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While much fame as a cavalry soldier from Cape May has been given Henry Washington Sawyer for his capture by the South during the Civil War, and his near execution that followed, sometimes forgotten is the name of another Cape May man who was killed while acting heroically during the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

Edwin Joseph Hill was a chief boatswain aboard the Nevada when the Japanese dropped their destruction on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. The ship’s 23 bandsmen and a Marine color guard were standing at attention on the fantail of the battleship waiting to play morning colors when a rear gunner of a Japanese plane spotted them and opened fire.

The band, under the baton of Oden McMillan, responded by playing “The Star Spangled Banner” throughout the assault.

An account in the June 1971 edition of the Cape May County Magazine of History and Genealogy describes Hill’s role during the attack.

“Alongside the ship was an ammunition lighter. Chief Boatswain Hill leaped to the mooring quay and cut loose the lines to his ship. (The Nevada) started out to the harbor entrance and Hill had to swim to get back to her. In the meanwhile, Lt. Commander Francis J. Thomas, the senior officer aboard, tried to get her turned around and directed to the entrance channel and the sea, but finally was ordered from shore to turn her to Hospital Point for beaching.

“At this time Hill, who had been directing his men in attempts to save the ship, went forward to the bow to handle the anchors. While he was thus engaged, a direct hit struck the bow and blasted hum overboard. That was the last Commander Thomas saw of him.”

It was an irony that Hill had written the lyrics of a naval song he called “Eight Bells And All Is Well.” He had sent the words to a friend, bandleader Johnny Noble, and on Dec. 8, the day after Hill was killed, his mail included assurance from Noble that he and Don George would write the music and have it published.

Noble, who also wrote the popular patriotic song “Remember Pearl Harbor,” made good on his promise to Hill and the song was played at a USO memorial concert in Honolulu in early 1942.

For his heroics on that fatal day, Hill was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously on March 4, 1942. A new honor was awarded him later in that year when a new recruit training center in his name opened at Farragut, Idaho.

But the honors were not to end there. Twenty-nine years later on Aug. 12, 1971 they were to come to the home front when Hill, Sawyer and Dr. Edgar Arthur Draper , the county’s first African-American physician, were to be honored during ceremonies dedicating the walkway of Cape May’s new Washington Street Mall. Hill’s song was played at the ceremonies.

“Cape May dedicates the Washington Street Walkway today not just to notable men in its past but to people everywhere who exhibit the benchmarks of great men, honor, courage and humility. These are the traits that are worthy of dedication,” wrote David Heacock, a member of the dedication committee and urban renewal representative, in the ceremony program.

There now stand three walkways on the mall in the names of the honorees.

The lyrics of Hill’s song, co-written by another Navy man, Jack Garrett, follow:

“We listen to the bells that ring at reveille

As they announce the time of day ,

We symbolize the sound into a melody

And that was what they seem to say


“Eight bells and all is well!

With our navy personnel

Eight bells. There’s no pretense

We’re in the first line of defense

“Eight bells for freedom ring

To our memories we’ll cling

While our ships patrol the seas

To protect our liberties

“When the time arrives to fight

We will fight with all our might

To keep our sea lanes clear

And defend this hemisphere


“Eight bells! And all is well

For our ships and personnel!

To command our liberties

And the freedom of the seas

Eight bells! And all is well!”

Although he was born in Philadelphia on Oct. 4, 1895, was schooled there and enlisted in the Navy there from his parents’ home on Valentine’s Day of 1912, Hill claimed Cape May as his home town. Navy records indicate that he changed his legal residence to the Hotel Windsor in Cape May on March 31, 1925. His aunts, Rose and Mary Halpin, were the owners and managers of the Windsor and Hill had spent many of his summers there with them.

He also had another Cape May connection. His bride-to-be, the former Catherine Coughlin, was from Ireland and he brought her to Cape May for their wedding at Our Lady Star of the Sea R.C. Church. The ceremony was performed by Rev. Dennis Kelly and the reception that followed was to take place at the Windsor. The marriage was to produce two sons and two daughters.

While other ships were doomed in the Japanese attack, the Nevada, launched in 1914, survived, albeit not without injury. Navy historians say the battleship was the only one to get underway during the attack, making the ship “the only bright spot in an otherwise dismal and depressing morning” for the United States.

The Nevada was given a new life when it was rehabilitated in the states and sent back in action during the invasions of France, Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Ironically when the ship was too old after the war, it was used as a target vessel in atomic experiments in the Pacific. It did not die easily. After being hit by two atomic bombs, the ship still stayed afloat and ultimately was decommissioned on Aug. 29, 1946 and sunk during naval gunfire practice on July 31, 1948.

(Some of the information in this article was researched in the Cape May County Magazine of History and Genealogy of June 1971.)

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