Oldest Pearl Harbor vet still pumping iron at 104
By PAM KRAGEN | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 9, 2016
Usually the action at Ray Chavez’s gymnasium is all business. But on Tuesday, there were cookies, balloons and a birthday song at the conclusion of his half-hour workout.
This week, America’s oldest surviving Pearl Harbor veteran turns 104, and Tuesday’s gym visit was a mere warmup for the Poway man’s big day on Thursday.
Today, there are fewer than 2,000 American survivors of the Japanese attack on the Pearl Harbor base in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. More than 2,400 Americans were killed during the early-morning blitz, which thrust the U.S. into World War II.
Last December, just seven veterans — including Chavez — were healthy enough to attend the 74th annual services aboard the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. The next eldest was Colorado resident James Downing, now 102. Until last summer, various sources credited Downing as the oldest Pearl Harbor vet. But when he read a story online about Chavez, he happily surrendered the title and flew to San Diego to meet Chavez in July.
Both men hope to attend the 75th annual services next winter, where veterans groups are hoping to attract as many as 200 survivors on what will surely be, for most, their last opportunity to visit.
Chavez said he loves traveling back to Hawaii to see his old friends and to honor those who died, but he didn’t always feel that way. For more than four decades, he couldn’t face going back to relive the memories of that fateful day. But when the 50th anniversary arrived in 1991, he decided it was finally time to return.
“The first time I went back, I cried,” he said. “It made me feel a little sad because I remember we were in the harbor pulling up all the dead bodies from the oil and taking the men who were alive to the hospital. It was a terrible memory.”
These days, Chavez is a San Diego County celebrity. At least once or twice a month he’s invited to attend veterans events, do interviews with high school students, speak to community groups or serve as grand marshal in a parade. Last August, he was invited by the San Diego Padres to throw out the first pitch on Armed Forces Day.
To prepare for his big baseball toss, Chavez practiced tossing balls for six weeks with his fitness trainer Sean Thompson at Personally Fit Gym in Rancho Bernardo. He’s been coming to the gym twice a week for the past three years and his daughter and caretaker, Kathleen Chavez, credits the gym with her father’s longevity.
Chavez agrees that the gym has made him much stronger and improved his balance and coordination. But he also credits a healthy lifestyle: No alcohol, no smoking, very little red meat, daily walking and good sleeping habits.
Chavez was born in San Bernardino in 1911 and grew up in San Diego, where his large family ran a wholesale flower business. In his early 20s, he married and had a daughter. Then, at 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 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.”
Chavez said he threw on his work clothes and was running the quarter-mile back to the base when a friend in a passing car picked him up and sped them both to the harbor. He spent the next nine days on continuous duty and didn’t know for 10 days whether his wife and daughter had survived the attack.
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 saw.
Kathleen Chavez said it took three months after her father retired from the Navy before his body stopped shaking from the stress of war. In the 1950s, he and his wife, Margaret, suffered another 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.
Kathleen, who has lived with her father since Margaret died in the mid-1980s, said her father worked for 30 years as a groundskeeper at UCSD, then ran his own landscaping and groundskeeping business in the Poway area until he finally retired at age 96.
Kathleen is now his driver and constant companion. She takes him to his many public appearances and interviews, including an upcoming guest appearance at the Coronado Chamber of Commerce’s “Salute to the Military” ball on April 16. If he’s in good health, she will also be by his side when they fly, first class, to Hawaii in December for the 75th anniversary.
“It’s so expensive but it’s what we need to do,” she said. “I’m so proud of him and it’s important that he be there.”
©2016 The San Diego Union-Tribune
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