Topeka A task seen as long overdue was completed Friday with the signing of a bill honoring a Kansas sailor who was the first Medal of Honor recipient of World War II.
Donald K. Ross was a machinist serving on the USS Nevada the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. During the course of the battle, Ross fought to keep the ship afloat and functioning despite repeatedly being knocked unconscious.
On Friday, Gov. Sam Brownback signed a bill designating a stretch of Kansas 18 as the Medal of Honor Recipient Donald K. Ross Memorial Highway.
Brownback said he was impressed with the Ross story and felt it was a fitting tribute for Kansans to recognize.
"He was at Pearl Harbor and Normandy. How many people are at the two, yet alone survive, and win the Medal of Honor," Brownback said.
The idea to honor Ross, who was a native of Beverly in Lincoln County, began with Kansans Joe Cassell and Jack Meili. The men knew Ross and considered him their hero growing up. They approached Rep. Elaine Bowers, a Concordia Republican, about seeking a bill to honor Ross.
"This guy was a hero. He was a farm boy. He probably learned to swim in a farm pond. And to read what he did," Bowers said.
Adm. Chester Nimitz, commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, presented Ross with the medal in April 1942. Ross continued to serve in the Navy during World War II and retired in July 1956 at the rank of captain. He died May 27, 1992, in Bremerton, Wash.
In 1997, the Navy commissioned the guided-missile destroyer USS Donald K. Ross in his honor. Brownback was surprised it took so long to honor Ross in his home state.
"Sometimes it doesn't happen very fast, or someone doesn't get behind the cause, or the generation that knows him passes on," the governor said.
The official Medal of Honor citation describes how Ross disregarded his own safety to save the Nevada after it was hit by bombs and torpedoes.
Ross was in the forward dynamo room when it "became almost untenable due to smoke, steam and heat." He forced his men to leave the room and did all the duties himself until rendered blind and unconscious. A rescued and revived Ross returned to secure the dynamo room then moved to the rear dynamo room. Again, he became unconscious because of exhaustion.
After recovering again, Ross returned to his station and stayed until directed to abandon it.
The Nevada was able to regain power and began sailing out of Pearl Harbor shortly before 9 a.m. As it steamed through the channel, Japanese aircraft repeatedly hit the ship. The damage forced it to run aground on the Navy Yard side of the channel south of Ford Island.
The attack killed 50 officers and sailors of the Nevada's 1,500-member crew, including Chief Boatswain Edwin Joseph Hill of Philadelphia who also received the Medal of Honor.
"I thought we were just renaming a highway, but I realized how special it was to educate my colleagues," Bowers said.