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Of the seven relatives of Rudy Theiller Jr. who met at a Sebastopol park for a rare occasion Thursday, only one ever knew Theiller.

The 1939 Analy High School graduate would be 95 today. He was barely 18 when he left his family’s Hessel-area apple ranch in 1940 to see the world with the U.S. Navy.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Theiller was a seaman first class aboard the battleship USS Arizona, moored close to seven other Pacific Fleet dreadnoughts inside Pearl Harbor. Within minutes of the start of Imperial Japan’s bomb and torpedo attack on Oahu that morning, an ungodly explosion burst and contorted the Arizona.

A niece of Theiller’s, Carrie Theiller Schrup of Dubuque, Iowa, said at Ragle Ranch Regional Park on Thursday that for a painfully long time after the attack, no one at home knew “if Rudy was dead or alive.”

The Navy would conclude the following March that Rudy Theiller was among 1,177 sailors and Marines killed aboard the Arizona, the hulk of which lies still on the bottom of Pearl Harbor.

Seventy-six years to the day after Theiller died, a simple and dignified ceremony Thursday at Ragle Ranch Regional Park dedicated the sports fields in his name. Seated right up front was the fallen sailor’s younger brother, Bob Theiller, a former Sonoma County supervisor who was 14 at the time of the attack and now is 90.

He and the other Theillers present, along with several other ex-county supervisors, Sebastopol and county parks officials and military veterans, listened as current 5th District Supervisor Lynda Hopkins noted that Rudy Theiller was one of three Sonoma County men who died at Pearl Harbor.

The others were Santa Rosans Billy Montgomery, who perished aboard the battleship California, and George Maybee, who died on the Arizona.

“Time has not diminished the magnitude of the attack that took their lives,” Hopkins said. She added that the hardships that followed America’s entry into World War II included the injustice suffered by local Japanese-Americans sent to relocation camps.

Hopkins thanked two of her predecessors on the Board of Supervisors, Eric Koenigshofer and Efren Carrillo, for launching the effort to name the Ragle Ranch play areas the Rudy Theiller Memorial Sports Fields.

On display Thursday were the new park signs that recount the life and ultimate sacrifice of Theiller, who played football and basketball at Analy and was a standout in Future Farmers of America.

The oldest guest at the Pearl Harbor Day dedication was Clare Harris, who was born in Guerneville in 1920, attended Analy and went on to own Johnson’s Beach and the Rio Nido Resort on the Russian River.

His connection with Rudy Theiller? “We were best friends in high school,” Harris told the gathering in the park.

He said Theiller urged him to enlist in the Navy along with him, and to request that they be assigned to the same ship.

“He and I were the only ones who would know about that conversation,” Harris said. He wanted badly to go into the Navy with Theiller, but said his father forbade him from enlisting then.

Harris did enlist later, serving on a submarine chaser and fighting in the battle of Saipan. But for 76 years, he said at the newly christened Rudy Theiller Memorial Sports Fields, he’s been conflicted.

A part of him has always regretted that he didn’t accept his best friend’s bidding for them to go to sea together in 1940, when Pearl Harbor was just another port that two boys from Sebastopol would be eager to see.

You can reach Staff Writer Chris Smith at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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