BY DUANE A. VACHON, PH.D. – Jackson Charles Pharris was born in 1912 and grew up in Columbus, GA, as the oldest of five children. He joined the United States Navy on April 25, 1933. In September 1933, he reported aboard the USS California (BB-44) as a gunner. He was assigned to the USS Mississippi until December 1940. Pharris reported aboard the USS California in January 1941. The ship reached Pearl Harbor on November 8, 1941.
For his actions on board the USS California during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he was awarded the Navy Cross, which was later upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Medal of Honor citation:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while attached to the U.S.S. California during the surprise enemy Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, December 7, 1941. In charge of the ordnance repair party on the third deck when the first Japanese torpedo struck almost directly under his station, Lt. (then Gunner) Pharris was stunned and severely injured by the concussion which hurled him to the overhead and back to the deck. Quickly recovering, he acted on his own initiative to set up a hand-supply ammunition train for the antiaircraft guns. With water and oil rushing in where the port bulkhead had been torn up from the deck, with many of the remaining crewmembers overcome by oil fumes, and the ship without power and listing heavily to port as a result of a second torpedo hit, Lt. Pharris ordered the shipfitters to counterflood. Twice rendered unconscious by the nauseous fumes and handicapped by his painful injuries, he persisted in his desperate efforts to speed up the supply of ammunition and at the same time repeatedly risked his life to enter flooding compartments and drag to safety unconscious shipmates who were gradually being submerged in oil. By his inspiring leadership, his valiant efforts and his extreme loyalty to his ship and her crew, he saved many of his shipmates from death and was largely responsible for keeping the California in action during the attack. His heroic conduct throughout this first eventful engagement of World War II reflects the highest credit upon Lt. Pharris and enhances the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.
As a result of the injuries he received during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Pharris was hospitalized at the Naval Hospital, Pearl Harbor. He was released from the hospital in March, 1942 and returned to his ship the USS California. On July 17, 1942, Pharris was commissioned as an Ensign.
In November 1942, Pharris met Elizabeth Potter at a social in the USS California Officers’ Mess while the ship was in Bremerton, Washington. In January 1943 he was admitted again to the US Naval Hospital after collapsing because of lack of oxygen due to oil still in his lungs. He eventually returned to duty in June 1943.
While attending school in Washington, D.C., he finally proposed to Elizabeth, and they were married August 24, 1943.
In October 1944 Pharris was transferred to Boston, Massachusetts where he reported for duty aboard the USS Saint Paul (CA-73), a newly commissioned heavy cruiser. Shortly after reporting for duty the ship left for Japan to participate in bombardments of the Japanese mainland. In September 1945, just five days after the surrender proclamation, Pharris was on deck when a Japanese kamikaze dove at the ship. He ordered the crew to take cover and he directed the firing of the guns and shot it down. His back was broken from the impact of the guns.
Pharris was transported to US Naval Hospital, Oakland, California. In October 1945 he was transferred to US Naval Hospital, Long Beach, California. After discharge from the hospital in April 1946 he was temporarily assigned to Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach, Terminal Island, Long Beach Naval Shipyard and Port Hueneme. He was medically retired in May 1948 as a Lieutenant Commander. His Medal of Honor was presented by President Harry S. Truman on June 25, 1948.
Following his Navy retirement, the Pharris family settled in Rolling Hills Estates in Los Angeles County. Pharris attended Long Beach City College and USC. On June 9, 1956 he graduated from USC with a Bachelor of Science in Commerce.
On October 16, 1966, while attending a Medal of Honor activity, Pharris collapsed and was taken to the Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles where he died the next day of a heart attack. He is buried in Section 13, Grave 16281, at Arlington National Cemetery.
After his death, his wife took possession of his medals. When she became ill, one of his daughters, Janet Pharris, placed them in a safe-deposit box at a bank in San Pedro. Then, in 2002, Janet Pharris died of a heart attack. A few months later, on February 14, 2002, her mother Elizabeth L. Pharris, died of a stroke and was buried with her husband in Arlington National Cemetery.
Jackson Pharris’ three living children went through their mother’s and sister’s possessions. The medals of course meant a great deal to the children. They were devastated when they discovered the medals were missing. The youngest son, Jeff recalls telling his sixth grade class what his father had done to receive the Medal of Honor.
Fortunately a series of events was about to unfold that would reunite the Pharris children with their father’s medals.
In June of 2002, a federal judge made a ruling that the state of California was not doing enough to return unclaimed property to its rightful owner. The State Controller John Chiang announced that much of the red tape was removed, making it easier for rightful owners to be reunited with their property. Chiang specifically made reference to a Medal of Honor during the announcement.
Shortly after the announcement, Chiang’s staff tracked down the Pharris children and the Medal was returned to the rightful owners. They were over the moon.
In a brief address when the Medal was returned Jack Pharris described his dad as a “modest man”, a “modest guy” and a “normal dad” who felt sheepish about having received such a prestigious honor. The elder Pharris always believed that plenty of other sailors were every bit as brave as he was that day, his son recalled.
Whenever his children would ask him about the medal, Jackson Pharris would reply, “This is what you did in a crisis situation.”