SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — On Memorial Day weekend, a San Francisco tradition was revived after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic. The annual ceremony was held to honor the memory of the USS San Francisco in the battle of Guadalcanal during World War II. The event also honored a sailor who was commended for his bravery, even as he battled racism in the military.
The memorial to the USS San Francisco sits in a quiet spot next to Land’s End, its flagpole flanked by what’s left of the ship’s battered bridge, filled with holes from the attack it endured on Nov. 13, 1942.
“The USS San Francisco and its ships filed right into the center of a Japanese armada,” said John McKnight, president of the USS San Francisco Foundation. “And in the middle of them, with ships surrounding them on all sides, they opened fire in the pitch dark and it was a brawl — there’s no better way to describe it.”
Miraculously, the ship was not sunk but 77 sailors died in the battle, including most of the command staff. At Sunday’s ceremony, their names were read aloud and a bell was rung to honor their passing.
One fallen sailor, Petty Officer Leonard Roy Harmon, made history in another way. He was a kitchen attendant — one of the few jobs that African Americans could hold on a ship back then — but, during the battle, he began helping move wounded soldiers including the ship’s executive officer.
“Shots were ripping through the wall while he’s carrying this guy down. He stands between him and the doorway where the bullets are coming through and he takes the full brunt of the machine-gun fire,” said Dr. Jim Armstead, a retired Naval War College professor.
Professor Armstead, who gave the ceremony’s keynote address, said Harmon probably should have received the Medal of Honor for his actions but instead the Navy granted him an honor that was even rarer — they named a ship for him.