shipmates, enjoying a cup of mess deck coffee, checking the mooring lines, and generally doing what salty old Warrants Officers do - when the first wave of Japanese bombers and torpedo planes came roaring down out of the Kole Kole Pass.
There were seven battleships moored in a line off Ford Island, Battleship Row, and an eighth one, USS Pennsylvania, in dry dock at the Naval Yard. Of all those vessels, Nevada was in a unique position, moored at the end of the row, berth 7. Unlike her mighty sisters, Nevada was not nested (moored alongside another vessel), and, as luck and engineering drills would have it, she had several of her boilers on-line and so was the only battlewagon capable of getting underway. Chief Warrant Officer Hill, as Nevada's Boatswain and a 29 year veteran of Naval service, certainly knew this. And he must have known that there is nothing, nothing, more vulnerable than a warship tied to the quay, and he surely knew that the only hope Nevada had was to get underway, make for sea, unmask her batteries and fight back.
On the bridge, the Officer of the Deck, Ensign Taussig, assumed command and ordered emergency preparations for getting underway. Imagine it: A twenty-one year old, very junior Officer (but the descendant of Admirals, and a graduate of the Naval Academy), a kid really, who had only recently reported onboard, suddenly in the middle of war, assuming command of a battleship. Taussig would get Nevada underway and take her to safety, man an anti-aircraft gun himself, be severely wounded in the leg but refuse to leave his post, win the Navy Cross, eventually lose the leg, and become the Navy's youngest Captain - but that's another story.
Nevada was taking heavy damage, she was struck by at least one torpedo and several bombs and had been strafed when Taussig gave the order to cast off all lines. On the main deck, Hill heard the order, rallied his line handling teams, and began to cut loose the hawsers. But there was a problem, there was no one on the quays. Hill took his men and jumped from the battleship's stern 40 feet into the water. He then led his men through the water and on to the quay, where they cast off the remaining lines - and Nevada was free.
Now, if you were Hill, what would you do? At this point, he and his men are in a unique position. They've done their duty, Nevada is away and making for sea. Behind those men, there on the quay, the airfield on Ford Island is under attack, before them in the harbor the helpless Pacific Fleet is being cut to ribbons, all around them is unbelievable chaos and a maelstrom of destruction - but they are in the eye of the hurricane, the one place in the entire basin not being bombed, torpedoed, or strafed. As the ranking Officer, Hill was responsible for those men, for their safety, for their lives, for their futures. I am sure, as sure as anything, that Hill knew this. Again, what would you have done?
It is in that moment, that single second, when you truly know what you're made of. Chief Warrant Officer Edwin Hill was the Chief Boatswain of USS Nevada. His duty was on her deck, not cowering on a quay. And so without hesitation, Hill ordered his men back into the water, to almost certain death, and they swam to Nevada as she began to steam away. How they managed to make it past the churning screws and the wake and back onto her decks I do not know, perhaps they climbed the severed mooring lines, or perhaps Sailors on Nevada's fantail dropped the Jacob's ladder (a rope boarding ladder). However they did it, Hill and his men ended up on the stern of USS Nevada as she steamed towards the channel and the open sea.
And that's when things really began to go bad. Nevada was already damaged and on fire, but she was designed to take damage and still keep fighting. And she did. But now she was the only capital ship in the basin moving, making for the channel at speed. And so she became the single most obvious target in the harbor and the Japanese Second Wave began to concentrate their attack on her. She was struck repeatedly by Japanese bombs and strafed mercilessly, she began to take on water below decks, and in the superstructure fires raged out of control. On the bridge, Ensign Taussig, acting on orders from his Admiral, ordered the ship beached at Hospital Point least she sink in the channel and block the Fleet's access to the sea.
As the ship's bow began to grind on the bottom, Chief Warrant Officer Hill was on the fantail still commanding his line handlers. He ordered a number of them to cover, and thus saved their lives, when Nevada's stern was raked by strafing fire. But Hill himself did not seek cover, instead he remained at the anchor windless with a small team of seaman, exposed, attempting to let go the stern anchor and secure the ship as she grounded. He was the Boatswain, the Warrant, and it was his job, his ship, his duty. He died there, along with 46 of his shipmates when a five-hundred and fifty pound bomb dropped from a Japanese D3A pieced the deck and exploded beneath their feet.
Despite the damage, USS Nevada, BB-36, was saved. She was repaired and went on to fight in the Aleutian campaign, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and finally into Japan itself. When they found Edwin Hill's body, it was riddled by bullet holes and badly burned from the explosion. Nobody knows if he was hit by gunfire on the exposed deck while attempting to let go the anchor, or whether it was the bomb that killed him. The citation reads in part "...he was blown overboard and killed by the explosion of several bombs." And that's good enough, I doubt he would have cared one way or the other.
Chief Warrant Officer Edwin J. Hill was awarded the Medal of Honor "For distinguished conduct in the line of his profession, extraordinary courage, and disregard of his own safety during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor."
And that's where the story ends for most people.
When I was a Chief Petty Officer, and later as a Chief Warrant Officer, I used to tell the story of Edwin Hill to Chief Petty Officer candidates during their initiation. Initiation is a trial, a test and a learning experience, that takes a junior enlisted Sailor and turns him or her into a Chief. For those who survive it, few things in their lives will make them prouder than to say, "I am an Initiated Chief Petty Officer." Outsiders do not, cannot, understand why initiation is so important. To outsiders, initiation appears to be nothing more than hazing. And upon occasion it has come dangerously close to that. But, done right, Chief's Initiation is a crucible event and it changes you into something you might never have thought possible - it makes you a Chief. And to be a Chief Warrant Officer, you must have been a Chief first.
For those candidates, there's a bit more to the story of Edwin Hill. The fact that he won the Medal of Honor doesn't matter. Like I said at the beginning of this post, I never knew him but he was a fellow initiated Chief, a fellow Warrant, and so in a way I do know Ed Hill. Chiefs and Warrants haven't changed much in the last 66 years, and I feel comfortable saying that I doubt Ed Hill would have given a damn about that medal. The reason I tell this story has nothing to do with medals. See, here's the thing, sooner or later that moment comes to all of us Chiefs. That one moment, same as it did for Edwin Hill there on that quay in the middle of hell on earth. It may not be in combat, but every time a Chief orders her fire party forward into a main space fire, every time the shell loader malfunctions in the forward 5" gun elevator and threatens to drop a live round five stories into the main magazine, every time a Chief takes command of a check point on a lonely road outside of Kabul, and any of those thousand other times, that moment comes for each of us. It came to me, more than once. And suddenly you find that you hold the lives of brave men and woman in your hands, their hopes, their dreams, their futures balanced against duty, courage, and commitment. And that's the moment when you find out exactly what you're made of.
What matters, the only thing that matters, is what you do in that moment. There are two things you should get from this story: 1) Chief Warrant Officer Hill had the courage, the moral courage, to order his men back into the water and forward under fire. This is no small thing, in fact, in my opinion this is the single hardest thing any leader can do. It is one thing to risk your own life, it is something else entirely to order others to risk theirs, especially when you know, you know, that most of them will not survive. This is the test of true courage.
And 2) Those men went when ordered - and this is the point of the whole story. Those men were not stupid, they were Sailors, trained fighting men, and they knew what Hill was ordering them to do. They knew that they would most likely not survive it. And they went anyway.
When that moment comes, men will not follow you because you're a big, mean, tough son of a bitch. They will not follow you because they fear you. They will not follow you because you're better educated, or older, or more experienced. They will not follow you because you out rank them. They will not follow you because you're their friend or father figure or because they love you. And they damned sure won't follow you for freedom and democracy or other high ideals. No, Sailors, Marines, Soldiers, Airmen will follow your orders in that moment, they will give up their lives on your command, for one reason, and one reason only - respect.
Respect cannot be bought, it cannot be forced, it cannot be bargained for - it must be earned. It must be earned each and every day, by every action, by every word, because when that moment comes it is far, far too late. You'll have seconds at most, and either you are that person men will follow into battle, or you're not. It's that simple. That is what it is to be a Chief. That is what it is to be a Warrant.
That is what it is to be a leader.
Rest in peace, Ed. Your sacrifice was not in vain.