Friday, December 7, 2007

Remembering December 7th

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.

is what it is to be a leader.

Rest in peace, Ed. Your sacrifice was not in vain.


  1. Thank you, Jim, for bringing Ed's story to those of us who have not had the honor of serving in the US Navy. Hats off to him the thousands like him who have served over the years.

  2. Good post.

    Did he manage to get the anchor off?

  3. MWT, I don't know. Many details weren't recorded. And Nevada's stern was severely damaged by the bomb that killed Hill and his men. Even if they had gotten it away, it is unlikely that it would have held with the structural damage.

    Nevada was pretty solidly grounded though, and after the attack fire boats and tugs came to her assistance. She was refloated within weeks, and in combat within months. Hill and Taussig are credited with saving her and most of her crew.

    1. Even the action report author wasn't sure about the anchors: "while on the forecastle attempting to let go the anchors, he was blown overboard and killed by the explosion of several bombs."

  4. A fine story finely told.

    I'd love to hear the rest of Taussig's story if you want to blog that at some point. He sounds like an interesting man.

  5. :: standing, saluting the memory ::

    That's definately what command is all about. To hold the trust and respect of others.

    I've met (and heard about even more) NCOs and commissioned officers that didn't have that, believed the uniform and stripes or metal on their collars were good enough. There were those in their commands that "carried their bullet" (for a "Firefly" reference) in case things got hot.

    True command can come from anywhere, it's not based on the uniform or rank. Those men Hill commanded back to the Nevada jumped in because they trusted Hill knew what he was doing and respected him.

  6. Taussig was indeed an interesting fellow. A true Sailor and hero of highest caliber.

    It's difficult to understand what he did, if you haven't have the bridge yourself. He was just a kid then. Inexperienced and unproven, but he made all the right decisions and showed nearly unbelievable courage on the morning of December 7th. He was awarded the Navy Cross, second only in precedence the Medal of Honor.

    Like you said, maybe I'll write more about him one of these days.

  7. The first military guy I ever had extended contact with was a retired army captain. We were coworkers for several months when I was in college. Unfortunately, he was of the sort that didn't understand the meaning of respect, and my experience interacting with him has colored my view of other military people somewhat negatively since.

    It's stories like these (and you in general) that are changing my view back into the positive.

  8. Thank you, MWT.

    For the record, there are far, far more people like Edwin Hill and Joe Taussig in the military than not.

    I've met many of them, served under a number fine officers, men who I would have laid down my life for without hesitation. I worked every day to be like them, to be worthy of their respect and the respect of the people I led. I wasn't always successful, but I think I was more often than not. Some of them read this blog, and they can speak for themselves.

    There are, of course, those who don't live up to the ideals of the service. Those who just don't get what leadership is all about, fortunately, in my experience, those folks are few and far between.

  9. I am an initiated Chief Petty Officer.

    I knew you were going to blog about Pearl Harbor today, and I'm glad I decided not to. This story deserves to stand on its own.

    In my experience, moral courage is the only kind that earns you respect. Once I made Chief, and fully understood the privilege and the burden, I made sure I behaved in such a way that my radiomen and signalmen knew their well-being was a much higher priority for me than my career. My tagline was always, "What are they going to do to me? Take away my anchors? Whatever."

  10. Thanks, Jim, for sharing that story. It was perhaps the single highest impact piece I've read recently.

    After finishing, I just pushed back my keyboard and send the computer to sleep - it deserved a moment of silence.

  11. Reread this again this year. Thanks yet again for this post.

  12. Standing and saluting, with tears in my eyes.

    Bravo Zulu, Ensign Taussig and CWO Hill, and all those other brothers and sisters who gave their all that day.

  13. Back in 1980-81 I was stationed in Pearl Harbor. I worked on Ford Island. I have stood looking at those quay walls with the names on them, USS Nevada, USS Arizona, USS West Virginia, USS Tennessee. I've stood within feet of where the events you describe happened. It is a sobering reminder of what war is all about. The USS Arizona still the tomb of more than 900 sailors, and still flying a US Flag attached to what remains of her superstructure. For a young sailor still trying to find his way in the world this daily reminder of the horrors of war were part of my daily commute as the ferry took me to my work on Ford Island. I had my wisdom teeth pulled at the dentist on Ford Island in a building with a large center court yard. The dentist, a full bird, told me the building wasn’t built with a center court yard, but after the bombing it had one. I visited the remains of the USS Utah on the other side of the island. I’ve pried rounds from the coral at Barbers Point. Remembering December 7th will always be with me, it’s not a date that I am likely to ever forget. Thanks for sharing the story of Chief Warrant Officer Edwin J. Hill and letting the rest of us get to know him just a bit. I’m proud to have served my country, I’m very proud of those who served before me.

    Thanks Jim.

  14. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  15. Of course I had to read this again.

    Found this account which discusses Ens. Joseph K. Taussig, Jr. and his morning.

    'That's a hell of a place for a foot to be.'

    Dr. Phil

  16. And.. the link didn't show up:


    Dr. Phil

  17. My late Dad served with honor in the Pacific Theatre and had two LST's shot out from under him. He'd never talk about it with us and he hated how the guys at the VFW were always "reliving" their war days.

    Now that I'm older, I see why all he wanted to do was forget the horror he saw and endured.

    Your column is a tribute to all those, including my Dad, who did their jobs with honor so that a world might be free.

    Thank you.

    I have an idea that he may be reading over my shoulder right now so I'll stop before he gets annoyed.

  18. Kipling wrote a few lines that might not be amiss here:

    "One more thing we would ask of thee: Pray for us, heroes, pray
    "That when fate lays upon us our task we do not shame the day."

    Well written.

  19. The cold truth of reality speaks in ways that fiction, fertilizer and exaggeration cannot. Thank you for this dose of reality.

    I had a much older friend, now deceased, who fought in the Pacific during WWII. In civilian life he owned and ran a gas station back when they were still service stations. A kinder or more generous man would be hard to find. No matter what your station in life, you would receive nothing but the best service from him unless...you drove a Mitsubishi automobile. He explained that they were the ones who built the Zero, the kamakase planes, that came so close to ending his life and did end the lives of some of his shipmates during the war. For that he could never forgive.

  20. My step-dad was a Chief Petty Officer. (1952-1972; VA65 and VA25, USS Ticonderoga and USS Ranger are the only ones I remember. He was a jet mechanic.) Though my mother was only married to him for 5 years, the imprints he left on me are still with me 45 years later. There is something special indeed about an initiated Chief Petty Officer.

  21. One of the things I enjoyed about my career is there were still a few "old timers" around from WW-II, among them was someone that was a Seaman on the Nevada during the attack.
    At the time of the 40th Anniversary he got to talking about that day and the days afterward. He stated he still had nightmares about the days he spent recovering bodies from the water.
    He's gone now, lung cancer got him, he started smoking in the Navy and continued for nearly 40 years.

    1. My wife signed the lease on her apartment 7 Dec. 1986; her future landlord was preparing to leave for his birthday dinner in Gainsville Fl. I could see a Navy tattoo on his left arm, he was of the right age so I asked what his birth was that day (I had a terrible premonition I already knew his answer). Hw answered the way I thought he would, "Arizona." In the more than 20 years since I have sadly lost touch with him, I'm quite sure that by now he has passed and his ashes are interred with his shipmates. I kew he story of the Nevada but not CWO Hill. Thank you, and thank you


  22. Thank you so much for sharing that story, Jim.

  23. Thanks Jim. Great story, and great points. I enjoy your writing. You have inspired me on Christmas morning.

  24. Jim, I just returned home from a visit to Hawaii, including the Pearl Harbor complex (home of the Arizona, the Bowfin, the Missouri, et al). I paid my respects to Warrant Hill, in part because of this article. But the main reason I'm writing is this: As I was leaving, a detail of Navy E6s led by a very young looking chief were entering the complex. They seemed to be waiting for something, so I struck up a conversation with the Chief leading them. He told me that the candidates spend a week living aboard the Missouri as part of their indoc (he damn near jumped out of his skin when I used the word 'initiation'). That damn near made me bust with pride to think that they get to stay there as they learn the next new set of ropes. We stand on the shoulders of giants, indeed.

  25. Thanks for posting this. My late dad was a Marine on the ground during the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was 18 years old & a Pvt., just a farm boy from rural Virginia. He was in the barracks (they were not under direct fire) and got his first of several battlefield promotions for organizing a group to get anti-aircraft guns. Your description of Edwin Hill made me smile, for it reminded me of my dad. Dad went on to Guadalcanal & Iwo Jima, finally laid low by malaria and dysentery, and shipped back stateside for a while.

  26. Thank you for this telling of CWO Hill's story and reminding me of how privileged I was to serve under several fine Chief's. They are the backbone of the Navy.

  27. I remember as a young Marine corporal being given a "lesson" in leadership by our company 1st Sgt. and he pretty much said what you did, not as polished and there was no tie in with any particular person or event but I never forgot that above all else our jobs as NCO's was to everyday in every way earn and maintain the respect of those we would lead and those we would follow. People cannot and will not trust those those they do not respect and without trust leading becomes impossible. Thanks for the review and quick tutorial Jim.

  28. In my former life as a Meeting & Event Planner, I had the honor of spending some unscheduled time with Colin Powell. He had done the "walk, chat, and shake hands" meander through the 2,000 person reception and was ready to leave ... except his driver was AWOL, apparently getting a burger. The hotel security crew was on it! Mr. Powell, several of the company's execs, and I were taken to a partially dismantled small meeting room, I rounded up some food and beverage and we all sat there for 10 or 15 minutes, conversing. What struck me, forcibly, was how quickly Mr. Powell had each one of us sized up. I had the feeling he knew our strong and weak points. Not judgement, just observation. I was impressed with his humanity and something else I've never been able to label. I could feel that he had made hard decisions for the greater good, knowing it would mean loss of individual lives. That those decisions were not made lightly. That there was a mourning for the individuals, and an unswerving dedication to the greater good. I understood, in those moments, how he could give those commands and people would execute them. Respect is a good word. There was a calm, humble self-assurance. He exuded leadership, that quality we all know when we see it, but have a hard time actually defining. We were a team, a real team, looking out for each other.
    I wish we had more real leaders and more real teams in the world. I'm grateful we have the ones we do. I'm grateful that the military exists and operates (for the most part) as a team, with real leaders. And I wish more people could experience, first hand, what this really means. I think we'd be a much happier and humanly productive nation.

  29. Hello Mr. Wright! Edwin J. Hill happens to be my great great uncle. I am doing research on him when I came across your article. It is by far the best, and most accurate, one I have read. Thank you so much for sharing his story. It truly is an amazing one.

  30. Having just found your blog, I've been reading some of the older entries, and this one was referenced in your "rules." I am married to a 28-year, disabled, retired Senior Chief Petty Officer, and my pride in him is huge. He is an initiated Chief Petty Officer, and he considers that to be one of his proudest accomplishments of his career. I strongly remember one story he told about his last command: he was meeting with his C.O. and they were discussing the aircraft that were attached to the squadron, and the C.O. was calling those aircraft "assets." My husband asked the Captain, "How many men are assigned to this squadron?" There were about 250 men in the command. My husband's comment: "Captain, you have 12 pieces of iron sitting out there on the tarmac. You have 250 ASSETS, and if you take care of those assets, they will take care of your airplanes." He and the skipper got along just fine after that.

    Rule 1: the chief is always right.
    Rule 2: in case of any questions, see Rule 1.

    Fair winds and following seas, Sir.

  31. I simply love ya, brother. I stand back with much respect and salute you mentally. Keep on doing what you do. You touch many hearts.

  32. Thanks for the read on CWO Hill. My Father is on the list of U.S.S. Arizona survivors.
    Lawrence, Thomas H. S1c. He died on active duty as a CWO4 Gunners Mate in 1966 just shy of my 13th birthday. I have his service jacket that was salvaged from the ship.
    Thomas K. Lawrence

  33. I'm reading this just a few days before that anniversary. I have such a deep respect for you and those that served with you (like my husband) in the Navy (and of course, the other branches as well). I know I don't have that kind of fortitude in the face of terror. I've been tested, and I failed, more than once. I'm ashamed of it. So I know it's no small thing to have the courage you and the other men and women have shown and I wish I had it.
    I'm going to share this story on Monday. <3

  34. The Trained Circus BearOctober 8, 2016 at 7:00 PM

    Chief, I've read this article at least ten times and I am always left teary and wanting to post something articulate and substantive. I served my time in the US Army and I too knew men like CWO Hill. The CO of the SFQC when I was in attendance was then Lt. Col., later full Col., Robert L. Howard who was three times nominated for and a one time recipient of the MOH. He was the finest man I have ever known and this tale brought him to mind. Whenever I interact with people who have never know men like CWO Hill or Col. Howard and they tell me about their celebrity heroes, I can only shake my head, because they will never understand. For me this story is about what is sacred and of what is the spirit made. It is about a primitive, feral aspect of our existence as a species, it is about when the elders ask the tribe, who will guard us this night, who will keep the the old ones and the mothers and children safe and men (and women) like CWO Hill and Col. Howard and even you and I stood up and said "I will". It is what makes us different, it is what makes us always and forever the other, the outsider, but we did it, and that is all that matters. I salute CWO Hill, Col. Howard, you and every man and woman who ever stood up and said "pick me". Thank you Chief.

  35. I am currently teaching a class on Management to a bunch of senior IC ( Individual Contributors ) at my company, and I have again used this essay to show the difference between a "Manager" and a "Leader".

    Thank you ( again ) for your service, and for your writing, Mr. Wright.

    Mick Magill

  36. I always enjoy your essays, but this one is damned good. It gives us a glimpse of history through the eyes of someone who knows what it's like to be where they were that day. My grandfather was a CPO on a wooden minesweeper out of Aberdeen, Scotland in WWI. He died the year I was born, but by all accounts, he commanded that same respect. Thank you again for this column, and the insight.


Comments on this blog are moderated. Each will be reviewed before being allowed to post. This may take a while. I don't allow personal attacks, trolling, or obnoxious stupidity. If you post anonymously and hide behind an IP blocker, I'm a lot more likely to consider you a troll. Be sure to read the commenting rules before you start typing. Really.