Dick Higgins, shown here attending the 80th commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 2021, died March 19, 2024, in Bend, Ore.

Dick Higgins, shown here attending the 80th commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 2021, died March 19, 2024, in Bend, Ore. (Angela Norton)

Dick Higgins, the Navy radioman whose amphibious plane was utterly demolished in the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, died Tuesday in Bend, Ore. He was 102.

His death was confirmed by Angela Norton, the granddaughter with whom he lived for the past nine years.

Higgins had remained vigorous and in relatively good health well past 100 but had been declining in recent months, Norton said by phone Tuesday.

“But we thought for sure he was going to make it to his 103rd birthday,” she said.

Higgins had been among the tiny number of living veterans who survived the cataclysmic attack 82 years ago, the event that led to America’s entry into World War II. The Dec. 7, 1941, attack killed more than 2,400 service members and laid waste to the Pacific Fleet.

With Higgins’ death, only 22 veterans of the attack are known to be living, according to Kathleen Farley, the California chapter president with Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors, who has maintained the tally for years.

The count is not exhaustive, however, because it is based on veterans identified by members of the organization, Farley said by phone Tuesday.

The organization occasionally learns of veterans who had not been included on the list after their obituaries are published, she said.

Higgins had regularly attended the annual commemoration of the attack held each Dec. 7 at the Pearl Harbor Memorial in Honolulu. He last attended in 2021.

He was something of a celebrity in his community, Norton said.

“They definitely celebrated him well in Bend,” she said. “They loved him. He was Bend’s hero.”

The Bend City Council declared this past Dec. 7 remembrance event to be Dick Higgins Day, she said.

Before moving to Oregon, Higgins was a longtime resident of Orange County, Calif., and very involved there with fellow Pearl Harbor survivors and World War II veterans, she said.

Dick and Winnie Higgins pose in this undated photo taken shortly after they were married in 1944.

Dick and Winnie Higgins pose in this undated photo taken shortly after they were married in 1944. (Angela Norton)

Higgins was born July 24, 1921, to a cotton-farming family in Oklahoma that was besieged by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl ecological disaster, Higgins said during a video interview in 2022 with the American Warriors YouTube channel.

He enlisted in the Navy in 1939 and trained as a radio operator.

At the time of the attack, Higgins was stationed on Ford Island as a radioman in a squadron of PBY Catalina amphibious planes, which were used for patrol bombing and anti-submarine warfare. They could carry bombs and torpedoes.

A PBY hangar on Ford Island was the first thing to be bombed that morning, noise that sent Higgins and his fellow sailors racing to get outside, he said in the interview. They were stopped by Marine Corps guards at the doors.

“They wouldn’t let us out until the first wave had slacked off a bit,” he said. “[The Japanese] were strafing everything that moved — and some things that didn’t.”

When they did exit, most ran to the runway to roll undamaged PBYs away from the blazing remains of others.

“We were very busy that morning trying to save planes,” Higgins said in the interview. “There were tracers going right past the wing of the plane I was pushing on,” he said.

“The plane I flew wasn’t there; it was a crater about seven feet deep and 20 feet in diameter. No PBY anywhere.”

It likely had disintegrated from the explosion of its full gas tanks and bombs, he said.

Higgins was unscathed by the attack.

“I didn’t even get a Band-Aid,” he said. “I guess I lucked out.”

Luck stayed with him for the rest of the war as he flew missions in a PBY in the vicinity of what is now Indonesia.

Higgins made a career in the Navy, retiring in 1959 as a chief petty officer. In subsequent years he worked for General Dynamics and Northrop Corp.

Higgins and his wife, Winnie, were married for 60 years before she died in 2004.

A memorial service is scheduled for 11 a.m. on March 28 at Eastmont Church in Bend. He will be buried beside his wife in Orange County, Norton said.

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Wyatt Olson is based in the Honolulu bureau, where he has reported on military and security issues in the Indo-Pacific since 2014. He was Stars and Stripes’ roving Pacific reporter from 2011-2013 while based in Tokyo. He was a freelance writer and journalism teacher in China from 2006-2009.

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