Sonoma Stories: Alice Darrow, Lake County’s last living link to Pearl Harbor, celebrated her 100th birthday
Alice Darrow didn’t bring the bullet to her birthday party.
That was OK. Presumably, most or all of the widely cast kin and friends of Darrow who converged Saturday on Clearlake previously had seen the Japanese-made machine gun slug, an artifact central to one of the greatest love stories spawned by the 1941 sneak attack on Hawaii that drew the U.S. into World War II. And Saturday’s celebration was all about another momentous event, one that occurred 22 years earlier.
Darrow was born in the farm town of Vina, in Tehama County, on March 16, 1919.
One hundred years later, the lithe and endearing former Navy nurse has become Lake County’s last living link to the world-altering calamity at Pearl Harbor. And she has borne a profound effect on many lives.
“One of the best days of my life was meeting Alice,” party guest Bob Perez said upon his turn to stand in the American Legion hall, introduce himself and tell how far he’d traveled.
Though there were relatives and friends of Darrow who’d come from Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Hawaii, Arizona and other distant points, Perez and his wife, Carmela, are her neighbors and drove just the few miles from the Riviera section of Kelseyville.
“When I die and they ask, ‘What did you do with your life?’ I’ll say, ‘I met Alice Darrow,’?” Perez, a retired tile-setter, said later in the festivities.
Beyond being the sort of person who invites you in for lunch and sets forth a halved sandwich, a bowl of soup and homebaked cookies with coffee, Darrow for decades supported Lake County’s members of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, and did much to charm their gatherings. She visited classrooms to speak about the attack of Dec. 7, 1941, and some of the 2,403 killed. She also spoke about those who survived and then went to war, and, as members of the Greatest Generation, transformed their nation.
Darrow was a dear friend of former sailor and union truck driver Bill Slater of Lakeport, whose death on the last day of 2017 marked the passing of the last known Pearl Harbor veteran in Lake or Mendocino counties. Two known Pearl survivors remain in Sonoma County.
At Darrow’s birthday party, Ronnie Bogner of Clearlake Oaks, a friend and a champion of military veterans, read aloud resolutions from the Lake County Board of Supervisors and Congressman Mike Thompson thanking her for the decades that she supported and paid tribute to Pearl Harbor survivors and their legacy.
Always when Darrow would appear at Lake County’s annual Pearl Harbor observance, or at a speaking engagement, she would bring along the bullet. And tell its story, and that of her husband, a sailor named Dean Darrow.
The son of Wisconsin was 24 and aboard the battleship West Virginia the Sunday morning that hell broke loose at Pearl Harbor. After being blown into the oily water as the mighty ship convulsed from torpedo strikes, Fire Controlman 3rd Class Darrow was pulled out and dealt to the nearby hospital ship Solace.
A wound to his back was treated. He was X-rayed and allowed to regain his strength before he was returned to duty. There was a war on.
With the West Virginia sunk, Seaman Darrow was transferred onto the destroyer Porter. He didn’t at all feel himself; after sprinting to his battle station he’d feel woozy.
He would recall jumping into the Pacific for a swim late in January 1942 and then feeling so drained he couldn’t pull himself from his bunk.
“My brain would get the message but my feet wouldn’t move,” he told The Press Democrat in 1991, shortly before the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Sent to sick bay, he slept for 10 straight days.
Seeing that something was definitely wrong with him, superiors shipped him back to the Solace. X-rays taken on March 7, 1942, produced a shocking discovery. Overlooked in the earlier X-rays was a bullet lodged in the muscle of the sailor’s heart. He’d lived with it for three months.
Fire Controlman Darrow was dispatched to the naval hospital at Mare Island, alongside Vallejo. He was at once smitten with his nurse, former farm girl Alice Beck.
She and most everyone else at the hospital knew that the sailor would undergo heart surgery for the removal of the bullet. Expectations he’d survive were not exceptionally high.
Not long before the seaman was wheeled into the operating room, he asked nurse Beck, whom he called Miss Becky, if, should he come through, she would go on liberty with him.
She said she would go out with him. She recalled, “When we said goodbye to him and sent him to surgery, I had tears in my eyes.”
Darned if the sailor didn’t survive having the 7.7-mm bullet tugged from the wall of his heart. In the recovery room, the surgeon showed the patient the slug and asked if he might keep it. Dean Darrow replied that he was sorry, but that bullet was his.