Army veteran who witnessed 1941 Pearl Harbor attack dies in Texas at 102
March 2, 2021
A 102-year-old Army veteran who handled a flurry of telephone communications on the morning of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor died at his Texas home Sunday.
Virgil Lee Ward, a private during the attack, died at his home in Grand Prairie, local Texas media reported Monday.
“He passed away here in his bed,” Merry Lux Ward, his wife, told the San Antonio Express-News.
He was hospitalized for pneumonia earlier this year and subsequently began hospice care, the newspaper said.
Ward made a career of the Army, seeing combat during the Korean War and a stint in Vietnam before retiring as a major in 1965.
Ward was among a dwindling number of living veterans who had witnessed the 1941 attack, which took the lives of 2,335 sailors, Marines and soldiers and destroyed or damaged many ships moored in Pearl Harbor. Attacks took place across the island of Oahu.
On the morning of the attack, Ward had been set to deliver copies of the Honolulu Advertiser, a side job he held down for some extra cash, according to an Express-News obituary.
But the stack of papers he was to deliver arrived late at the post exchange near Diamond Head, a volcanic ridge on the edge of Honolulu, where his duty station was located. A member of the Signal Corps, Ward’s job was working the Army’s network of telephones.
Just before 8 a.m., while still waiting for the newspapers, Ward saw the first Japanese fighters in the sky.
“They were flying in a formation when they first came in, and then they split up, of course, and they were diving in the air where I was at, and I was pretty close,” he told Express-News in 2018.
Ward quickly made his way to his duty station, where he fielded frantic calls from soldiers and commanders as they tried to make sense of the attack and mount some sort of defense.
“I couldn't tell them much more than they were being attacked,” he said.
Ward came from a poor family in Tennessee, where he began working the family farm while in the fifth grade, according to the Express-News.
He joined the Army in 1935 at age 15 – under the erroneous belief that he was 17, as his father had led him to believe.
“I told them I wanted to go overseas, and you know where they sent me? Hawaii,” Ward told the Express-News.