Pearl Harbor's Youngest: 16-Year-Old Robert Olsen

May 30, 2018

You may have heard the story of Calvin Graham, the youngest American to fight in World War II, who was only 12 years old when he enlisted in the Navy after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Before Graham joined up, however, there were young men like Robert Olsen, a 16-year-old medic from Pocatello, ID. Olsen may not have been the youngest serviceman at war, but he is believed to be the youngest Pearl Harbor survivor.

While still a young teenager, Robert Olsen found himself in the midst of the most devastating attack the United States had ever suffered, an assault that resulted in the deaths of 2,403 fellow Americans and forced the United States into a war they had been trying to avoid. Olsen was at the heart of it all, stationed at a barracks just beyond the naval base.

On the morning of December 7th, 1941, 16-year-old Olsen was making his way to the mess hall to enjoy his breakfast when he heard the sound of bombs dropping. Like so many survivors recalled, he initially believed he was just hearing nearby drills, but the machine gun fire that started shorty after indicated something far more deadly was unfolding. Olsen was still unaware that the base was under attack when a fighter of the Imperial Japanese Navy flew overhead, peppering the ground with bullets. Olsen was unharmed, but two friends he was walking with were killed.

Robert Olsen recalled seeing the sinking of the USS Arizona

Explosion of the USS Arizona (BB-39)

Along with a few dozen other soldiers, Olsen rushed to a gully, unarmed. For the 50-plus soldiers, only a single .45-caliber pistol was available to defend themselves with. They waited and watched as Pearl Harbor was transformed into a nightmarish scene. Olsen remembered seeing the battleship USS Arizona still firing her guns at incoming aircraft even as she sank to the harbor floor.

The young medic witnessed the devastation at Pearl Harbor helplessly, unable to do anything but wait, either for the attack to end or for the Japanese to launch an invasion of Oahu. With fires raging across the harbor, Olsen worked to rescue injured sailors. For pulling an Army captain from the water, he was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation.

The nation saw him as a hero, but according to his daughter, Bobette Underwood, Robert Olsen rarely talked about his experiences that day as a young medic. He was so tight-lipped that his Presidential Unit Citation remained a secret to his children up until his death in 2004.

After the war ended, Olsen lived for the remainder of his life with his wife Vivian, a fellow World War II veteran and member of the WAVES, with whom he raised three daughters.

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