Navy vet­eran, 97, re­calls 1941 swim through flames

The Bradenton Herald - - Obituaries - BY CALEB JONES

Re­tired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Don Long was alone on an an­chored mil­i­tary sea­plane in the mid­dle of a bay across the is­land from Pearl Har­bor when Ja­panese war­planes started strik­ing Hawaii on De­cem­ber 7, 1941, watch­ing from afar as the bombs and bul­lets killed and wounded thou­sands.

The waves of at­tack­ing planes reached his mil­i­tary in­stal­la­tion on Ka­neohe Bay soon af­ter Pearl Har­bor was struck, and the young sailor saw build­ings and planes start to ex­plode all around him.

When the gun­fire fi­nally reached him, set­ting the air­craft ablaze, he jumped into the wa­ter and found him­self swim­ming through fire to safety.

Now 97, Long will re­mem­ber the 77th an­niver­sary of the at­tack from his home in Napa, Cal­i­for­nia.


Long was fresh out of boot camp when he ar­rived in Hawaii in 1941.

“I got off that ship with my sea bag over my shoul­der and we threw it on a truck and they carted me over to Ka­neohe from Pearl Har­bor where we had landed,” Long re­called.

It was a dif­fer­ent ex­pe­ri­ence when he flew to Hawaii for the 75th an­niver­sary in 2016, a trip that was paid for by a sur­vivor’s group.

“We came in on a first class United char­tered jet – all the girls with the leis were there with the Hawai­ian mu­sic,” he re­mem­bered.

“We ended up not in a bunk in the bar­racks, but in a very nice ocean room at the Hawai­ian Hilton.”

Sev­enty-seven years af­ter the at­tack, Long no longer har­bors ill will against Ja­pan or its peo­ple.

“I don’t know when that feel­ing left me. But as you are prob­a­bly well aware, we were taught to hate those peo­ple with all our hearts, and when you’re look­ing at one down a gun sight, you can’t re­ally feel much love for any­one – that’s for darn sure,” he said. “That has long since changed.”


Long re­mem­bers the week­end of the at­tack as rou­tine, “or so it started out,” he wrote in a 1992 es­say that he pro­vided to The As­so­ci­ated Press.

The 20-year-old sea­man from Min­nesota en­rolled in boot camp in March 1941, a “snotty nose kid, fresh off the farm.” That Sun­day morn­ing was his first day of op­er­a­tional duty with the squadron he had been as­signed to about a month ear­lier.

He was tasked with stand­ing watch aboard a sea­plane in the bay across the is­land from Pearl Har­bor.

He ar­rived early and took a small boat to­ward the await­ing Catalina fly­ing boat, cruis­ing across the turquoise wa­ters of wind­ward Oahu with Hawaii’s 73-de­gree air splash­ing across his face.

“I re­call it was a beau­ti­ful sunny day in Hawaii that morn­ing,” Long said.

He re­lieved a com­rade who had stood watch overnight, and be­gan pre­par­ing for a day of sig­nal drills and reg­u­lar main­te­nance checks.

He set­tled into the pilot’s compartment to wait for con­tact from the beach sig­nal­ing sta­tion to be­gin his drills.

A few min­utes later, he heard the roar of air­planes over­head and then the sound of ex­plo­sions.

He as­sumed it was U.S. mil­i­tary mak­ing prac­tice runs, but quickly re­al­ized he was wrong. In the dis­tance, Long saw planes fly­ing over hangars and build­ings ex­plod­ing. An­other plane that was an­chored nearby was hit and burst into flames.

Sec­onds later, a Ja­panese plane made a run to­ward his moored air­craft. “The se­quence of events dur­ing the next few min­utes is not en­tirely clear,” he re­called.

Long jumped from the pilot’s seat and started look­ing for a life jacket, but bul­lets were im­me­di­ately pro­duc­ing foun­tains of sea­wa­ter in­side the cabin. The fuel tanks in the wings were hit, and he was quickly sur­rounded by flames.


He gave up on the life jacket and made a run for the rear exit.

Gaso­line was ablaze on the wa­ter, so he jumped into the bay and swam be­neath the flames to get away from the burn­ing plane.

He came to the sur­face and through the flames three times for air.

He soon re­al­ized his mil­i­tary-is­sued high-top work shoes were bog­ging him down, so he dove un­der­wa­ter and removed them.

Still far from shore, Long found a wooden chan­nel marker and swam to it, duck­ing be­neath the waves to hide ev­ery time a Ja­panese plane made a pass.

Once the at­tack planes left Long saw flames, smoke and sink­ing air­craft all around the bay.

He spot­ted a boat that was search­ing for sur­vivors and flagged them down.

Swim­ming through the flames burned his head, face and arms, but Long con­sid­ered him­self in good health com­pared to the wounded and dead around him.

“Ship­mates on the shore greeted me with com­ments like ‘we never ex­pected to see you again,’ ” Long re­called.

“I was told I looked pretty bad.”

“The at­tack was over, but much tur­moil re­mained,” he wrote. “That’s it – the start of the first day of a long war.”


Re­tired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Don Long, on Fri­day at his home in Napa, Cal­i­for­nia, holds up a replica of the sea­plane he was stand­ing watch on when Ja­panese war­planes at­tacked.

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