Ninety-two-year-old Pearl Harbor veteran Don Blair of Rohnert Park died last weekend, just days after poor health kept him from joining four local Pearl survivors who gathered Friday to mark the 71st anniversary of the attack.
"He died in his sleep," said niece Brenda Thomas of Sebastopol. "I'm glad he made it through Pearl Harbor Day."
Blair died Saturday night or sometime Sunday. A visiting home-care aide found him Sunday afternoon.
He'd witnessed horrific effects of Japan's Dec. 7, 1941, attack from below decks on the torpedoed and bombed battleship USS Nevada. He was the fifth Pearl Harbor survivor in Sonoma County to die from complications of old age within the past year; no more than about six are known to remain in the county.
Blair had been ill for more than a year and wasn't able to attend Friday's memorial program in Santa Rosa. But days earlier, in a phone interview, he spoke with passion about the legacy of the attack that drew the U.S. into World War II.
"Pearl Harbor was a long time ago for me, but it still has meaning," he said Wednesday.
He said he hopes the surprise attack will long inspire Americans to be vigilant of potential enemies.
"I think we should definitely keep an eye out on China," he said.
Beyond that, Blair said a lasting lesson of Pearl Harbor should be that Americans must never simply accept their government's justifications for going to war. He said it was many years after World War II that he came to accept that the U.S. was not an entirely innocent victim at Oahu and had, at the least, provoked Japan.
"We should always be aware that things that have happened before can repeat themselves in history," he said.
Blair was president of the Santa Rosa-based chapter of the now-defunct Pearl Harbor Survivors Association when he told The Press Democrat in 2009 that he was born in North Dakota and that as a young man never imagined himself going into the military.
But after growing up poor as one of nine children on a farm, he was persuaded by a girlfriend and her uncle, a recruiter, to enlist in the Navy. That was in 1939.
Two years later, he was a yeoman assigned to a host of clerical duties aboard the 583-foot-long juggernaut, Nevada. Early that infamous Sunday morning, he recalled, he peered out a porthole from below decks.
"I saw this plane flying in low — and it had a meatball on it," he said.
Although damaged from a torpedo strike, the Nevada was the only battleship in Pearl Harbor able to get under way and head for the open sea. But after several bomb hits, it ran aground.
Blair's battle station was several decks into the convulsing battleship's belly. He spent most of Dec. 7 receiving and forwarding damage reports and standing ready to answer ship-structure inquiries that would require review of the Nevada's blueprints.
It was well into the afternoon when the 21-year-old petty officer received permission to ascend to the main deck.
"I could see blood all over the deck," he recalled.
He came upon pallets waiting to be moved off the ship, pallets loaded with fellow sailors' bodies and pieces of bodies.