A Hero from Pennsylvania? – Chief Boatswain Edwin Joseph Hill, USN (1894-1941)

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Chief Boatswain Edwin J. Hill, USN, (1894-1941)
Chief Boatswain Edwin J. Hill, USN, (1894-1941)

BY DUANE A. VACHON – Edwin Joseph Hill posthumously received the Navy Medal of Honor for heroism during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.

Hill’s birth records indicate that he was born October 4, 1894, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. However, it is suspected that he was actually born on the tiny Dutch island possession of Saba in the Caribbean Sea. Following the tradition of many in his seafaring Saba extended family, he may have forged an American birth certificate so that he could serve in the United States Navy.

The island of Saba being a mere 5 square miles in the middle of the ocean, Hill’s family had a rich history of seafaring; service in the United States Navy was the natural profession of choice for many of the men. Hill’s uncle, U.S. Navy Cmdr. Waldron P. Simmons, is known to have forged his own birth certificate using Philadelphia as his “hometown” in order to enter into the U.S. Navy. Simmons eventually served 47 years and founded the Navy base at Little Creek, Virginia.

What we do know for sure is Hill enlisted in the United States Navy in 1912, rising to the rank of Chief Boatswain. He was also first cousin to Captain (later Rear Admiral) Herman J. Kossler, commander of the submarine USS Cavalla (SS-244) during World War II and a recipient of the Navy Cross and three Silver Stars.

During the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he was serving on board USS Nevada (BB-36). In the midst of the attack, he led the ship’s line-handling detail in casting off from the quays alongside Ford Island so that Nevada could get underway.

In particular, Hill is noted for having dived off the back of the Nevada into the harbor, climbing onto the dock to release the battleship from its mooring, diving back into the harbor to swim after the ship as it steamed away, and climbing back up the Nevada to resume his duties onboard during the attack. During the attack, Hill lost his life soon after performing his major duty of releasing the USS Nevada from its berth at the harbor; the Nevada was the only ship that morning to attempt to make its way out of Pearl Harbor.

Hill is most noted for having released the Nevada from its mooring, and then as the battleship began to steam away, jumping into the harbor, swimming after the ship, and then climbing up the battleship onto its deck to continue the fight.

He was killed by an enemy bomb that struck the bow of the ship, claiming the lives of Hill and 46 other Nevada crewmen. Hill had been attempting to drop anchor at the end of the battleship’s brief sortie during his death. Hill’s body was found impacted with bullet wounds, suggesting that he may have been killed by gunfire; whether or not these wounds were sustained before or after the bomb blast will never be known, and his Medal of Honor citation reports the bomb blast as being the cause of death.

Several surviving Nevada crewmen, who at time were young men of 18 and 19 years old, credit Hill with saving their lives by ordering them during the action to take protective cover behind the ship’s gun turrets. It may be surmised that the veteran Hill would have recognized that these younger sailors, being completely mentally unprepared for a sudden full-scale sneak attack, would have been panicking and at great risk of being “cannon fodder” while on deck, prompting his order for them to take cover. On reflection, these former sailors mention that Hill, who was 47 years old at the time of the attack and had 30 years of naval service, had a level of respect on par with the captain of the Nevada himself.

Medal of Honor citation

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, by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941. During the height of the strafing and bombing, Chief Boatswain Hill led his men of the linehandling details of the U.S.S. Nevada to the quays, cast off the lines and swam back to his ship. Later, while on the forecastle, attempting to let go the anchors, he was blown overboard and killed by the explosion of several bombs.

In 1943, the United States Navy named a destroyer escort USS Hill (DE-141) in his honor.

Hill is at rest amongst several of his shipmates in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu Hawaii, at Section A grave 895.

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