WASHINGTON (CNN) — Ray Chavez is the oldest survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor that launched America’s entry into World War II in 1941.
At 106, the indefatigable veteran has been traveling around the country for years, attending memorial services and commemorations. This week, he met with President Donald Trump in the Oval Office while in Washington for a series of Memorial Day events.
Ahead of the Memorial Day weekend, Chavez reflected on his service, and recounted his experience on the day that President Franklin Roosevelt declared would “live in infamy.”
December 7, 1941
Chavez was a quartermaster stationed in Pearl Harbor at the time of the Japanese attack on Hawaii, living there with his wife and oldest daughter. He was assigned to a minesweeper, the Condor, that, while on patrol had detected a Japanese submarine in nearby restricted waters the morning of December 7 before returning to the harbor.
“I had told (my wife), I didn’t want to be awakened because I had been (out) all night, and I was very tired, and I wanted to get some sleep,” Chavez said. “After she saw the beginning of the war, she went and called me, and I couldn’t believe what she was telling me. And after her pleading with me to get up, let’s see. I finally broke down, and went up, and sure enough, she was right.
“And so, (there were) all the ships on fire, and a terrible smoke screen all through the harbor, covering it, and ships, all the adjoining area,” he recalled.
After the attack, Chavez served on a transport ship called the LaSalle that brought soldiers to several island battles throughout the Pacific, including Okinawa and Guadalcanal.
Asked how often he thinks about that day and his military service, Chavez answered quickly.
“Every day. And not hysterical or mean thoughts about it — it was great. But it never goes away. All of what you see and learned.”
Chavez was born in San Bernardino, California, and grew up in San Diego, where he later returned after the war. He said his wife had encouraged him to join the Navy.
“I was married at that time, and my wife encouraged me because she liked the Navy, and was more or less a Navy wife, and she wanted me to join. And then at the end of the war, she wanted me to stay in the Navy, but I had too much war already, and I got out,” he said.
Chavez said that “discipline” was the most important lesson he learned from his service as well as the enjoyment he gained from the company of his fellow soldiers.
“It’s quite a pleasure to meet new people and enjoy their company, and that’s what happened to me,” he said.
Still sharp, the centenarian cracked, “I would do it again, if I was called to active duty — but chances are they’ll never.”