The US Navy Pearl Harbor Shuttle Boats
June 28, 2019
Standing on the shoreline at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, you see that you’re separated from the USS Arizona Memorial by a stretch of water. Though you know that the memorial is included in your Pearl Harbor tour, you might be wondering how you’re going to get to it. Then you see the white Pearl Harbor shuttle boats carrying passengers from just outside the Pearl Harbor Memorial Theater to the stark white structure anchored in the middle of the harbor.
At first glance, these boats don’t appear to be anything special. They could just be fiberglass vessels with no history behind them, although that’s not the case here. Though the boats themselves weren’t part of Pearl Harbor history, the names they bear most definitely are.
The Shuttle Boats of Pearl Harbor
Though the Pearl Harbor National Monument is overseen by the National Park Service, there is one element that’s the responsibility of the US Navy. That, of course, is the operation of the shuttle boats to the USS Arizona Memorial and Battleship Row.
The Pearl Harbor shuttle boats belong to the Navy, and they’re operated by sailors who have special training to educate visitors to Pearl Harbor about the USS Arizona and the Memorial built above the wreckage. Since the Navy owns and maintains the shuttle boats, they are the authority to make the decision to suspend operations in the event of inclement weather or other issues that could make boarding the memorial difficult or even dangerous. The most common cause of Pearl Harbor shuttle boat tours being canceled is heavy winds, though this is a fairly uncommon occurrence.
In an effort to reduce their impact on the environment, the Pearl Harbor shuttle boats run on biodiesel fuel, which is produced in the islands by Pacific Biodiesel. Since the boats run continuously throughout the day, the Navy opted for a more environmentally sound fuel source.
While the boats themselves and the sailors who operate them are important parts of the USS Arizona Memorial experience, there’s another interesting piece to the puzzle: the men whose names adorn the vessels. Each of the Pearl Harbor shuttle boats bears a hull designation TB 39-n—the USS Arizona, a battleship, was designated BB-39—and the name of a different Pearl Harbor hero.
John Finn (TB 39-1)
The Pearl Harbor shuttle boat named for Chief Aviation Ordnanceman John Finn honors the legacy of the Medal of Honor recipient. As the Imperial Japanese Navy began its assault on US bases on Oahu, Finn, stationed at Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay, continued firing on the attackers despite injuries and an exposed position, becoming a Pearl Harbor hero.
Samuel Fuqua (TB 39-2)
During the attack on Pearl Harbor, Lieutenant Commander Samuel Fuqua was serving aboard USS Arizona as a damage control officer. When the ship came under attack, Fuqua was rendered unconscious by a bomb that hit the stern. After reviving, he went right back to work, directing fire fighting and rescue efforts despite his own close encounter with death. For risking his life saving the surviving Arizona crewmen, Fuqua was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Lieutenant Commander Jackson Pharris (TB 39-5)
Though USS California (BB-44) returned to service after the Pearl Harbor attack, she sustained heavy damage. Like his ship, Lieutenant Jackson Pharris suffered injuries that should have incapacitated him. Despite this, he wasted no time assisting with repelling the assault. He set up a hand–to-hand supply chain to bring ammunition to the ship’s antiaircraft guns. For his heroic actions, he was awarded the Navy Cross, which was upgraded to the Medal of Honor.
Captain Donald Ross (TB 39-4)
Not a stranger to wartime action, Machinist Mate Donald Ross was serving aboard USS Nevada (BB-36) when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor. Nevada survived the attack, largely owing to Ross’s actions. He kept the forward dynamo room running when conditions became too dangerous for his men. He fell unconscious multiple times, each time awakening to return to his station until he ordered to abandon it. Four months after the Pearl Harbor attack, Ross was awarded the Medal of Honor.
Chief Watertender Peter Tomich (TB 39-6)
Chief Watertender Peter Tomich was stationed aboard USS Utah ((BB-31/AG-16), a demilitarized battleship that had been converted to a target ship. Despite its non-combat status, Japanese pilots directed fire on Utah, forcing men like Tomich to spring into action. Even after the ship began to capsize, Tomich remained behind to help his fellow sailors escape. His selfless actions saved many lives, whil costing him his own.
Commander Cassin Young (TB 39-3)
Soon after the Pearl Harbor attack began, Commander Cassin Young, the commanding officer of USS Vestal (AR-4)—which was tied up next to USS Arizona—took command of his ship’s anti-aircraft gun. When Arizona’s forward magazine exploded, Young was blown overboard. Stunned but determined, he swam back to his ship and calmly directed efforts to save her by moving her away from the doomed Arizona and ultimately beaching her.