One Step at a Time: Honoring Pearl Harbor Survivor Ray Chavez
December 2, 2015
Walking in the country that you love – is that your favorite thing to do? It’s #1 on Raymond Barron Chavez’s list, according to an interview with 10News earlier this year. At 103 years old, Chavez is the oldest living Pearl Harbor survivor.
Chavez takes one small step at a time and he gets to where he wants to be. The key is his desire to do it.
It wasn’t always that simple. After a serious fall requiring surgery to implant a steel plate into his fractured arm, his passion for life seemed to have vanished. He was 101 years old at the time and in pain. Rapid weight loss and muscle atrophy were also contributing to his lack of mobility (see 3/18/15 story in the San Diego Union Tribune).
At the suggestion of his daughter, Kathleen, he started working out twice a week with a personal trainer (Sean Thompson). After just 6 months or exercise and pumping iron, Chavez was able to partake in the simple pleasure of walking again.
Let’s take a stroll down memory lane at the life of this amazing World War II veteran.
Raymond Barron Chavez was born in San Bernardino, California on March 10, 1912. His family was in the wholesale flower business. He married his wife Margaret in his early 20s, and together they had a daughter.
In a 2009 interview with Carl Cox, he says he enlisted in the Naval Reserves in 1938, about 3 years before the war started. When he was 27 years old, he was first sent to Mexico on the USS Dallas. He was later assigned to the USS Holman.
PEARL HARBOR STORY
Chavez was eventually assigned to the USS Condor in Pearl Harbor, a fishing boat that had been repurposed as a minesweeper.
In the early hours of the morning on December 7, 1941, Chavez was at the helm of the USS Condor, sweeping the restricted waters of the channel. Near the entrance into Pearl Harbor, the crew spotted the periscope of an unidentified midget submarine attempting to sneak in. They followed the appropriate steps and notified the authorities at the Pearl Harbor Command Post. The USS Ward, a destroyer, swooped in and sank the Japanese target, unknowingly scoring the first strike for the United States in World War II.
After completing his shift at 6 a.m., he returned to his Navy housing in Ewa Beach and hit the sack. During the Cox interview, Chavez recounts the moment he first heard the news of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. His panicked wife desperately tried to wake him just before 8 a.m.
“…she said, ‘Come on, better hurry, get up, we’re being attacked!’ I said, ‘Nobody is attacking us, just leave me alone, and I want to get some sleep.’ She said, ‘No, no, come on, the whole Harbor’s on fire.’ And I said, ‘That can’t be.’ So, she finally convinced me to go out and look at it, and sure enough the whole Harbor was smoking and on fire.”
Chavez dressed quickly and caught a ride back to the ship with a friend. His crew was assigned to sweep the channel. They had laid out their minesweeping gear when a destroyer rushed out of the harbor and cut their cables, rendering them powerless to complete their assignment.
In the harbor he was astonished by the devastation of Battleship Row – all 8 of the battleships were either damaged or destroyed. Chavez emotionally recalls, “You see all the men in the water full of oil and most of them were dead. Ah, it even made my eye water, I started to cry, I guess.”
Raymond Chavez at the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Midway Museum. Photo credit: 3rd Class Gregory A. Harden II
POST PEARL HARBOR ATTACK
Chavez was on continuous duty for the next 10 days, according to his statement to Cox. He recalls the guards being very strict, not allowing them to set foot on the dock during that time. Wives and family members were moved from their homes to the Naval Hospital, then to the Honolulu YMCA, and finally to the Army Hospital in the hills. Chavez’s wife wasn’t allowed to return to the housing area for 5 or 6 days. The military was on high alert, anticipating another Japanese attack that never came. In February 1942, his family was evacuated to San Diego, and Chavez was unable to see them for about a year.
In order to be closer to his family, Chavez volunteered to build ships and reported to Treasure Island in San Francisco. By this time, hehad stepped up the ladder to Quartermaster Third.
During the remainder of his service, Chavez went on 8 transports, helping to deliver tanks and Marines to shores around the Pacific. His considers the invasion of the Philippines under Admiral Chester W. Nimitz the most profound battle he was involved in.
By the time he was discharged in San Pedro in 1945, he had obtained the rank of Chief Quartermaster, but he was so shaken he couldn’t even write his name. The doctor told him that he had “combat fatigue” and wanted to admit him to a hospital. Chavez convinced him otherwise, opting to recover on his own.
He took some time to rest. Step by step, he got re-acquainted with friends and relatives. He attempted mechanic’s school in an effort to try something different, but couldn’t stand the oil and grease. So he returned to a more familiar job – nurseryman and landscaper.
As if the tragedy of the war wasn’t enough, Chavez’s daughter, son-in-law and granddaughter were involved in a fatal car accident in the 1950s. In 1957, Chavez and his wife took steps to adopt a little girl—Kathleen, age 5—from a San Diego orphanage.
In the 1990s, he ran his own business caring for a couple of church grounds in Poway, where he has lived since 1959. He retired at 96 years old.
Whether Chavez is at a speaking engagement for the La Vista Memorial Day event or throwing out the first pitch at a San Diego Padres game, he appears to be savoring every moment. He enjoys working out and plans to do it for as long as he can.
During a follow-up interview with Hannah Mullins, Chavez even said, “I’d go back to the Navy if they‘d accept me.” Somehow, his “can do” attitude makes us believe that the U.S. Navy would – every step of the way.
On August 23, 2015, Quarter Master Chief, Ray Chavez threw out the 1st pitch in the San Diego Padres vs. the St. Louis Cardinals