Courage Under Fire: A WWII Leadership Story

Tokyo Bay USS Missouri-ceasefire signing four years after Pearl Harbor

Spectators and photographers pick vantage spots on the deck of the USS MISSOURI in Tokyo Bay, to witness the formal Japanese surrender proceedings. September 2, 1945

The most difficult time to live the values we say we believe in is when they are under fire by the circumstances of the world. And today, as we mark the 75th anniversary of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, I’m reminded of one of history’s most powerful examples of a leader living his values while under fire – literally.

William Callaghan served nearly 40 years in the United States Navy, retiring in 1957 with the rank of vice admiral. But the defining moment of his legacy happened as commander of the USS Missouri on a day when the easiest thing he could have done was turn a blind eye to his convictions.

Thankfully, he stood firm.

The USS Missouri wasn’t in Pearl Harbor during the initial attack, but she’s moored there now as a fitting bookend monument to World War II. That’s because it was on Sept. 2, 1945 that Japan formally surrendered to the Allied Forces aboard the Missouri.

The Missouri bares many battle scars, not the least of which happened during the Battle of Okinawa when a Japanese kamikaze crashed onto the battleship’s side deck. The crew quickly and efficiently put out the fire caused by the wreckage, and, while doing so, discovered the body of the pilot.

Several members of the crew were about to throw the body overboard along with what was left of his airplane, but Callaghan intervened. The pilot, he pointed out, was a warrior serving his country, just like the sailors on their ship. He was following orders and had paid the ultimate price with his life. He deserved to be treated with respect and dignity.

The next day, the pilot was given a military burial at sea, complete with a Japanese flag sewn together by the crew so it could be draped over his body. The Marine guard fired a salute, a bugler played Taps, and the ship’s chaplain commended “his body to the deep.”

After the war, it was determined the pilot was 19-year-old Setsuo Ishino. In 2001, members of his family and of Callaghan’s family gathered on the Missouri for a ceremony. One of the artifacts Ishino’s family contributed to the memorial is a photo of their family when Ishino was a child. Fittingly, he’s holding a toy airplane.

What can we learn from this as we mourn and honor the lives lost on the devastating day 75 years ago in Pearl Harbor? Well, if we have courage as leaders, we can overcome the worst of this world and leave a legacy that’s much more meaningful than any list of our conquests.

So when the battles are raging around you in business and making the right call isn’t aligned with making the easy call, think about Captain Callaghan and the courage he displayed in circumstances far more threatening than most of us will ever face. His decision likely had no impact whatsoever on the outcome of the war. But it sent a message to his crew – and eventually to the world – about why this country is so great.

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