Now 97, Navy vet­eran re­calls 1941 swim through flames

The Idaho Statesman - - News - 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.

He shared some of his mem­o­ries this week with The As­so­ci­ated Press:


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.”

He at­tended a din­ner where sur­vivors were seated at ran­dom with dig­ni­taries. At his ta­ble were Ja­pan’s Honolu­lubased con­sul gen­eral and his wife.

“He and his wife were there in full re­galia,” Long said. He asked if they might be able to help him iden­tify the pi­lot who at­tacked his plane 77 years ago.

“They did some search­ing I guess, or told some­body to do it, but within a month or so I got a mes­sage from them and the proof is not pos­i­tive but they sent the in­for­ma­tion on three Ja­panese pi­lots. It was prob­a­bly one of those three,” Long said. All three have died, but Long was im­pressed the con­sul gen­eral had taken the time to find out.

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 has not al­ways marked the an­niver­sary as he does now.

“For about 50, 60 years or so, it was a day that rang a lit­tle bell to me, but I did not do much,” he said. “In the past 20 or so (years), I take part in some kind of ac­tiv­ity that I'll say is ap­pro­pri­ate for the day.”

This year, Long planned to visit school chil­dren to talk about Pearl Har­bor, then light a bea­con atop Mount Di­ablo in Concord, Cal­i­for­nia. The bea­con, known as the Eye of Di­ablo, was put out shortly af­ter the at­tack in 1941. In 1964, Fleet Adm. Ch­ester Nimitz, com­man­der of U.S. Pa­cific forces dur­ing World War II, re­lit the bea­con, be­gin­ning a yearly tra­di­tion.


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.


Re­tired U.S. Navy Cmdr. Don Long on Fri­day at his home in Napa, Cal­i­for­nia, holds up a replica of the mil­i­tary sea­plane he was stand­ing watch on when Ja­panese war­planes at­tacked Hawaii 77 years ago.

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