The Pearl Harbor National Memorial.

The Pearl Harbor National Memorial. (National Park Service)

(Tribune News Service) — As a little boy growing up in Holyoke, Mass., Harry L. Chandler dreamed of being a sailor.

He remembers insisting his mother get him a child-sized sailor suit each time they went out to buy him new clothes. He remembers how upset he was when, during the years of the Great Depression, any new clothing simply wasn’t in the family’s budget.

When he turned 18 in the spring of 1939, Chandler finally got “my real sailor suit,” enlisting in the Navy as the winds of war swirled around the world.

“I was practically done (with high school) when I just left,” the now 102-year-old Chandler recalled last week. His father was upset with him; his mother was not. “I remember her telling my father, ‘He wanted this all his life. I’d rather he be in the Navy than be drafted into the Army.’ ”

Little did the family know his service in the Navy would land him on the front lines of America’s entry into World War II. And, as it turns out, his father need not have worried about the high-school diploma.

Early on the morning of Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, Chandler, dressed in his Navy dress “whites,” had just helped raise the American flag outside his barracks when some 300 Japanese aircraft bore down on Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor.

The memories still come to him: the sounds of the swarms of Japanese fighter aircraft; the sight of fire breaking out on Ford Island near where eight of the Navy’s mighty battleships were in port; and then the realization of what was taking place.

He and his fellow hospital corpsmen were hustled aboard trucks that would take them to the harbor, where they confronted the carnage and wreckage wreaked on an unsuspecting American fleet. Over the course of the intervening years, Chandler has sparingly shared the gruesome realities he faced as he went about pulling victims from the oil-filled waters and working to save lives. Once, in an interview, he said, “People who saw the firm, ‘Tora, Tora, Tora,’ ask me if it was like that. I say, ‘No. You don’t smell the burning flesh. You don’t smell the burning oil. You just can’t imagine.”

The enemy attackers would deal a heavy toll, killing close to 2,500 Americans and injuring 1,200 more. Twelve ships, including three battleships, were sunk or beached; nine others were damaged. Close to 350 of the about 400 aircraft based at Pearl Harbor were either destroyed or damaged.

The battleship Arizona, now the site of the National Park Service Memorial, accounted for the loss of 1,177 lives alone. As President Franklin D. Roosevelt would term it, the “date which will live in infamy” propelled the U.S. to enter World War II.

This Dec. 7 will see Chandler return to Pearl Harbor for only the second time since the fateful day and the first time to participate in the national Pearl Harbor remembrance ceremonies. He will take an honored role early Thursday morning during the pass-and-review event at the Arizona memorial. Chandler has been invited to return the salute from the memorial on behalf of the fallen and veterans like him to the 21st century sailors aboard the USS Daniel Inouye as they man the rails aboard their ship while it passes in the harbor.

There is no documentation of how many veterans who survived Pearl Harbor are still alive in 2023, according to Taylor Smith, education program specialist at Pacific Historic Parks, which plans the commemoration events. Invitations this year were extended to 85, and Chandler is among six who RSVPed they will attend.

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated there were about 119,000, or about 1%, of the 16.1 million Americans who served in World War II still alive as of September. Statistics estimate that the veterans, the youngest of whom are now in their 90s, are dying at the rate of about 131 each day, according to the National World War II Museum.

Chandler is well aware of those numbers. He is the last man standing among the members of Pearl Harbor Attack Veterans Post 1 that disbanded in 2008; the five other veterans with him at the farewell luncheon at Holyoke’s Yankee Pedlar are all now gone.

Even as this week’s departure approached, Chandler made clear he knows the reality of his situation and the fragility of life for a centenarian. “It might be the last time I can go. There are only a few of us left. Who knows,” he said. “At 102, I am lucky to be the way I am.”

Though legally blind, Chandler leads an active life at an assisted-living facility in Tequesta, Florida, not far from family members, including his granddaughter, Kelli Fahey, and her husband, Ron Mahaffee, who will accompany him on the journey to Hawaii.

Calling on the skills he garnered as a hospital corpsman (post-war he served in the Navy Reserve into the 1980s), Chandler says he tries every day to visit with and raise the spirits of fellow residents where he lives.

He holds true, Chandler says, to the wisdom imparted to him by his mother all those many years ago: “My mother was a beautiful woman. She would always say to me, ‘Harry, always love, never hate.’ I ‘ve tried to follow that throughout my life. I don’t hate; I dislike. That’s the difference.”

It’s a seemingly appropriate message for him to carry to Hawaii this week, notes Mahaffee, who spent months planning the trip. They used a May trip with Honor Flight to the war memorials in Washington, D.C., as a test run for both Chandler’s physical endurance to travel and ability to cope with the ebb and flow of emotions.

The theme for this year’s Pearl Harbor remembrance observance is “Legacy of Hope,” and one of the events in which Chandler will participate in the week ahead is the “Blackened Canteen” ceremony that is focused on reconciliation and peace between Japan and the U.S.

The goal of the “Legacy of Hope” theme, according Smith, is to not only honor the veterans and remember what happened on Dec. 7, 1941, but to also connect with a new generation. Some of the events, she noted, will involve Junior ROTC students and will provide opportunities for them to interact with the veterans.

Chandler is well-suited to address the theme, according to Mahaffee. “To be around him is like being with a sensei. ... I guess I’m on a personal mission to share him with the world.”

Chandler will travel with a resume that now includes high-school graduate. In a matter of hours last week, Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia led an effort to prepare an honorary diploma that was delivered to Chandler.

Indeed, his father need not have been concerned that he left Holyoke High School without graduating.

Cynthia G. Simison is executive editor emerita of The Republican. She may be reached by email to

©2023 Advance Local Media LLC.


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