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Pearl Harbor survivor not worried about the nation remembering

World War II veteran John Campbell, a Marine Corps sergeant when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was honored during a veterans luncheon at La Vida Del Mar, December 6, 2019 in Solana Beach, Calif.

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By JOHN WILKENS | The San Diego Union-Tribune | Published: December 7, 2019

SAN DIEGO (Tribune News Service) — As a Pearl Harbor survivor, John Campbell calls himself "a dying breed." But he doesn't worry too much about what it means – what will be lost – when the last of his kind is gone.

"The world will keep on spinning," he said, "just as it always has."

Nor does the 99-year-old Solana Beach resident see much danger that Americans will forget what happened on Dec. 7, 1941, which helps explain why he won't be doing anything special to mark Saturday's 78th anniversary of the Japanese aerial ambush that shoved the United States into World War II. He's made other plans.

"I have a girlfriend," Campbell said, "and it's her birthday."

Friday, the senior facility where he lives held its Pearl Harbor Remembrance luncheon early to honor Campbell with a few words of recognition and a round of applause from his fellow diners. Laura West, executive director at La Vida Del Mar, called him a "quiet hero" who, like many World War II vets, doesn't go out of his way to talk about his military service.

Campbell was a 21-year-old sergeant in the Marines, stationed at the Ewa air base as a rear-gunner in a squadron of Dauntless dive bombers, when the Japanese attacked. It was 8 a.m., and Campbell, who had been on duty the night before, was planning to sleep in.

When they heard the planes, his squad mates thought U.S. air crews were practicing strafing runs with machine-gun blanks. Then they saw the distinctive red circles on the wings: Japanese Zeroes. "Get the hell out there," Campbell remembers a commander yelling. "This is the real thing."

Campbell and the others had rifles, but no ammunition. It was locked up. They raced for whatever cover they could find as bullets tore into the Dauntless bombers, parked in rows on the tarmac. The Japanese planes were flying so close to the ground he could see the pilots' faces. It looked to him as if they were grinning, happy that the surprise had worked.

Campbell wound up in bushes between two other Marines. Both got hit – one in the leg, one in the buttocks – but he emerged unscathed when the shooting stopped.

Unscathed, but dazed. "It felt like a dream," he said. "It didn't seem real."

By ravaging the airfields first, the Japanese wiped out any aerial deterrent to what they deployed next: Waves of more planes, including torpedo bombers, which decimated Battleship Row on Ford Island, about 7 miles away from the Marine air station where Campbell was. For the rest of the day, he could see dark smoke rising into the air from the flaming ships.

The attack ended at about 9:45 a.m., but not the terror. Campbell said they expected a Japanese land invasion would follow, and probably succeed, because so much of the American defenses had been eliminated. "We knew we were helpless, really," he said. What little sleep they got that night was in foxholes.

An invasion never came, leaving the U.S. to tally its losses: 2,400 Americans killed and 1,200 injured; 18 ships destroyed or heavily damaged; 350 planes put out of action.

After Pearl Harbor, Campbell was sent with his squadron to the South Pacific, then to flight school, where he learned how to fly F4U Corsairs, a fighter plane. He did island-hopping duty the rest of the war. Called back into service during the Korean conflict, he flew helicopters and eventually retired as a captain.

Then he settled into a 30-year career in broadcasting, first in sales and then in management. He oversaw ABC stations in several major cities, including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and Detroit, and later helped run Sea World in San Diego in its early days.

He belonged to the Long Beach chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, a national group that started in the mid-1950s and at its height had close to 30,000 members – an impressive number considering that there were 50,000 U.S. service members on Oahu when the attack happened. But as the decades passed, more and more members died, and there were just 3,000 left when the national group disbanded in 2011. Individual chapters followed suit, including Long Beach.

San Diego's chapter, believed to be the last one still operating in the U.S., held its final meeting in September.

Saturday, when the USS Midway Museum hosts San Diego's largest annual Pearl Harbor ceremony, one survivor is expected to attend.

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