Oregon Pearl Harbor survivor marks 100th birthday

By ALEX PAUL | Albany Democrat-Herald | Published: September 16, 2020

ALBANY, Ore. (Tribune News Service) — Albany resident David Russell knows he is a lucky man.

During World War II, he served on not one, but two ships that sank — the USS Oklahoma and the destroyer USS Mahan. Many of his fellow sailors and Marines died.

But Russell spent Tuesday morning shaking hands and being hugged at a party celebrating his 100th birthday at American Legion Post 10 headquarters, where he and friends have breakfast nearly every day of the week.

“How does it feel to be 100 years old?” someone asked.

“I don’t know, I’ve never been this old before,” the vibrant Russell said with a laugh and a smile. “I guess I made it.”

Russell is one of a dwindling number of veterans who survived the sneak attack by the Japanese Imperial Army on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941. The attack propelled the United States into World War II.

Some 2,300 Americans died that day, 1,177 of them aboard the USS Arizona.

As of February, only two USS Arizona survivors are still alive, Lou Conter, 98, of Grass Valley, Calif., and Ken Potts, 98, of Provo, Utah.

“This is such a pleasant surprise, seeing all of these good people here,” Russell said as music of the 1940s played in the background.

Russell said he didn’t have anything big planned for the day.

“At my age, I’ll probably go home and fall asleep in my recliner,” he said.

Although he's a bit hard of hearing and uses a cane to get around, Russell looks fit as a fiddle and would still look sharp in his Navy uniform.

One of the first people to greet Russell outside the Legion Hall was his longtime friend Karen Sevolt.

“More than 40 years ago, I used to have coffee with Dave and his wife at Eve’s Buffet at Fred Meyer,” Sevolt said. “We’ve been friends ever since.”

Sevolt praised Russell for being “a really nice, generous guy. He’s a really good friend. He’s always on time. I think that’s because of his military training.”

Air Force veteran Mario Gutierrez said he and Russell have breakfast at the Legion Hall nearly every morning.

“He’s a nice guy, very smart and he gets around good for his age,” Gutierrez said. “He still drives his own car. He’s just an all-around nice guy. He never says anything bad about anybody.”

Russell grew up on a farm in Nebraska and joined the Navy in 1939 to escape the poverty of the Great Depression.

Russell has told Democrat-Herald reporters over the years that in the still of the night, he thinks about his fellow sailors who lost their lives during WWII.

Russell said that 450 of his comrades were killed on the two ships he was stationed on that sank.

He said those who perished were mostly 19 or 20 years old, with their lives ahead of them.

Russell had served aboard the USS Oklahoma, based in Hawaii, for more than a year when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Russell and his uncle, George Russell, who was stationed at Hickam Air Base, spent Dec. 6 in downtown Honolulu.

George Russell predicted the United States was going to enter the war within a couple days.

He was right.

The 21-year-old Russell was reading a book waiting to go on duty. After the Oklahoma was bombed by Japanese planes, he found himself scrambling by rope to the nearby USS Maryland, frantically trying to stay out of the raging oil- and gas-fueled fires.

There were 1,354 men on the Oklahoma and 429 died. Russell considered many of them to be friends.

There were 45,000 people stationed at Pearl Harbor that day, and in 2018, there were only 2,000 estimated to be alive.

On board the Maryland, Russell helped load its anti-aircraft guns.

On. Dec. 23, Russell was assigned to the destroyer USS Mahan as a gunner’s mate.

The ship saw intense battles until Dec. 7, 1944, when it was severely damaged by kamikaze planes in the Philippine Islands. On fire and exploding, the ship was sunk by a U.S. Navy destroyer.

Again, Russell escaped unharmed.

After the war ended, Russell spent 20 more years in the Navy and traveling the world.

He retired in 1960 and then had a long career in transportation, until retiring again in 1980.

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