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Pearl Harbor attack survivor Herb Elfring dies at 102

CRAIG T. KOJIMA / 2022
                                Herbert Elfring, a Pearl Harbor attack survivor, 
sits with granddaughter Leigh Anne Eaton at the 
81st-­anniversary commemoration of the attack.
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CRAIG T. KOJIMA / 2022

Herbert Elfring, a Pearl Harbor attack survivor, sits with granddaughter Leigh Anne Eaton at the 81st-­anniversary commemoration of the attack.

Pearl Harbor attack survivor Herbert Elfring died Saturday in Michigan at age 102.

His death was announced by Michigan-based One Stop Veteran Resources, an organization he helped establish, in a Facebook post Sunday that said, “After a brief and sudden illness, Herb went up to Heaven. … His stories of Pearl Harbor were not just tales of a bygone era, but lessons etched with wisdom and a true desire to inspire. He wanted more than anything, to touch the hearts of younger generations, to teach them the value of freedom and the cost at which it comes.”

Elfring was a fixture at commemoration events and was a familiar face to those who attended — a face that was usually smiling. Elfring’s granddaughter, who lives on Oahu and works on Ford Island at the National Weather Service, commonly accompanied him. He was one of just five attack survivors who attended 2023’s 82nd-­anniversary commemoration at Pearl Harbor in December in person.

“It’s a treat to be able to come back year after year,” Elfring told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser in 2022. “Just to be able to be here physically, you know, because at this age, everything seems to deteriorate pretty fast.”

In a Tuesday media release, Hawaii-based Pacific Historic Parks — which is dedicated to preserving World War II battlefields and the memories of veterans who fought in the conflict in the Pacific — said Elfring “was known for being kind and bringing a lot of smiles. At the 82nd, he greeted Rosie the Riveters at various events, including a pizza party in Waikiki organized for the record eight Rosies in attendance at that commemoration.”

According to a profile on Department of Veterans Affairs website, Elfring spent his early childhood in South Dakota, but after his family lost their farm in 1932, he moved to Montana where his father was working on a dam project. He joined the Montana National Guard at the age of 16 and worked with his father before graduating from high school.

He moved to San Diego at the invitation of his brother and attended San Diego State University and joined the California National Guard in 1940. The following year his unit — the 251st Coast Artillery — was activated for duty and sent to Hawaii amid tensions in the Pacific between the U.S. and Japan.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Elfring was a 19-year-old Guardsman stationed at Camp Ma­lakole in the Barbers Point area about 3 miles from Pearl Harbor. He was supposed to have that Sunday day off. As he started his day, he could hear booming sounds in Pearl Harbor, but assumed it was part of some sort of exercise. He didn’t think much of it until a plane flew overhead and strafed him and fellow troops with bullets.

He looked up at the plane’s fuselage and saw the red circle denoting it as a Japanese military aircraft and realized this was no exercise. The bullets stopped just short of him and his fellow soldiers, and he would later say that he wondered whether the Japanese pilot “had a moment of kindness or if the winds had pushed him slightly off course.”

After surviving the attack, he went on to serve in the island campaigns of the war in the Pacific, taking him to Fiji, the Solomon Islands and eventually to the Philippines where he helped protect the Clark Field airstrip. He was discharged from the Army in 1945 with the rank of captain.

After leaving the service, he hitchhiked his way to Florida for a new start as he reentered civilian life. He eventually enrolled in the University of Michigan, where he met his soon-to-be wife Ruth Royce and married in 1948. She died in 2005, but according to an article from Michigan Today, they had five children, eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren as of 2021.

As an advocate for fellow veterans, Elfring helped set up One Stop Veteran Resources, which hosts classes and workshops on skills ranging from cooking to farming and most recently beekeeping. Elfring was active in helping mentor younger veterans, including those from recent conflicts in the Middle East.

“He was once a young man undecided and fearful about his future after surviving the attack on Pearl Harbor,” the group said in its Facebook post. “He relayed this story to veterans and made them understand he related to them. He made sure they knew he was as lost as could be after being discharged from the military — no matter how many accolades he received. … He would take calls from veterans at any time. He would also help children worldwide with school projects and loved every minute of it.”

Elfring is the fourth of the few remaining Pearl Harbor attack survivors known to have died this year.

On Jan. 10, Sterling Cale, the last known service member living in Hawaii to have survived the attack, died at his home in Aiea at age 102, He was buried alongside his late wife at the Hawaii State Veterans Cemetery in Kaneohe on March 7.

On March 19, Navy veteran Richard “Dick” Higgins died at his home in Bend, Ore., at age 102.

Lou Conter, the last surviving crew member of the USS Arizona, died April 1 at age 102 at his home in Grass Valley, Calif.

About 2,400 servicemen were killed in Dec. 7, 1941, attack — which hit military installations across Oahu. Of those killed, 1,177 sailors and Marines assigned to the Arizona made up nearly half the death toll.

According to the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors, there are now fewer than two dozen known survivors of the attack living today.

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