Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Elmer C. Bigelow likely knew that rushing into a smoke-filled compartment on a burning ship without any protection wouldn’t end well for him.
But he also knew the World War II ship’s crew would suffer devastating effects if he didn’t, so he put his life on the line anyway to save them. For that, he posthumously earned the Medal of Honor.
Bigelow was born on July 12, 1920, to Albert and Verna Bigelow. Sometime after his younger brother, Lester, was born, their parents divorced. Both boys lived with their mother and stepfather in Hebron, Ill.
Bigelow’s friends growing up remembered him as a quiet, easy-going boy who liked to hunt and ride his motorcycle. After graduating from Hebron Community High School in 1938, he worked in nearby Woodstock, Ill., at Alemite Die Casting & Manufacturing.
Bigelow’s younger brother joined the Navy during that time and survived the bombing of the USS West Virginia during the Pearl Harbor attacks. The incident likely led to Bigelow’s choice to enlist in the Naval Reserve, which he did on Sept. 21, 1942. After training, he reported to the destroyer USS Fletcher, which set sail for the Pacific Theater in October 1943. Bigelow rose in the ranks from a firefighter to a water tender, which meant he was responsible for tending the fires and boilers in the steam ship’s engine room.
At some point, Bigelow got to spend two hours with his similarly deployed brother as their ships met to refuel in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, according to an article in the (Woodstock, Ill.) Northwest Herald. That’s the last time the siblings saw each other.
On Feb. 14, 1945, the Fletcher found itself in battle off Corregidor Island in the Philippines. Bigelow was standing on the topside of the ship when an onshore 6-inch Japanese gun fired, hitting the Fletcher and penetrating its lower decks. The shell exploded into fragments, which killed several men, hit a gun magazine and set fire to several powder kegs in an ammunition room.
Knowing that the next few minutes were crucial to keeping the ship from being destroyed, Bigelow jumped into action. He picked up a pair of fire extinguishers and rushed below deck to try to quell the growing flames.
There was no time to spare, so Bigelow bypassed putting on a rescue-breathing apparatus and dropped into the magazine hatch despite the flames and blinding smoke that billowed out. According to his Medal of Honor citation, the burning powder smoke seared his lungs with every breath, so he forced himself to quickly put out the fires and cool the cases and bulkheads.
Bigelow made it back out of the compartment, but the damage to his lungs was done. The 24-year-old succumbed to his injuries the next day.
According to the Northwest Herald newspaper, Lt. Arthur H. Murray Jr. wrote to Bigelow’s mother to inform her of the loss. Murray assured her that her son wasn’t in pain and fell into a coma before he died.
The young sailor disregarded his own safety for the greater good. His courage and actions kept the ship’s damaged magazine from exploding — a disaster that would have left the Fletcher at the mercy of the pounding Japanese guns on Corregidor.
“It was your son’s devotion to duty and his quick thinking that saved the ship and the lives of many of his shipmates,” Murray wrote.
For his sacrifice, Bigelow earned the Medal of Honor. The award was presented to his mother, stepfather and brother on Feb. 15, 1946 — one year to the day after he died — during a ceremony at Great Lakes Naval Base.
Bigelow was initially buried overseas, but his family had him repatriated to the U.S. after the war was over. The fallen hero was buried in Linn-Hebron Cemetery in his hometown on Nov. 2, 1948.
Bigelow’s name has lived on. In 1957, the destroyer USS Bigelow was commissioned. A residence hall at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base (now Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek-Fort Story) in Norfolk, Va., was named after him in 1974.
To this day, Bigelow Avenue runs through his hometown.