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John Murphy, Pearl Harbor survivor, dies at age 97

Airman Victoria Sheppard of the USS Arizona Detachment speaks with John Murphy, a Pearl Harbor survivor who was stationed aboard USS Vestal, following a joint U.S. Navy/National Park Service ceremony commemorating the 65th Anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on board Naval Station Pearl Harbor Kilo Piers on Dec. 7, 2006. Murphy passed away on July 16, 2018 at the age of 97.

DAVID RUSH/U.S. NAVY PHOTO

By JOHN WILKENS | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: August 13, 2018

SAN DIEGO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — The planes came in low. One of John Murphy’s Navy mates on the repair ship Vestal wondered out loud why the Army pilots were practicing on a Sunday morning.

Then the bombs started falling.

Murphy ran to his station in the radio room and received this message: “Air Raid Pearl Harbor! This is not a drill!”

“No kidding,” Murphy thought.

The Dec. 7, 1941 attack by the Japanese ushered the United States into World War II, and for young service members like Murphy, it became a defining moment of their lives. He survived to fight another day, then came home from the war and spent decades honoring comrades who paid the ultimate price that day.

Murphy died July 16 at his home in Rancho Bernardo from congestive heart failure after a recent bout of pneumonia. He was 97.

“Some survivors didn’t talk about it much, but my father did,” said Patricia Rinehart. “He was proud of what his shipmates did that day, and passionate about making sure people remembered Pearl Harbor.”

Born Jan. 7, 1921, in Oxnard, Murphy joined the Navy in 1939 shortly after graduating from high school and was assigned to the Vestal, a retrofitted cargo ship with a service record pre-dating World War I.

When Pearl Harbor was attacked, the ship was tied up to the carrier Arizona, a prime target along Battleship Row. Two Japanese bombs hit the Vestal. Another bomb penetrated the decks of the Arizona, touching off a massive explosion that set both ships on fire.

Moments before the Arizona blast, a crew member on the Vestal had closed a hatch door to the radio room. Murphy didn’t think much of it at the time, but he said later it probably saved his life.

“Suddenly there was a huge roar outside, and our ship rolled way over,” Murphy once told freelance writer Mark Carlson for an article about the attack. “It sounded like the whole world had gone up.”

The explosion knocked several sailors, including the Vestal’s commander, Cassin Young, into the water. Young swam back to the ship and ordered it to get under way. When sinking appeared imminent, the commander ran the ship aground on a nearby shoal.

The crew’s actions left the Vestal able to assist with repairs of other ships. Eventually, they turned their attentions to their own vessel, and by the following summer it was on its way to a string of battles through the end of the war, including the Marshall Islands, Okinawa and Saipan.

Murphy left the Navy after the war ended in 1945 and returned to Ventura County, where he worked for many years as an electrician. He married Betty Lou Pope in 1948, and they raised two children.

They moved to San Diego in 2001 and settled in Rancho Bernardo. Betty Murphy died later that year.

He was active in the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association for decades and traveled to Hawaii for anniversary events over the years. He also had a passion for antique cars, including Model A’s. He restored a 1937 Ford V8, a reminder of the first car he had owned.

Murphy’s passing leaves 12 Pearl Harbor veterans in the local association, according to Stuart Hedley, the longtime president. At one time, there were more than 350.

Survivors include daughter Patricia Rinehart of San Diego, son William Murphy (Kimi) of Fortuna, Ca., and two grandchildren.

A burial service with military honors is scheduled for Aug. 13 at 10 a.m. at Dearborn Memorial Park in Poway, 14361 Tierra Bonita Road.

©2018 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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