On New Year’s Eve, Lake County lost its last known survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor with the death of Bill Slater, a blithe and grateful former sailor, truck driver and union activist — and a firm believer in dumb luck.
The longtime resident of Lakeport recounted innumerable times that had he been at his battle station aboard the dry-docked battleship USS Pennsylvania the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, he’d have died in a flash at the age of 17.
His job was to help operate a hoist that lifted crates of ammunition from deep within the ship to a starboard deck gun. But the hoist malfunctioned amid the chaos that Sunday morning.
So the admittedly terrified seaman Slater and other Pennsylvania ammunition handlers had to run below decks, lift crates of ammo and carry them up to the 5-inch gun.
Slater, who’d spent a chunk of his childhood in the 1920s and 30s as an orphan and ward of the court, was below on an ammo run when a Japanese bomb exploded at the gun mount. The blast killed more than two dozen men.
Had the hoist been working, Slater told The Press Democrat just prior to Pearl Harbor Day of 2013, he’d have been operating it and the bomb “would have hit me right in the frickin’ head. That’s just how fate is.”
He also liked to say, “Everything in life is luck.”
Slater, who died at his home at about 8 p.m. on Sunday following several months of declining health, was 93. With his passing, there are believed to be only three Pearl Harbor survivors remaining in the Sonoma-Lake-Mendocino region, all of them residents of Sonoma County.
Wilbur Kenneth Slater was born July 26, 1924, in Riverside. His daughter, Leslie Slater, who assisted him in recent years, said that amid the Great Depression, her dad’s parents couldn’t support him and his two siblings, so the kids went into an orphanage.
From there, young Bill Slater lived in a series of foster homes. The experience would later fuel his passion for labor-union safety nets for families in crisis.
Eager for emancipation and to see the world, Slater joined the Navy shortly after he turned 17 the summer of 1941.
“I was greener than spring grass,” he told the PD in 2013. He recalled, as a skinny kid in a sailor’s suit, beholding the 600-foot Pennsylvania for the first time.
“I thought this was the grandest thing in the world,” he said. “I thought, ‘I’m home here.’ ”
War was far from his mind the morning of the attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy that killed more than 2,400 Americans, badly damaged the Pacific Fleet and drew the U.S. into World War II.
“After that, I never had a bad day in the Navy,” Slater said four years ago.
As the Pennsylvania was being repaired, he was reassigned to the seaplane tender Coos Bay, which serviced the PBY Catalinas that plucked aviators and sailors and others from the sea.
“We were in the business of saving lives instead of trying to kill people,” Slater said in the 2013 interview.
He was on shore leave in San Francisco in 1942 when he met Helen Stefan at The Cozy on Market Street. Upon his honorable discharge from the Navy in November 1945, Slater returned to San Francisco and to Helen. They married on Dec. 8 — the day after Pearl Harbor Day — of 1946.
The war veteran worked several jobs before launching a career driving automobile transport trucks as a member of the Teamsters Union.
Disgusted by the graft within the union at that time, he became an advocate of reform through Teamsters for Democratic Union, which began in 1976.
“He was huge in the labor movement,” his daughter said. She said he fought for fairness from both employers and his union, and for a decent life for working people.
“He wasn’t one of those guys who say, ‘I’ve got mine, screw you,’ ” Leslie Slater said.
Her father was 60 when he retired as a truck driver and he and Helen moved to within a few blocks of Clear Lake in Lakeport. It was only about 10 years ago that he became active in the Lake County arm of the Santa Rosa-based Luther Burbank Chapter No. 23 of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.
“My dad liked the camaraderie,” Leslie Slater said. The grayed veterans of the attack that pulled America into World War II visited schools, socialized at monthly meetings, appeared in local parades and, every Dec. 7, gathered at the Pearl Harbor flag mast in Lakeport’s Library Park to commemorate one of the most momentous dates in U.S. history and world history.
There were no Pearl Harbor survivors at the observance last month because Slater wasn’t up to attending, and all the others had died.
A close friend, Alice Darrow of nearby Kelseyville, attended as usual. The former Navy nurse then reported to Slater on the commemoration.
In recent years, Darrow taught Slater to play cribbage, then found that he was impossible to beat.
Darrow, 98, said Tuesday it’s hard to believe that 76 years have passed since the attack, and that its last survivor in Lake County, and one of her closest friends, is gone.
“The Pearl Harbor survivors have had their day,” Darrow said, “and they’re on their way out now.”
Ronnie Bogner of Clearlake Oaks, a friend of both Slater and Darrow and for years a faithful supporter of Pearl Harbor vets, said Slater truly did regard himself a lucky man.
Bogner added, “He figured there was no better time to live and no better country to live in than the time and the country he lived in.”
In addition to his daughter in Lakeport, Slater is survived by a granddaughter and two great-grandchildren.
You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and firstname.lastname@example.org.