'Outstanding' Navy 'Hero,' Thought to Be Oldest American Who Survived Pearl Harbor, Dies at 103
Clayton Schenkelberg, a 30-year U.S. Navy veteran believed to be the country's oldest Pearl Harbor survivor, has died. He was 103.
Schenkelberg, who was just 24 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, killing 2,390 American service members and civilians, died on April 14 at a senior care facility in San Diego, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.
"America lost another hero, and we lost our father," his obituary read. "Clayton was a loving husband, caring dad, co-worker, friend and a noted 'Card Shark.' Our hero is gone, but NEVER forgotten."
Schenkelberg was just 10 minutes shy of ending his shift as a Navy torpedoman when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor, a U.S. naval base, on Dec. 7, 1941. He was looking forward to spending the rest of the day with his girlfriend Alithea, whom he would marry one year later, according to a January feature story published by the Union-Tribune.
In the story, Schenkelberg said he volunteered to remove a train from the area because it was loaded with 550 lbs. of explosives, and would prove disastrous should it be hit by a bomb.
"Sure, I knew I could be killed," he told the newspaper. "But it had to be done."
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After that fateful day, Schenkelberg remained with the Navy for 20 more years, and later worked for San Diego City Schools as a custodian, according to his obituary. He also volunteered with Our Lady of Grace Church, where he ran their food pantry.
"If you asked him about any of it, he would tell you he was just doing what needed to be done," his son Patrick told the Union-Tribune. "He didn't think it was anything special. He had a job to do, and he did it."
Schenkelberg — who was reportedly born in Iowa, and lost both of his parents by age 17 — was pre-deceased by two sons and by his wife, Alithea, in 2016, after 74 years of marriage.
His obituary said that Alithea was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease, and that Schenkelberg served as her caregiver. He told the Union-Tribune in January that his secret to a long life was his enduring love for his wife, who he called "the sweetest person ever."
"[He] provided her with the love, dignity and support she needed and deserved for many years until her passing almost four years ago," his obituary said.
As the Union-Tribune notes, there is no official roster of how many Pearl Harbor survivors are still alive, but 99-year-old survivor Stuart Hedley said the figure is probably less than 100.
He told the outlet he believes Schenkelberg was the oldest, and Schenkelberg's son Patrick said he has been told that is the case by various officials in recent years.
"He was an outstanding gentleman, very humble and always ready to lend a hand," Hedley said.
Schenkelberg's obituary requested that mourners wear Hawaiian attire at his church service on May 6. He is survived by his five children and more than 40 grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren.