WT1 Elmer C. Bigelow, USNR (February 14, 1945)

Elmer Charles Bigelow was born on July 12, 1920 in Hebron, Illinois. He volunteered and enlisted in the United States Naval Reserve during September 1942 and, after training, was posted as an active member of the United States Navy in the Pacific Fleet.

Bigelow was assigned to the USS Fletcher (DD-445), the lead ship of her class of destroyers, reporting aboard during June of 1943. He would serve aboard her for his entire wartime service.

On February 14, 1945 as the Fletcher was covering minesweeping operations for the assault to recapture the Philippine island of Corregidor, the destroyer was struck by a Japanese shell that penetrated one of the forward gun magazines and started a fire that threatened to destroy the ship. Bigelow, then holding the rating of Watertender First Class, grabbed two fire extinguishers and – despite his lack of breathing apparatus or any protective gear – put the Fletcher and his shipmates before his own life and by his courage joined the ranks of sailors decorated with the Medal of Honor.

From Medal of Honor Citations for World War II (A-F):

Medal of Honor ribbon (foreground); World War II Asiatic-Pacific Campaign ribbon (background)
Medal of Honor ribbon (foreground); World War II Asiatic-Pacific Campaign ribbon (background)
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

*BIGELOW, ELMER CHARLES

Rank and organization: Watertender First Class, U.S. Naval Reserve

Citation: For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty while serving on board the U.S.S. Fletcher during action against enemy Japanese forces off Corregidor Island in the Philippines, 14 February 1945. Standing topside when an enemy shell struck the Fletcher, Bigelow, acting instantly as the deadly projectile exploded into fragments which penetrated the No. 1 gun magazine and set fire to several powder cases, picked up a pair of fire extinguishers and rushed below in a resolute attempt to quell the raging flames. Refusing to waste the precious time required to don rescue-breathing apparatus, he plunged through the blinding smoke billowing out of the magazine hatch and dropped into the blazing compartment. Despite the acrid, burning powder smoke which seared his lungs with every agonizing breath, he worked rapidly and with instinctive sureness and succeeded in quickly extinguishing the fires and in cooling the cases and bulkheads, thereby preventing further damage to the stricken ship. Although he succumbed to his injuries on the following day, Bigelow, by his dauntless valor, unfaltering skill and prompt action in the critical emergency, had averted a magazine explosion which undoubtedly would have left his ship wallowing at the mercy of the furiously pounding Japanese guns on Corregidor, and his heroic spirit of self-sacrifice in the face of almost certain death enhanced and sustained the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.

Bigelow succumbed to his injuries the following day, February 15, 1945. The shell impact also killed eight and wounded three of his shipmates. The Fletcher survived, and served through the remainder of the war.

Elmer Bigelow was brought home to Hebron, where he today rests in peace in the Linn-Hebron Cemetery. The Navy honored the hero of the Fletcher by naming a Forrest Sherman-class destroyer for him. The USS Bigelow (DD-942) served with the fleet for 25 years from November 8, 1957 to November 5, 1982. The ship was held in reserve until it was sunk as a target on April 2, 2003.

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