December 9, 1895 (Thomaston, CT) – December 7, 1941; 45 years old
Brother listed at 31 Godwin Court, Thomaston
Enlisted on July 20, 1917
USS California (BB-44); Chief Radioman
Born to William Reeves (1850-1938) and Mary O’Riley Reeves (1858-1939), both born in Ireland. Sister, Rosetta Reeves (1882-1905). Four brothers, Joseph (1885-1972), Leo (1889-1967), William (1892-), and Frederick (1898-1970).
Medal of Honor Recipient. He enlisted in the Naval Reserve as Electrician Third Class on July 20, 1917. He served until discharged August 21, 1921, and on October 12, 1921 he reenlisted in the Navy making it his career. He was serving as Chief Radioman on the Battleship USS California when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
From U.S. Navy cruise book published in 1995 about the USS California
THOMAS JAMES REEVES, the son of Mr. and Mrs. William Reeves of Thomaston, Connecticut. He attended local schools and before entering the service was the chief operator for Western Union at Waterbury, CT. Thomas enlisted in the U.S. Navy on July 10, 1917. He saw service in WWI in the Transportation Service. In the following years he had service on the USS American, Whipple, Seattle, Texas, Chicago, Maryland, New Mexico and California. He also served in Staff Headquarters of the 3rd Naval District and with the naval Mission to Brazil. He also taught radio in Rio de Janeiro. Thomas intended to retire in 1939 with more than 22 years of service completed. He had accepted an appointment as ground engineer with the Civil Service. The day before his retirement was to take effect, President Roosevelt declared a Limited Emergency and all persons were prohibited from leaving the Navy. Thomas then re-enlisted at San Pedro for another four years. At the time of Pearl Harbor, he was on the Admiral’s staff on board the USS California.
A remembrance letter written by Thomas Mason. On display at the Town Hall in Thomaston, Connecticut
A remembrance of Chief Radioman Thomas J. Reeves, Medal of Honor
One day in the summer of 1941, Chief Reeves called me over to the supervisor’s desk in the radio room of the battleship California. We were moored to Berth F-3 at the head of the battle line in Pearl Harbor.
“Mason, I’m giving you a promotion,” he said. “I’m sending you to the main top for your battle station.”
“That’s great, chief!” I enthused. “What do I do there?”
“When our planes are up, you copy their spotting reports,” he said. “By hand. They’re used for correcting main-battery fire.”
“What do I do when the planes aren’t up?”
“Enjoy the scenery.” He smiled. “You’re going to like it up there Mason. Lots of fresh air.”
The chief — who ran the 90-man radio gang of both the ship and the admiral’s flag complement with an awesome competence — had given me more than a promotion. He had, it is quite likely, given me my life. Otherwise, I would have been in main radio, located on the platform deck below the third deck, port side, on December 7 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. After it flooded and was abandoned following the deadly impact of two torpedoes, I would have been with my best friend, Melvin G. Johnson, near the ship’s service store when a bomb hit there, killing him and about fifty other shipmates. Or — had I been a better man than I probably was — with Chief Reeves in a burning passageway on the third deck.
When main radio was abandoned, Chief Reeves was the last man out. After helping some men to relative safety, he returned to the burning, rapidly flooding third deck. Realizing the desperate need for ammunition at the anti-aircraft batteries, he plunged into the smoke and flames with every able-bodied man he could muster. It was there on the starboard side of the third deck, less than fifty feet from the entrance to the radio room he had supervised so long and so ably, that he was overcome by smoke and fire, collapsed and died. He won the nation’s highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor. Of this medal, Harry Truman said: “I would rather have it than be President.”
The last time I saw the chief was on the late evening of December 5, 1941 in front of Wo Fat’s restaurant on Hotel Street in Honolulu.
“He was one of those men of above-medium height and large frame who become corpulent but never look fat,” I later wrote. “He had a round, smooth face under a full head of thick, iron-gray hair that gave him a leonine look despite the military haircut. His piercing, hawk-like eyes could have been those of a surgeon — or a riverboat gambler.
“Even then he was a near-legendary figure. A pioneer during the primitive days of the arc transmitter, he was a man who scorned the easy shore billet that could have been his for one of the toughest jobs in the enlisted Navy: chief in charge of the radio gang, Commander Battle Force. He ran the C-D Division with a discipline that was firm without being oppressive…. Reputedly, he had turned down a commission of at least two stripes, which was certainly understandable, for no junior officer in a battleship had anything like his real authority and prestige. The chief alone decoded when and where you stood watch, what your battle station was, when you went on liberty, and when you were ready for a faster radio circuit or an advance in rating. Within his division, he was more feared and respected than the captain himself.”
On this Friday evening of December 5, Johnson and I were nearly broke. Spotting the chief, I ran across the street and explained my problem.
“Well, Mason,” he said without hesitation, “let me make you a small loan.” He pulled bill from one of his pockets and handed it to me. “That enough?” he asked.
I was holding a twenty dollar bill — a third of a month’s pay for a third class petty officer. I must have stammered in explaining that I didn’t need so much, that a five would be plenty.
“That’s all right Mason,” he said with a wave of the hand and a flash from the large diamond ring he wore on his little finger. “Keep it.”
A Japanese task force prevented me from repaying that loan; but I never forgot the obligation. My assignment to the main top by Chief Radioman Thomas J. Reeves of Thomaston, Connecticut, enabled me to survive the attack on Pearl Harbor, and later to attend college on the G.I. Bill. Decades later it made possible the repayment of my debt in coin of a different kind. When I was asked by the Naval Institute Press to write Battleship Sailor, I was at last able to pay tribute to my gallant chief radioman of the California, and to include his name in the book’s dedication.
“The battleship Navy was gone as an overwhelming physical force,” I wrote in my memoir; “but I knew that some of its intangible legacies would remain. What would live for others to emulate and for history to admire, were the qualities of men like Reeves. To such men, defeat was unendurable, failure was not acceptable.”
I am proud to have known and served with Chief Radioman Thomas J. Reeves, Medal of Honor.
Theodore C. Mason
NOTE: Theodore Charles Mason survived the war and died at 82 years old in 2004.
Citation to accompany the award of the Navy Medal of Honor
The President of the United States takes pleasure in presenting the Congressional Medal of Honor to Thomas James Reeves, CRM (PA) USN, Deceased
For service during an attack on the United States Fleet in Pearl Harbor, as set forth in the following. For Distinguished Service in the line of his profession, with extraordinary courage and disregard for his own safety during the attack on the U.S. Fleet in Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii by Japanese forces on December 7, 1941. After the mechanized ammunition hoists were put out of commission in the USS California, Reeves on his own initiative, in a burning passageway, assisted in the maintenance of an ammunition supply by hand to the anti-aircraft guns until he was overcome by smoke and flames which resulted in his death.
Photo of CRM Reeves’ Medal of Honor on permanent display in the Town Hall in Thomaston, Connecticut. Photo by webmaster.
From The Hartford Courant July 12, 1942
Thomaston, July 11. – (AP) – Thomas Reeves is to have a United States Navy escort vessel named in his memory, according to a letter received today by his brother, Fred D. Reeves, from the Secretary of the Navy, Frank Knox. Mr. Reeves, whose memory was honored at special ceremonies here May 30 and who was posthumously awarded the Navy Medal of Honor, died December 7 in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He was a Chief Radioman in the Navy. The first Reeves was laid down by the Norfolk Navy Yard, Portsmouth, Virginia, on 7 February 1943; launched on 23 April 1943; sponsored by Miss Mary Anne Reeves, niece of Chief Radioman Reeves; and commissioned on 9 June 1943, Lieutenant Commander Mathias S. Clark in command.
Chief Reeves is buried at National Military Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii; Section A, Grave 884
Also memorialized on his parent’s headstone. The stone is located in St. Thomas Cemetery, 55 Altair Avenue, Thomaston, Connecticut, Section B, Plot 283. Photo by webmaster.