BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. – Born on December 8, 1910 in Beverly, Kansas, Donald Kirby Ross enlisted in the U.S. Navy in Denver, Colorado on June 3, 1929. Ross graduated as the company honor man from his basic training in San Diego, California. After completing Machinist Mate School in Norfolk Virginia, first in his class, Ross was assigned to the USS Henderson on a China service run.
Ross was assigned to the hospital ship USS Relief (AH-1). He saw his first action (with the U.S. Marines) in Nicaragua in 1931. He advanced through the rates on the minesweeper USS Brant (AM-24), destroyer USS Simpson (DD-221), and cruiser USS Minneapolis (CA-36). In October 1940, Ross was promoted to the rank of Warrant Officer Machinist and was assigned to the battleship USS Nevada (BB-36).
On December 7, 1941 during the Japanese air raid on Pearl Harbor, the Nevada was badly damaged by bombs and torpedoes. Ross distinguished himself by assuming responsibility to furnish power to get the ship underway — the only battleship to do so during the Japanese attack.
When his battle station at the forward dynamo room became too difficult to remain in due to smoke, steam and heat,” reads Ross’ citation, “he forced his men to leave that station and performed all the duties himself until blinded and unconscious. Upon being rescued and resuscitated, he returned and secured the forward dynamo room and proceeded to the after dynamo room, where he was later again rendered unconscious by exhaustion. Upon recovering consciousness, he returned to his station, where he remained until directed to abandon it.”
In recognition of his selfless acts of bravery, Ross was awarded the Medal of Honor. Ross was presented the Medal of Honor by Admiral Chester Nimitz on April 18, 1942, becoming Pearl Harbor’s first World War II recipient of the Medal.
He rose steadily in temporary rank to Lieutenant Commander by the end of the war, reverting to Lieutenant at its conclusion. He again received promotion to Lieutenant Commander in 1949 and to Commander in November, 1954.
When Ross retired from active duty in July, 1956, just three years short of 3 decades of service to his country, having served aboard every type of surface ship then afloat, he was promoted to Captain on the basis of his combat awards.
After leaving the Navy, Ross with his wife Helen made his home in Washington State.. They were active in farm life and community affairs, and in perpetuating the memory of the Pearl Harbor attack, which he described as “not a story about a defeat. It’s a story about a job well done.” He wrote a book about his fellow Medal of Honor recipients — Men of Valor — published in 1994.
Medal of Honor citation of Lieutenant Commander Donald Kirby Ross (as printed in the official publication “Medal of Honor, 1861-1949, The Navy”, page 252):
“For distinguished conduct in the line of his profession, extraordinary courage and disregard of his own life during the attack on the Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, by Japanese Forces on 7 December 1941. When his station in the forward dynamo room of the U.S.S. Nevada became almost untenable due to smoke, steam and heat, Lieutenant Commander Ross forced his men to leave that station and performed all the duties himself until blinded and unconscious. Upon being rescued and resuscitated, he returned and secured the forward dynamo room and proceeded to the after dynamo room where he was later again rendered unconscious by exhaustion. Again recovering consciousness he returned to his station where he remained until directed to abandon it.”
Captain Donald K. Ross died at Bremerton, Washington, on May 27, 1992. His ashes were scattered at sea over the USS Nevada.