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Larry Petretti, Sonoma County’s last known Pearl Harbor survivor, dies at 98

Larry Petretti was an ardent outdoorsman, a marksman with a bow or gun and, not many years back, was said to be the oldest still-working real estate broker in California.

The longtime Santa Rosa resident was also, among the corps of local World War II veterans who witnessed and responded to and for a lifetime carried memories of the horror loosed on Pearl Harbor almost 80 years ago, the last man standing.

Petretti, for the past seven years the president and sole combat vet in the North Bay’s fraternal organization of Pearl Harbor survivors, died Saturday after a brief decline in his health. He was 98.

With his passing, there is no longer a Pearl Harbor vet known to be living in Sonoma, Lake or Mendocino counties. No one knows for sure how many Pearl Harbor survivors remain in the nation; estimates range from a few dozen to perhaps 100. A small contingent of the centenarians is expected to be on Oahu on Dec. 7 for observances of the 80th anniversary of the surprise attack by Imperial Japan that killed more than 2,400 Americans, inflicted grievous damage on the Pacific Fleet and drew the U.S. abruptly into World War II.

Petretti, a native of San Francisco, was still 17 when he enlisted in the Navy in early 1941. He was a seaman aboard the moored destroyer tender USS Whitney, and his country was not at war, when the first of 353 carrier-launched Japanese bombers and fighter planes appeared over Pearl Harbor the Sunday morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

Like so many of the American sailors, soldiers and Marines there, Petretti was a teenager who’d enlisted in the late 1930s or early ‘40s to see the world and earn a paycheck while serving his country.

“We didn’t have the first idea what war was,” Petretti told The Press Democrat shortly before Santa Rosa’s Pearl Harbor observance of 2012. In an instant, that changed. Soon, Petretti was helping to pull the bodies of fellow seaman from the harbor’s oily water.

He said in a pre-Dec. 7 interview nine years ago that Americans should not let time erode their gratitude to “the young guys who gave their lives, got burned to death.

“I hope they're never forgotten,” he said, “even when the last of the Pearl Harbor survivors are dead, which won't be long.”

The veteran’s wife of 55 years, Kathlene Petretti, said he was remarkably active and hale all through his long life, but he seemed to age markedly in just the past few months. Only weeks ago, he was hoping to appear, as he had for several years, in the Veterans Day parade in Petaluma.

Petretti’s parade chauffeur, automobile fancier Jim Sennes of Sebastopol, planned to drive him on Nov. 11 in an especially appropriate car: the collector’s 1941 Lincoln Zephyr. Sennes worked on the 80-year-old dazzler to make certain it was roadworthy on Veterans Day.

“I was determined to get that car into the parade with him,” Sennes said. “It just would have been spectacular.”

But it was not to be. On Veterans Day, Petretti wasn’t at all up for the rigors of a parade.

“He wanted so much to be there,” said Kathie Morgan of Windsor, for decades an honorary member of the now defunct Santa Rosa-based chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. “He was just too ill by then.”

Only two days after Veterans Day, Lorenzo Amato Petretti died at home.

He was born to Italian immigrants in San Francisco on Aug. 23, 1923. His wife said he spoke only Italian as a youngster, and after his first day of public school announced to parents Giuseppi and Maria Petretti that he wasn’t going back to the teachers and classmates “because they talk funny.”

The Petretti family moved in time to Marin County, where Larry graduated from Mill Valley’s Tamalpais High School in 1940. He soon enlisted in the Navy. “He joined for the adventure,” said one of his three children, Shawn Petretti of Santa Rosa.

Before and after the world-changing attack on Oahu, Larry Petretti would serve on a variety of ships. He became a marksman and received special-forces training in a program that preceded the creation of the elite Navy SEALS.

At war’s end, he returned to the Bay Area and worked a number of jobs, among them bartending and becoming a staffer of the Marin Municipal Water District. In time he launched what would be a long career as a real estate agent and then broker.

He and Kathlene married in Reno in 1966. They moved about a bit before settling in Santa Rosa 40 years ago.

In his free time, Larry Petretti savored hunting and fishing, archery and shooting. His son Shawn said he was at one point the state archery champion.

Even at age 90, Petretti continued to work as a real estate broker.

At some point, he joined the Luther Burbank Chapter, No. 23, of the national Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. It was a social and service organization for the veterans who were present for one of the most shocking and transforming days in American history.

On Dec. 6 of 1941, the country was deeply divided about going to war, despite the wholesale subjugation and atrocities being committed by Nazi Germany in Europe and by the Empire of Japan throughout East Asia. On Dec. 8, the United States was at war and on its way to becoming a global superpower.

The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association was founded in 1958. Members dressed in white slacks, Hawaiian shirts and blue-and-white cloth caps. Locally they hosted an annual Dec. 7 observance and visited schools to speak of why the attack of 1941 happened and why it was important, as their group’s slogan proclaimed, to “Remember Pearl Harbor – Keep America Alert.”

Though he joined and as a rule attended the Pearl Harbor Day ceremony, Petretti was for a number of years not active in the Santa Rosa-based chapter, and didn’t attend the monthly meetings. “He for some reason wasn’t interested,” Kathlene Petretti said.

The chapter was in danger of shutting down in 2014, following the death that Veterans Day of the president and sole remaining active veteran, Herb Louden. The Petaluman had served as the local, state and national chaplain of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, and at 97 was the revered dean of the region’s war vets.

To fill the void left by Louden’s passing, Petretti began attending monthly luncheon meetings of the survivors’ group, and agreed to serve as president. The others present were a few widows of Pearl vets and a couple of supporters.

The Sonoma County group dissipated just prior to the local onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Participants in a small Dec. 7 observance at the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building in 2019 roundly cheered Petretti as the county’s last known Pearl Harbor survivor.

In addition to his wife and son in Santa Rosa, he is survived by daughter Dawn Petretti of Santa Rosa, son Larry Petretti Jr. of Diamond Springs in El Dorado County, five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

At his request, there will be no services.

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