Every night before he falls asleep, Ray Chavez, 104, thinks about the traumatic events that took place on December 7, 1941.
“My life changed overnight,” Chavez, America’s oldest surviving Pearl Harbor veteran, tells PEOPLE of the Japanese attack on the Hawaiian naval base. “I was right in the middle of it.
“I’ll never forget.”
Seaman 1st class Chavez had just completed a minesweeping mission (during which his crew helped sink an enemy midget submarine) when the attack occurred. Chavez, who shies away from talking about the actual events that transpired that day, instead says he is “just simply incredibly proud” to have fought for his country in the 1940s.
On Wednesday, exactly 75 years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Chavez will return to the base (now a National Historic Landmark) for the anniversary reunion, where he will be honored.
“I hope people never forget,” he says. “They can’t.”
Chavez, who now lives in San Diego, California, is the oldest surviving Pearl Harbor veteran in the U.S. — and he plans to keep it that way “for as long as I can!”
His daughter, Kathleeen Chavez, says her dad is in excellent health (he still works out with a personal trainer!) and couldn’t wait to return to Hawaii for the anniversary.
“For many years, he couldn’t return, because he couldn’t bear it. He never talked about that day,” Kathleen, 64, says of her father, who made his first trip back when the 50th anniversary arrived in 1991. “But now, he is ready. And now he’s so proud to have survived this long and to tell his story so that people don’t forget about Pearl Harbor.
“He’s really worried about that.”
After the 1991 reunion, the father-daughter duo returned to Hawaii every few years on December 7 — but for the past couple of years, they’ve made the trip an annual one, not knowing if Chavez would live to see another anniversary.
“But I don’t drink and I don’t smoke and I eat a balanced diet!” Chavez says with a laugh. “That’s my trick. I spent all my life working outside on a farm and then worked out a lot in the Navy.”
He adds, “I can’t believe I’m still alive!”
Chavez was born in San Bernardino, California, in 1912 and worked on fields and nurseries growing up. He married in his early 20s to his wife, Margaret (who died in the 1980s), and had a baby girl, eventually joining the Navy at 27, where he was assigned to the minesweeper USS Condor at Pearl Harbor.
On the morning of December 7, 1941, he was asleep in his bed in nearby Ewa Beach when he heard the bomb raid start. The father immediately hitched a ride with a friend to the harbor where he spent the next nine days on duty — witnessing unimaginable tragedy.
“He will talk sometimes about what his ship did that day or what he saw,” says Kathleen. “He tells me that he thinks about it as he falls asleep every night. That he can see, smell and hear every second.”
The 104-year-old eventually moved up to the rank of chief and served on delivery ships bringing tanks to Marines in the Pacific. But he retired in 1945 after experiencing PTSD.
Unfortunately, tragedy seemed to follow Chavez back to the U.S. In 1955, he lost his daughter, son-in-law and baby granddaughter when the family was suddenly killed in a car crash. But, two years later, the couple brought home Kathleen from a San Diego orphanage, and their lives changed forever — Chavez was happy again.
“I admire my dad in every way, we’re so close even though it’s not by blood,” says Kathleen, who followed in her father’s footsteps and joined the Navy as a young women. “It’s funny, we actually found out something new about his background the other day!”
Chavez and his daughter, who were under the impression that he was of Mexican-American heritage, got the surprise of a lifetime after they submitted his DNA to Ancestry.com.
“I was totally taken by surprise to learn from Ancestry that my DNA results said I had 75 percent Native American in my ethnicity!” Chavez, who is featured in Ancestry’s Pearl Harbor Fold3 tribute honoring those who served at Pearl Harbor during the attack by showcasing the family and military history, says. “No one in my family ever told me that.
“But no matter whether I am Native American or Hispanic, I consider myself an American first.”