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'I think of Pearl Harbor probably every day'


There are times, some marked by panicky midnight dreams or haphazard flashbacks, when Don Blair would rather forget Pearl Harbor.

"It's not as vivid now as it was," said the private and contemplative ex-sailor and retired postal employee. "But I think of Pearl Harbor probably every day, one way or another."

At 89, Blair is president of the regional chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association whose membership has dwindled to a handful of old salts.

The Rohnert Park resident is proud to have served with the Navy and to have been at Pearl Harbor, even though the terror of what he saw and experienced aboard the beleaguered battleship Nevada 68 years ago today still haunts him.

At 7:55 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, 23 members of a Navy band launched into the National Anthem for the morning's raising of the flag aboard the 29,000-ton battleship USS Nevada.

The Nevada -- America's 36th battleship, named for the 36th state -- was moored just off Pearl Harbor's Ford Island near the clustered battleships Arizona, Tennessee, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Maryland and California.

Suddenly, waves of Japanese torpedo bombers and dive-bombers attacked. All members of the Nevada's band stood their ground until finishing "The Star-Spangled Banner," then sprinted to their battle stations.

Blair, who served as a yeoman, has plenty to say about Pearl Harbor, but he is reluctant to say anything for fear it may sound like he's complaining. As grateful as he is that some people still honor WWII vets and show an interest in their war, he recoils at the thought of anyone equating him with his fellow warriors who demonstrated great valor under fire.

"I'm not unique," Blair said. "And I'm no hero."

At 8:10 a.m., a torpedo struck the port side of the Nevada and exploded. Water streamed in through the damaged hull.

The dreadnought's acting commanders -- Capt. F.W. Scanland had begun the day in Honolulu and was racing back to Pearl Harbor -- decided to make a run for the open sea.

As the ship groaned past the mortally damaged USS Arizona, an explosion on the Arizona blew a shower of metal debris onto the Nevada, killing several of its sailors.

Blair was born in North Dakota and grew up a hardworking and poor Depression-era farmboy. He enlisted at 19 in 1939 after a man-to-man with his girlfriend's uncle, a Navy recruiter.

"My gal friend and he talked me into it," he said. For Blair, putting on a military uniform was a pinch-me moment.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "Me? Joining the Navy?"

It was mind-bending for him, too, to step aboard the 583-foot-long USS Nevada in San Pedro in September 1939.

"It was overwhelming," he remembered.

A petty officer, Blair was assigned to a steady stream of clerical duties related to the upkeep and repair of the battleship. He vividly remembers gazing out a porthole in his office as the ship lay moored on Battleship Row in sunny Pearl Harbor the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

"I saw this plane flying in low -- and it had a meatball on it," he said. Then bombs fell.

As the only battleship to get under way that morning, the Nevada came under intense dive-bomber attack when it entered the harbor's main channel and made for the ocean.

Fearful it would be sunk and would block the entrance to the harbor, harbor officers ordered the Nevada to intentionally run aground at the channel's edge.

Crewmen worked fiercely to extinguish fires ignited by bombs as, shortly after 9 a.m., tugboats pushed the listing battleship onto the mud.

Blair's battle station was the central station, several decks below the Nevada's conning tower. He spent the entire morning of Dec. 7 down there and well into the afternoon, receiving and forwarding damage reports and standing ready to answer ship-structure inquiries that would require review of the Nevada's blueprints.

The great ship shivered and rocked as divebombers scored hits and near-misses. Blair could only imagine what was happening on deck and in the harbor.

By midafternoon, the seawater seeping into the damaged Nevada reached Blair's ankles and he requested permission to come up onto the deck. "I was afraid of getting electrocuted," he said.

When the attack ended, the Nevada had lost 50 officers and crewmen and it sat beached and swamped at the side of Pearl Harbor's channel.

Still, she had come through in far better shape than other battleships that had sat like ducks off Ford Island.

More than 1,100 sailors perished in the massive explosion aboard the Arizona. The Oklahoma lay on its side and both the California and West Virginia were sunk.

Across Oahu, the death count would reach 2,390.

Blair at last received permission to come up onto the main deck at the rear of the Nevada. There, the 21-year-old petty officer gulped the fresh air and got a taste of what had happened that morning.

"I could see blood all over the deck," he said. He came upon pallets waiting to be moved off the grounded ship. They were loaded with bodies and pieces of bodies.

"I didn't start to grasp any of it until I was standing on the main deck aft," Blair said. He remembers, too well, the sheer terror that occurred below deck later that night, when planes roared in that turned out to be American but everyone believed were returning Japanese.

The Nevada lay idled alongside the channel until she was refloated on Feb. 12, 1942.

The battleship was repaired and upgraded on the West Coast, then raced to rejoin the fight. It served in the Aleutians in mid-1943 and a year later became the only Pearl Harbor battleship to take part in the Normandy invasion.

The ship returned to the Pacific in 1945 to assist in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa and await, if necessary, the invasion of Japan.

Blair was among the sailors transferred off the Nevada as 1942 dawned and America switched fully into war mode. Though sorry to leave the ship, he served as a yeoman at several Pacific posts and was in San Francisco when the war ended.

He remained in the Navy's active reserves for most of his working life. A highlight of his retirement in Sonoma County was discovering the Santa Rosa-based Chapter 23 of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.

As old age and deaths have reduced the active members to only four or five, there was talk earlier this year of shutting the chapter down. Blair was among the old vets who wouldn't hear of it.

"When it folds up, it just puts us in the final hole in the ground," he said.

Too antiquated for further military duty, the USS Nevada was used as a target in the 1946 atomic bomb tests at Bikini in the Marshall Islands.

The Navy decommissioned the storied battleship in August of 1946. She was towed into the open ocean off of Hawaii and on July 13, 1948, was sunk by gunfire and torpedoes.

Blair has by now pondered the lessons of Pearl Harbor for almost 70 years. He learned for sure the true meaning of the National Anthem.

When it streamed through the fractured fleet's radios the day after the attack, he said, it resounded within him much more personally than it had when the Nevada's band struck it up just as hell broke loose the previous morning.

". . . the bombs bursting in air . . . our flag was still there." His flag was still there, and so was he and so was the now unified resolve of his nation.

"You never saw so many people cry" as when the anthem rallied hope across Pearl Harbor that Dec. 8, the old sailor said. "They tried to hide their crying. I did, too."