Discussions about the heroes of Pearl Harbor usually focus on the uniformed personnel at the naval base at the time of the Dec. 7, 1941 attack. These men, who put their lives on the line to protect the nation, have been recognized annually since the first anniversary of the attack, in 1942. In 2017, on the 76th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, one man who wasn’t wearing a uniform of the United States Armed Forces was recognized for his heroic actions. During the Pearl Harbor remembrance ceremony in Marin City, CA on Dec. 7, Walter Russell Potter was honored for heroic actions that ended up saving several trapped sailors on the USS Oklahoma (BB-37).

A Civilian Hero Is Made

USS Oklahoma capsized in Pearl Harbor

Potter, now 99 years old, worked as a civilian crane operator near Hickam Field but had the day off on the morning of the attack, a Sunday. Taking the only transportation he could find—a local bus—he rushed to the site of the chaos. With Japanese planes still strafing overhead, Potter found his way to the controls of a boring tool, and proceeded to cut into the hull of the Oklahoma, a severely damaged battleship that had started to take on water.

Due to Potter’s actions, dozens of Oklahoma sailors were able to escape, keeping the battleship’s death toll at 429. At the 76th anniversary ceremony, Potter was the guest of honor for putting his life in danger to rescue as many men as he could from the Oklahoma.

Despite his heroism that morning, Potter remained a civilian. He spent another year after the Pearl Harbor attack working the crane before moving to Corte Madera, CA, where he became a dental technician.


A Well-Deserved Recognition

At the commemoration, Potter was joined by another World War II hero, Phyllis Gould. During the war, she was one of the collective “Rosie the Riveters” while she served at the Marin City shipyard.

The ship that Potter cut into, the USS Oklahoma, capsized and sank during the attack, and was later refloated and sold for scrap. While being towed to a California shipyard, she was lost to the Pacific in a storm. Over the past two years, the Oklahoma has been making headlines as more of the previously unknown remains of the men who perished are being exhumed and identified by the Defense POW/MIA Agency, allowing them to receive proper burials at last.

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