SAN DIEGO >> Ray Chavez, widely recognized as the oldest surviving veteran of the attack on Pearl Harbor, died Wednesday at the age of 106.
Kathleen Chavez, who had been her father’s live-in caregiver for more than 20 years, said he passed away peacefully in his sleep in the predawn hours. His health had declined in recent weeks and he was on hospice care when he passed.
Memorial services are pending, but Kathleen said her father had asked to be buried at Miramar National Cemetery.
Chavez surged into national prominence three years ago when Pearl Harbor veterans recognized him as the oldest survivor of the 1941 Japanese attack that ushered the U.S. into World War II.
Since 2015, he’s been an invited guest at the White House, at numerous commemorative events in California and Hawaii and a frequent local parade grand marshal.
The soft-spoken Chavez often said he was overwhelmed by the media attention but he was proud to represent his country.
“Ray was the epitome of the ‘greatest generation,’” said Richard Rovsek, a trustee of the nonprofit Spirit of Liberty Foundation in Rancho Santa Fe. “He was always proud to be an American and proud of the military.”
Chavez was born in San Bernardino in 1911 and grew up in San Diego’s Old Town and Logan Heights communities, where his large family ran a wholesale flower business.
In his early 20s, he married and had a daughter. Then in 1938, at the age of 27, he joined the Navy and was assigned to the minesweeper USS Condor at Pearl Harbor.
At 3:45 a.m. Dec. 7, 1941, Seaman 1st Class Chavez’s crew was sweeping the east entrance to the harbor when they spotted the periscope of a Japanese midget submarine. After depth charges were dropped to sink the sub in 1,500 feet of water, the rest of the morning passed uneventfully.
He told the San Diego Union-Tribune that he was asleep at home in nearby Ewa Beach when the Japanese bombing raid began at 8:10 a.m.
“My wife ran in and said, ‘We’re being attacked’ and I said, ‘Who’s going to attack us? Nobody.’ She said that the whole harbor was on fire and when I got outside I saw that everything was black from all the burning oil.”
He spent the next nine days on continuous duty in and around Pearl Harbor and said the scenes he witnessed left deep emotional scars.
Over the next four years he rose to the rank of chief, serving on transport ships that delivered tanks and Marines to shore in eight Pacific battles. Although he wasn’t injured during the war, he retired from the Navy in 1945 with psychological wounds from the terrible things he witnessed.
“He said that after a couple of the battles he saw, he started to shake,” Kathleen said. “First it was his hands, then it was his arms, then it was his whole body. By the time the war was over, his whole body shook.”
During his exit physical, a doctor wanted Chavez to spend some time recovering in a mental health clinic, but he feared it would impact his future job opportunities. He declined the offer and moved back to San Diego, where he got a job at a nursery. After two years of working outdoors in the fresh air, he got better, Kathleen said.
Then in the 1950s, he and his wife, Margaret, suffered an unimaginable blow when their daughter, son-in-law and 18-month-old granddaughter were killed in a car accident.
To mend their broken hearts, the Chavezes adopted 5-year-old Kathleen from a San Diego orphanage in 1957. She, too, served in the Navy, from 1974 to 1991 and was recognized as the Navy’s first woman jet engine mechanic. She had lived with her father since her mother’s death in the mid-1980s.
Chavez spent 30 years as a groundskeeper at the University of California, San Diego, then ran his own landscaping and groundskeeping business in the Poway area until he finally retired at age 96.
Kathleen said her father never spoke about his war service or his Pearl Harbor experiences until 1991, when he was invited to attend the 50th anniversary memorial in Hawaii.
It was such a moving experience that he and Kathleen went back to Hawaii for the 55th, 60th and 65th anniversaries and recently they’ve gone every year as the number of survivors has dwindled.
“We went last year and if he was still alive, we were going to go back again next month,” Kathleen said. “I think he enjoyed the experience but he never saw himself as any different from the other men. He’d always say: ‘I’m no hero. I just did my job.’”