One of the Last Pearl Harbor Survivors, 101, Asks Next Generation to 'Keep a Record,' 'Be Positive'

Ira Schab Jr., a 101-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, will be visiting Pearl Harbor for the 80th anniversary of the attacks

Pearl Harbor Survivor
Photo: Courtesy Ira Schab, Jr. and Kimberlee Heinrichs

On the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, 101-year-old Ira "Ike" Schab Jr. says he isn't focusing on the horrors of that fateful day. Rather, he's remembering his fellow sailors, and the time and friendships they shared together.

The U.S. Navy veteran is one of the last remaining servicemen who survived the surprise aerial attack by the Japanese army on the U.S. naval base in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. The attacks left 2,403 American personnel dead, including 68 civilians, and led to the U.S. formally entering World War II.

Schab — who now lives in Aloha, Oregon — arrived in Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Dobbin as a member of Navy Band Unit 13 about 12 months before hundreds of enemy fighter planes descended upon the island.

"I got out of high school and couldn't find a job," Schab tells PEOPLE of why he decided to join the Navy. "Because I had been a musician since I was about 6 years old, my dad suggested I try out the Navy and see what they could do. And I did. They asked me for an interview, I passed, and I went to music school and became a Navy musician."

A year later, Schab would bear witness to one of the most pivotal days in American history.

When asked what he most remembers about the day of the attack, which began just before 8 a.m. local time, Schab finds one word to describe it best: "Terror," he says.

Pearl Harbor Survivor
Courtesy Ira Schab, Jr. and Kimberlee Heinrichs

"We didn't know what [was happening]," he recalls. "I looked up and saw a Japanese — I don't know whether he was a fighter or anything like that — but I was scared. I got really worried about whether we were going to survive."

Yet the attacks haven't marred Schab's memories of Hawaii. His daughter, Kimberlee Heinrichs, knows just how much her father still loves the island, and that's why she set up a GoFundMe campaign in October to help fly her father to Hawaii for this year's Pearl Harbor anniversary.

The page has since raised over $15,000, allowing Heinrichs, Schab and his caretakers to fly to Hawaii last week. Schab says he is "grateful" and feels "very humble" for the generous donors who contributed to the campaign.

"It means so much to go back. To be there. And to still stand," Heinrichs, a nurse, wrote on GoFundMe after raising enough funds for their trip.

With the loss of fellow bandmate Lee Ousley in 2015, Schab is now the last remaining member of his Navy band unit.

"I'd rather it not be that I'm last," he says. "I wish there were still some of us going."

Like the members of Navy Band Unit 13, the number of Pearl Harbor survivors around the country is continually diminishing. In September 2019, the last chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, located in La Mesa, California, disbanded after the death of its vice president, Navy Capt. Jack Evans.

The organization, founded in 1958 to support those who had lived through the attacks, aptly said the stories of survivors must now be passed on by friends and family members.

"While it's the end of an era, it also marks the beginning of another, when the memory of Pearl Harbor must be carried on not by those who lived through it, but by friends and family members who heard their stories," the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association said at the time.

"Once a means for survivors to find ways to share their stories, the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association is now a part of the past," they continued.

Schab shares this sentiment, and asks members of the next generation to "keep a record," and not let these stories simply "go away."

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Schab also hopes the generations that follow him remember to enjoy life, and not to hold grudges with the people they care about the most.

"There's no reason to be sour or disgruntled for any reason at all. It's a great world, great life. And I believe that the optimist is the guy that has something in his grip and he'll never let go," he says.

"Just be positive," Schab adds. "Don't ever let yourself go sour or negative or anything like that. Even though a lot of the world around you may be negative, don't contribute to that. Always go to the optimistic side of your life."

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