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.

No surprise, Navy nurse Beck kept her promise. That first date led to a wedding on Aug. 1, 1942.

Once they both received honorable discharges from the Navy, Dean and Alice Darrow set up housekeeping in Southern California and started a family. They also spent 30 years in Pleasant Hill before retiring to Kelseyville and becoming stalwarts of the former Luther Burbank Chapter No. 23 of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.

Sometimes, the ex-sailor would bring out and show that big bullet. People inspecting it would see it’s gouged, apparently from having ricocheted off the West Virginia.

Had that contact with the battleship not slowed the slug, it would likely have passed right through Darrow’s heart, killing him instantly. If the bullet had penetrated just enough into a chamber of the heart to be fatal, or if Darrow had died during that early and relatively primitive open-heart surgery, he’d not have met nurse Alice Beck. And none of their four children, or 10 grandchildren or 11 great-grandchildren, most of whom were present at Saturday’s party in Clearlake, would have been born.

As it was, Dean Darrow would say over the subsequent years that when the removal of the bullet left a void in his heart, Alice quickly filled it.

As the retired nurse thanked everyone for coming to her 100th birthday party, she recalled her husband, who died in 1991, also liked to tell people “the best thing he got out of the Navy was his nurse.”

There was some bittersweet news at the party. Alice Darrow recently suffered a small heart attack, and she’s going to live from now on with her daughter, Becky Mitchell, in Danville.

Darrow confessed she has some sorrow around the move. “I really love Lake County,” she said.

But she’s sure she’ll come to love the town of Danville, too.

A niece, Linda Beck Sabino, came to Saturday’s party from Maui. She recalled her aunt Alice telling her once that a key to living a long and happy life is to “always have something to look forward to.”

And here Darrow is not only starting a new life in Contra Costa County, but she and daughter Mitchell are preparing for a big trip. On April 15, they’ll visit a loved one in England.

And so, niece Sabino said of her aunt, the new centenarian and keeper of the miracle bullet, “She’s following her own advice.”

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