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This Day in History: Donald Ross, hero of Pearl Harbor

On this day in 1992, a hero passes away. Donald K. Ross was the first sailor to receive a Medal of Honor during World War II. At the time of his passing, he was also the oldest living recipient of the Medal.


Ross was serving in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese launched their surprise attack of December 7, 1941. He was then a machinist mate aboard USS Nevada, but would you believe he wasn’t even supposed to be aboard Nevada that Sunday?


Indeed, his then-girlfriend (future wife) Helen was a bit upset with him for returning to the ship on Saturday night, the 6th. His birthday was Monday, so she’d planned a surprise Sunday birthday picnic. He was not on duty and should have been free to go.


“He insisted he needed to get back,” she later remembered. “He said he just had a feeling that he should be with the ship.”

Helen dropped him off that evening, just as it was getting dark. She would later remember an officer giving Ross orders. “He was to make sure he kept the boilers on the Nevada up and running through the night,” Helen explained. “A lot of the ships didn’t. They shut down on the weekends.”


Other reports say that one boiler was running, but an officer wanted to start a second so a switch could be made later. Either way, at least two boilers were running on the night of December 6-7, which proved important.


Ross remembers the attack early that Sunday morning. “I was shaving when it happened,” he explained. “But I stopped right then and there. We were prepared. We knew that a war was coming. We didn’t know it was then. We were all surprised.”


He ran to the engine room, prepared to do what was needed.


“[The story of] the daring rump crew that fought [on Nevada] so gallantly,” Commander Jack D. Bruce observes, “during the 7 December 1941 surprise Japanese attack . . . has never been fully or accurately told. The stories are often inaccurate and sometimes misleading. Unlike her sister ships along Battleship Row that distant morning, the Nevada got under way, making a dramatic dash for the open sea despite a gaping torpedo wound in her port bow and bomb damage elsewhere.”


Which officers were in charge when? No one is sure. Nevertheless, a few facts are  indisputable: First, Nevada had an extra boiler running, which proved vital in getting the engines up and running so quickly. Second, Ross played a critical role in the moments that followed.


He simply would not abandon his post in the engine room.


As he worked, he passed out from smoke inhalation, was resuscitated, then went back. He blacked out a second time and was resuscitated before returning yet again. On this third trip, a rope was tied around his chest so he could be pulled out of the engine room, as needed.


They had to have been assuming he’d pass out a third time.


It was enough. Nevada’s engines roared to life, and she got underway in about 45 minutes—an unbelievable feat. As Nevada made her run for the open sea, she also cleared the way for other Navy ships to get out of the harbor.


When the dust had settled, Ross should have been hospitalized immediately, but he refused to go. Instead, he stayed to help with the evacuation and rescue of others. When he was finally hospitalized, it took three weeks for his eyesight to return to normal.


A few months later, Ross became the first sailor to receive the Medal of Honor. Naturally, he didn’t think he deserved it.


“I don’t know what all this fuss is about,” one officer remembers Ross saying decades later. “I’m just a poor Navy man who has always tried to do his duty. I love this country like I love my own family. God bless America.”

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Primary Sources:

  • Commander Jack D. Bruce, U.S. Navy (Retired), The Enigma of Battleship Nevada (Naval History Magazine; Dec. 1991)

  • Donald Ross: Pearl Harbor Hero Honored by His Friends (Kitsap Sun; June 3, 1992) (p. A1)

  • Jackie Fitzpatrick, The Crew of the First Nevada Relives World War II Exploits (The Day; Sept. 15, 1985) (p. A3)

  • Medal of Honor citation (Donald Kirby Ross; WWII)

  • Nevada Crewmen Visit for Ross Ceremony (Galveston Daily News; June 26, 1997) (p. A1)

  • New Destroyer Bears Proud Kansas Name (Wichita Eagle; May 26, 1997) (p. A1)

  • Obituaries: Donald Ross Won 1st World War II Medal of Honor (Indianapolis Star; June 1, 1992) (p. C6)

  • The Saga of the USS Nevada (Nevada Mag.; July – August 2014)

  • World War II Dispatch: Medal of Honor Recipient Buried at Sea (Department of Defense; Winter 1993) (p. 18)



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