John Chapman comes from a hard background. Born in 1923 and the son of deaf parents, John was sent to an orphanage at a young age when it was determined that his parents could not properly care for him. Seeking a better life, he joined the U.S. Navy in 1940 and was assigned to the USS West Virginia as a shipfitter.
On the morning of December 7, 1941, John was preparing to go to his second job as a lifeguard at a nearby resort when the first torpedo hit the West Virginia. Knocked from his feet, John at first thought that another ship had collided with his. When the call to man battle stations came, he realized that it was no collision. The Japanese had begun their attack.
Below decks, John worked his station while torpedo after torpedo struck the West Virginia. His compartment began to flood and when no one gave the call to abandon the post, John took charge himself and led the others above. It was then that the call to abandon ship came and he leapt into the water, past smoke, fire and bodies. An iconic picture captured the moment when he was rescued from the water by a passing boat. Once ashore, John commandeered an admiral’s small boat, taking it back to the West Virginia in hopes of rescuing more survivors. It was then that he saw the Arizona explode and he quickly moved in to offer aid. He picked up as many survivors as he could handle and returned to shore, where a young ensign told him that he was not wearing the proper uniform to pilot the admiral’s craft. An argument ensued and John threatened the ensign. Another officer stepped in, helping John to get cleaned up and ordering him back to rescuing survivors. After several rescue attempts, John was then assigned to cut holes into the Oklahoma in the hope of rescuing those trapped inside.
John would later be assigned to a destroyer in the Pacific theater and would then go on to serve in Korea and Vietnam. Following his lengthy service, he retired and now lives in Concord, California, with his wife.