On December 14, 1941, seven days after the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, John Flaherty received a box of Christmas presents from his brother in Hawaii. At about the same time, US Navy officials were confirming that Francis Flaherty, an officer aboard USS Oklahoma (BB-37), had been killed in the attack. This was an unfortunately common occurrence in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor; many servicemen had been addressing Christmas cards and gifts in the days before the attack.
A Life Cut Short
Flaherty’s story is a tragic one that ended not long after the Japanese assault began. He was an ensign serving aboard USS Oklahoma who did all that he could to maximize the number of sailors who escaped the sinking vessel. For his sacrifice, Francis Flaherty was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Before these horrific events unfolded, Francis Flaherty was just one of thousands of men who joined the US Navy. Unlike many at the time, however, rather than join the service immediately after graduating from high school in 1936, Flaherty spent four years at the University of Michigan. After his graduation in 1940, he immediately enlisted in the US Naval Reserve.
Flaherty completed basic training and was sent to serve aboard USS Oklahoma, a battleship that, on December 7, 1941, was moored along Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor.
Francis Flaherty: Pearl Harbor Hero
On that quiet Sunday morning, Oklahoma was struck by several torpedoes. The damage was devastating. For the men serving on board, it became a matter of escaping the stricken battleship before she capsized and sank to the floor of the harbor.
Francis Flaherty made it his priority to rescue as many men as he could. The ensign was trapped in a gun turret with other crew members and did what he could to light the way to safety. He refused to leave before all of his men were safe, but by then the water had risen too far for him to be able to secure his own safety. Flaherty never emerged from the hull of the USS Oklahoma.
To honor his selfless heroism, Francis Flaherty was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, and on June 26, 1943, a new destroyer named in his honor, USS Flaherty (DE-135), was commissioned into service in the United States Navy.
Although there is a grave marker for Francis Flaherty in a cemetery in his hometown of Charlotte, MI, the grave is empty. Since 2015, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has been matching DNA from recovered remains from USS Oklahoma with samples given by family members. Since the program was launched, more than 100 sets of remains have been identified. As of September 2018, Flaherty’s remains have not been identified, but the program is expected to run until 2020. For now, the brave ensign is memorialized for his bravery and remembered by the families of the sailors he saved.