When Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, there were, no doubt, numerous acts of valor and heroism. Most of them are forever lost, with no survivors to tell the tale. For their actions that day, 15 US Navy sailors were awarded the Medal of Honor, 10 of them posthumously. Three were awarded to men aboard USS Arizona (BB-39)—the ship’s commanding officer, Captain Franklin Van Valkenburgh; Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, Commander of Battleship Division One; and Lieutenant Commander Samuel G. Fuqua. Only Fuqua survived to receive the Medal.
In January 1941, then-Lieutenant Commander Fuqua received orders to report to the commanding officer of the USS Arizona for duty as the ship’s damage control officer (DCO) and first lieutenant. On February 27, Lt. Commander Fuqua reported aboard the battleship for the second time in his naval career. Born in Laddonia, Missouri, on October 15, 1899, Fuqua served in the US Army briefly during World War I.
In 1919, Fuqua switched services and entered the US Naval Academy. Following his June 1923 graduation and commissioning into the US Navy, Ensign Fuqua reported aboard Arizona for a customary year-long period of duty as a junior officer. Over the next few years, Fuqua served aboard various ships and at shore installations before receiving his first command as commanding officer of the minesweeper USS Bittern (AM-36) from 1937-1939.
Fuqua rejoined the officer cadre of Arizona in February 1941 in a more senior position as the damage control officer (DCO) and first lieutenant. On a battleship, this combined position was senior to all watch and division officers. As first lieutenant, Fuqua led the hull department (also called construction and repair department) and was responsible for coordinating with the executive officer the ship’s work, drills, exercises, and was responsible for the overall cleanliness and appearance of the ship. As the damage control officer, Fuqua held responsibility for coordinating damage control and keeping the ship in material condition for battle. An attack such as the Japanese had planned for December 7 was precisely the type of event for which Fuqua prepared and dreaded.
On that fateful December morning, according to the statement he gave afterwards, Fuqua was aft, in the ward room mess eating breakfast. At the sound of the ship’s air raid alarm, right about 7:55 a.m., Fuqua calmly picked up a phone, called the officer of the deck, and ordered general quarters sounded. The familiar whistle rang out over the ship’s speakers, followed by “All hands man your battle stations!” This was not a drill.
Through a porthole on the port side of the ship, Fuqua saw a Japanese plane fly by, machine guns blazing. Fuqua hurried topside, running forward on the starboard side of the ship towards the superstructure. Reaching the quarterdeck, Fuqua was thrown into unconsciousness by the blast of the bomb that hit the No. 4 turret, glanced off, penetrated the ship, and exploded on the third deck.
Precisely how long Fuqua lay unconscious on the deck, chaos unfolding around him, is unknown, but he regained consciousness to find the deck aft awash and the ship aflame. Men capable of manning antiaircraft batteries were fighting back as others freed the ship’s boats and moved them aft, away from the burning bow. Conscious, but reeling from the blast, Fuqua’s instincts kicked in, and he began organizing crews to fight fires. With no pressure in the fire hoses, Fuqua directed his men to use handheld carbon dioxide extinguishers. This abated the flames enough to rescue men running through the fire, but the small extinguishers were no match for the growing inferno.
By 9:00 a.m., the ship’s antiaircraft batteries were out of action, fires were growing, and water was rising. Fuqua knew all too well that the ship was a loss. Whether she could be salvaged would be decided later, there was nothing more the men of the Arizona could do but save themselves. Unable to locate Captain Van Valkenburgh or another senior officer, Fuqua ordered all hands to abandon ship.
Accounts by other survivors given after the attack emphasized Fuqua’s leadership that fateful morning. Described by men as “exceptionally calm,” and “unperturbed, calm, cool, and collected, exemplifying the courage and traditions under fire,” Fuqua is credited by his men as inspiring those around him, helping many to find the courage to carry on.
Fuqua remained on board the Arizona calmly directing the evacuation of both the wounded and able-bodied. In an oral history conducted by the Museum, Arizona sailor Louis Conter recalled Fuqua’s determination to evacuate the wounded: “Commander Fuqua said, ‘Get the guys, lay them down.’ They were coming out of the 3rd Division turret on the aft deck, and they were on fire and burned pretty bad. He says, ‘Lay them down until we get them into the boat to get them to the hospital even if you have to render them unconscious.’”
In the midst of the unfolding disaster, Fuqua’s leadership created an orderly scene aboard the burning Arizona, bringing confidence to a crew shaken by the surprise attack and devastation of their ship.
In the hours and days after the attack, Fuqua continued to assist in rescue and recovery efforts as the senior surviving officer from Arizona. Captain Van Valkenburgh and Admiral Kidd were killed by the blast of the ship’s forward magazine exploding. Like many of the other survivors of Arizona’s crew, Fuqua was assigned to another ship in 1942, serving aboard the cruiser USS Tuscaloosa (CA-37). During that year Tuscaloosa served in the Atlantic, participating in convoy and escort missions and supporting Operation TORCH.
In March 1942, Fuqua was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions on December 7. In 1943-1944, Fuqua was assigned to duty at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and underwent training at the Naval War College. In the last year of the war, then-Captain Fuqua served as the Operations Officer for the Commander, Seventh Fleet. In that role, he assisted in the planning and execution of amphibious operations in the Philippine and Borneo area. Fuqua retired from active duty in July 1953, and was promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral.