Ray Chavez, the oldest Pearl Harbor survivor, passed away peacefully in his sleep on November 21, 2018. He was 106. According to his daughter Kathleen Chavez, the veteran’s health had been in decline in recent weeks.
Chavez, a San Diego resident, was more than just a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was a voice for his generation, and being the oldest Pearl Harbor survivor, his was a voice that was turned to often. Though he was known for being soft-spoken, his drive to ensure that the sacrifices made by those who were lost on December 7, 1941 would not be forgotten overcame his hesitation to speak publicly.
Despite his advanced age, Chavez made several trips to Pearl Harbor for commemoration events.
While many of those present during the Pearl Harbor attack were fresh out of high school—some had even lied about their age to enlist—Chavez already had an established life. In his early 20s, he married and had a daughter, but that didn’t stop him from enlisting with the US Navy at the age of 27.
Ray Chavez and the Pearl Harbor Attack
The year was 1938 when Ray Chavez decided to enlist. The world hadn’t yet erupted into war, but tensions between the United States and Japan were steadily rising. That didn’t deter him from doing what he felt to be his duty. After his enlistment, Chavez was stationed aboard the minesweeper USS Condor (AMc-14), based at Pearl Harbor.
At approximately 3:45 AM on December 7, 1941, Condor was patrolling the entrance to Pearl Harbor when her crew spotted an unknown periscope. They notified USS Ward (DD-139), which dropped several depth charges on what turned out to be a Japanese midget submarine. These were the first shots fired in the Pacific War.
His shift ended shortly after the encounter and he returned to his home in Ewa Beach. In an interview decades later, Chavez recalled being asleep when his wife ran in and told him of the attack. At first, he was disbelieving, asking “Who’s going to attack us? Nobody.” That’s when he saw the black smoke billowing over the harbor.
Chavez wasn’t in the middle of the devastation that came to Pearl Harbor, but he certainly experienced the aftermath. For nine days after December 7, he was on continuous duty at various sites around Oahu, making it impossible to miss the destruction and death the Japanese attack had left in its wake. They were images that stuck with him forever and left deep emotional scars that would never really heal.
After Pearl Harbor
Over the course of the War in the Pacific, Ray Chavez rose to the rank of chief and served aboard different transport ships in eight battles. Although he managed to avoid physical injury, he retired in 1945, affected by the emotional trauma caused by the battles he witnessed. According to his daughter, “After a couple of the battles he saw, he started to shake. First it was his hands, then it was his arms, then it was his whole body.”
After the War
When he left the Navy, Ray Chavez was advised to spend time in a mental health clinic, but the Pearl Harbor and World War II survivor feared it would get in the way of future job opportunities. So he took his emotional traumas and went back to San Diego, where he found a job at a nursery. The complete change of pace and the peacefulness of it eventually helped with the shaking.
In 1957, Chavez and his wife, Margaret, adopted Kathleen in the wake of a terrible tragedy. Their daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter were killed in a car accident, but neither would let the pain of loss and heartbreak deter them from living. Kathleen was five years old when they adopted he,r and she later followed in her father’s footsteps, enlisting in the Navy in 1974 and becoming the first female jet engine mechanic.
Kathleen Chavez recalls that her father remained quiet about his experiences in World War II until 1991, the first year he was invited to a commemoration. It was the 50th anniversary of the attack and the organizers reached out to Chavez and invited him to Hawaii. The experience stuck with him and he returned as often as he could. Chavez was present for the 55th, 60th, and 65th anniversaries. As the number of survivors started to dwindle, he made it a point to travel to Pearl Harbor every year. At 104 years old, Chavez made the trip to Pearl Harbor for the 75th anniversary commemorations.
The Oldest Pearl Harbor Survivor
Ray Chavez continued to be honored in the months before his passing. In May, 2018, he was welcomed at the White House for a Memorial Day commemoration ceremony.
Chavez knew the importance of teaching younger generations and made it his job to ensure the memory of Pearl Harbor and World War II lived on. “It’s very important that the younger generations know and learn the meaning of war,” Chavez had said during his White House visit. “I would do it again if I was called to active duty, but chances are they’ll never call me.”