DES MOINES, Iowa – A World War II veteran, believed to be the oldest survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, died last month at the age of 103.
Clayton Schenkelberg, born in 1917 in Iowa and joined the US Navy in 1937, died in a nursing home on April 14 in San Diego, California.
Schenkelberg was no stranger to the difficulties of his youth.
Various reports over the years have referred to the struggles he faced even before Pearl Harbor: his mother died at the age of 9, the Great Depression struck at the age of 12, and his father was killed in an accident at the age of 17.
At 20, he joined the Navy. Four years later – December 7, 1941 – he and his brother Jerry were stationed in Pearl Harbor when Japan struck. Clayton was a tedder at an underwater station and Jerry was a crew member on the battleship Nevada.
Clayton Schenkelberg was nearing the end of his shift when the bombs began to fall, he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. Instead of spending the rest of his day with his girlfriend Alithea Coito, as he had planned, he picked up a rifle and shot the low-flying planes as they passed.
He was one of several soldiers tasked with moving a train loaded with warheads, each containing 550 pounds of explosives, away from the base, according to the story. “True to his ‘I can do’ attitude, (Schenkelberg) requisitioned the train and put the explosives to safety,” the Union-Tribune wrote.
“Of course I knew I could be killed,” Schenkelberg told the outlet. “But it had to be done.”
None of Schenkelberg’s brothers were injured at Pearl Harbor. They reunited the next day when Clayton was sent to Nevada with supplies, according to a 1991 Des Moines ledger article marking the 50th anniversary of the attack.
Worried about the heavy loss of life aboard the Nevada, Clayton searched for his brother. By this time, Jerry said, he was cleaning the kitchen, which had been affected by the raid.
“I was carrying chicken in pans and I went out on the deck and there was Clayton. We just kissed, ”said Jerry, who died in 1996.
Clayton and Alithea married in 1942. The couple moved to San Diego, and Schenkelberg worked as a school warden after nearly 30 years in the Navy. They were together 74 years old until his death in 2016. They had seven children and 17 grandchildren, according to his obituary.
In his later years, Schenkelberg took care of his wife, who had Alzheimer’s disease. He contracted COVID-19 last year but was not sickened by the disease, the Union-Tribune reported.
Schenkelberg was an active member of the local chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association until it closed two years ago.
Stuart Hedley, who was president of the San Diego chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association when it closed in 2019, has said he understands Schenkelberg to be the oldest survivor in the country, the Union-Tribune reported. Schenkelberg’s son Patrick said various officials told him the same.
The official death toll at Pearl Harbor was 2,403, including 2,008 navy personnel, 109 marines, 218 servicemen and 68 civilians. Of the dead, 1,177 were from the USS Arizona, whose wreckage now serves as the main memorial to the attack that propelled America into World War II. Fifty-five Japanese were killed.
The total number of injured was 1,143, including 710 from the Navy, 69 Marines, 364 from the Army and 103 civilians, according to the Pearl Harbor Visitors Bureau.
Hedley estimates that there are less than 100 survivors of Pearl Harbor left. He will lead the “two-bell ceremony,” a traditional Navy farewell, at Schenkelberg’s funeral Thursday in San Diego.
Follow journalist Robin Opsahl on Twitter: @robinlopsahl
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