Every year, as we get further in time from the events of December 7, 1941, we must bid farewell to an ever-increasing number of the heroes who lived through that day. Sadly, seven veterans of the attack on Pearl Harbor have passed on in the first weeks of the new year. These are the Pearl Harbor survivors we lost in January, 2020.
Serving aboard USS Vestal (AR-4) on the morning of December 7, 1941, Rodney Bittner found himself caught in the middle of the devastation. Tied to USS Arizona (BB-39) along Battleship Row, Vestal sustained damage from Japanese bombs, which Bittner recalled vividly.
At the height of the attack, Bittner was below decks, wondering how he was going to escape what seemed like a hopeless situation. Her commander, Cassin Young, having been blown overboard by the force of the explosion aboard Arizona and swam back to his ship, ordered the vessel to get underway—clear of the doomed Arizona. Although Vestal was on fire and taking on water, she managed to get away from the devastation of Battleship Row and later ran aground to avoid capsizing.
Bittner survived the assault and went on to earn a commission and serve for another three years, mostly in the European Theater.
Rodney Bittner passed away at the age of 102 on January 1, 2020, the first of the Pearl Harbor survivors lost in January, 2020..
Though the attack on Pearl Harbor is typically seen as having started when the first Japanese bomb dropped, US Navy reservist Will Lehner witnessed the true start aboard the destroyer USS Ward (DD-139). Before the aerial assault began, Ward sank a Japanese midget submarine just outside the entrance to Pearl Harbor. Though Lehner and his fellow shipmates witnessed the sinking of the sub, there were some officials who doubted the veracity of the story. It wasn’t until 2002 that the wreckage of the sub was finally located, confirming what Lehner and the crew of Ward had known all along. Lehner was invited to take part in a reconnaissance dive on the midget submarine shortly after it was discovered, 61 years after its sinking.
Will Lehner passed away on January 5, at the age of 98.
On the morning of the Japanese assault, Delton Walling was in an odd location when planes started to appear over the horizon. Walling’s shift atop the water tower on Ford Island wasn’t supposed to start for several hours, but he recalled that a fellow sailor owed him money and he aimed to collect his debt that morning. He did so, but also found himself right in the middle of the deadly attack.
Walling remained in the Navy for the remainder of the war, stationed throughout the Pacific Theater until Japan’s surrender.
After battling cancer for 14 years, it was found to be spreading in late 2019, prompting Walling to sit down for an interview with a local TV station, during which he shared his memories for the Pearl Harbor attack and his service in the Navy.
On January 8, 2020, Delton Walling passed away at the age of 98.
Bruce Atwater was barely out of boot camp when the Japanese launched their deadly assault on Pearl Harbor. In fact, he had only been in Hawaii three days when the alarms sounded and the attack began.
Though he wasn’t stationed aboard a ship—and was ordered to stay clear of Pearl Harbor—Atwater stepped in where help was needed the most: in the sick bay, helping tend to the wounded.
After Pearl Harbor, Atwater served throughout the Pacific Theater until the end of the war. When he was discharged, he returned home to Minnesota and completed two bachelors and one masters degree. A natural teacher, Atwater did what he could to pass on the memories of his wartime experiences.He was also a longtime member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.
Bruce Atwater passed away on January 10, 2020 at the age of 98.
Carl E. Mescher
Carl E. Mescher joined the Navy in 1940, and was serving aboard USS Pennsylvania when the Japanese attacked. He survived the December 7, 1941 attack and went on to serve as a seaplane radioman. He was awarded an Air Medal for his courageous service in the South Pacific. He served in the Navy until 1946, when he returned to Illinois where he ran his own business until his retirement in 1982.
Carl Mescher passed away on January 15, 2020, at the age of 99.
Woodrow Wilson Derby
Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Derby joined the US Navy three years to the day before the attack on Pearl Harbor, and was serving aboard the battleship USS Nevada (BB-36) on December 7, 1941. Although badly damaged, Nevada managed to get underway—he only battleship to do so—before intentionally running aground to avoid sinking. She was later repaired and returned to service, and Derby ended up serving on Nevada for over seven years. He retired from the Navy as a Chief Petty Officer after a 20-year career.
Woody Derby passed away on January 28 at the age of 101.
After completing Officer Candidate School, Fred Johnson requested a posting to Pearl Harbor. He originally served aboard USS West Virginia (BB-48), but in late 1941, he was transferred to USS Maryland (BB-46). This transfer likely saved his life, as a Japanese bomb scored a direct hit to his old station aboard West Virginia.
Johnson served in the Navy through World War II and in Korea, and later in the reserves. He retired with the rank of Commander after 23 years of service.
For several months, he held the distinction of being the oldest living Pearl Harbor survivor.
Fred Johnson died at his home in Macon, GA on January 31, 2020, at the age of 104.
It is with great sadness that the nation bids farewell to the Pearl Harbor survivors lost in January, 2020.