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104-year-old vet planning Pearl Harbor anniversary visit

Ray Chavez gives an introduction during a remembrance ceremony on the attack on Pearl harbor at the USS Midway Museum on Dec. 7, 2014.

GREGORY A. HARDEN II/U.S. NAVY

By PAM KRAGEN | The San Diego Union-Tribune (Tribune News Service) | Published: July 1, 2016

On Monday afternoon, America’s oldest surviving Pearl Harbor veteran, 104-year-old Ray Chavez, will ride as a VIP guest in Rancho Bernardo’s “Spirit of the Fourth” parade.

But it’s another ride in December that the Navy veteran from Poway said he’s most looking forward to. This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and — with the hope of continued good health and the help of supportive donors — Chavez will fly back to Hawaii for the commemoration.

The Rotary Club of Poway-Scripps and Personally Fit, the Rancho Bernardo gym where Chavez works out twice a week, are raising money to send Chavez and other local Pearl Harbor vets to Oahu for the anniversary. The “Pearl Flight” campaign will kick off Monday at the “Spirit of the Fourth” community fair, where the Rotary club will be hosting a booth.

Club president Pauline Getz said she’d be “tickled purple and pink” if she could raise $20,000 for the project. She said there are about 18 or 19 Pearl Harbor veterans in San Diego County, but only about six who are well enough to travel. So far, three veterans, including Chavez, have expressed an interest in traveling. Because of their age and fragile health, Getz said each man will be invited to travel with a caregiver on first-class, refundable tickets.

“I think it’s important to do this because it’s important to them,” Getz said. “It’s a recognition of their service in one of the most horrific things that ever happened on American soil. When you care about other people, you care about helping them do things that are fulfilling to them.”

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.

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 said 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 psychological 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.

After the war, he spent 30 years as a groundskeeper at UC San Diego and then ran his own private grounds-keeping business until he retired at age 96. After his wife Margaret passed away in the mid-1980s, their daughter Kathleen — also a Navy veteran — came to live with and care for her father at his Poway home.

Three years ago, Chavez was having walking and mobility problems and Kathleen brought him to Personally Fit gym, which specializes in one-on-one fitness training for older clients and people with medical issues. Trainer Sean Thompson has not only helped rehabilitate Chavez to good health, he has also become close to the family.

Aware that Chavez couldn’t afford the trip to Pearl Harbor this year, Thompson began spreading the word about his need at the gym. One of Getz’s close friends who works out at Personally Fit told her about Chavez and she proposed a broader campaign to send as many Pearl Harbor vets back to Hawaii as possible. Thompson said Personally Fit has already underwritten the cost of the Chavezes’ plane tickets, as well as a ticket for himself.

The Rancho Bernardo parade takes place at 3:30 p.m. Monday. It is the final event in an all-day community fair that begins at 9 a.m. at Webb Park, at Bernardo Center Drive and Avena Place. Chavez and Thompson will be seated at the Rotary Club's fair booth much of the morning and in the early afternoon and will participate in a memorial ceremony for all branches of the service from 10:45 to 11:30 a.m. in Webb Park. The Rotary Club will be accepting tax-deductible donations onsite. Donors can also mail a check (made out to Poway Rotary Foundation with “Pearl Flight” in the bottom left corner memo field) to Poway Rotary Foundation, P.O. Box 184, Poway CA 92074.

Pearl Harbor veterans who would like to apply for a travel grant can email Getz at paulinegetz@gmail.com.

Kathleen said it’s very important to her that they make the trip in December because it could very well by her father’s last.

“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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