DES MOINES, Iowa – A World War II veteran thought to be the oldest survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack died last month at 103.
Clayton Schenkelberg, who was born in 1917 in Iowa and joined the U.S. Navy in 1937, died in a senior care facility April 14 in San Diego, California.
Schenkelberg was no stranger to hardships in his early life.
Various news stories through the years referred to the struggles he faced even before Pearl Harbor: his mother died when he was 9 years old, the Great Depression hit when he was 12, and his father was killed in an accident when he was 17.
At age 20, he joined the Navy. Four years later — Dec. 7, 1941 — he and his brother Jerry were stationed at Pearl Harbor when Japan struck. Clayton was a torpedoman at a submarine station and Jerry was a crewman on the battleship Nevada.
Clayton Schenkelberg was nearing the end of his shift when the bombs started to fall, he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. Instead of spending the rest of his day with his girlfriend Alithea Coito, as he planned, he picked up a rifle and fired at the low-flying planes as they passed.
He was among several soldiers directed to move a train loaded with warheads, each containing 550 pounds of explosives, away from the base, according to the story. “True to his ‘can do’ attitude, (Schenkelberg) commandeered the train and removed the explosives to safety,” the Union-Tribune wrote.
“Sure, I knew I could be killed,” Schenkelberg told the outlet. “But it had to be done.”
Neither Schenkelberg brother was injured at Pearl Harbor. They reunited the next day when Clayton was sent to the Nevada with some supplies, according to a 1991 Des Moines Register article marking the 50th anniversary of the attack.
Worried about the reported heavy loss of life aboard the Nevada, Clayton looked for his brother. At that moment, said Jerry, he was in a work detail cleaning out the kitchen, which had taken a hit in the raid.
“I was carrying out some chicken in pans and walked out on deck and there was Clayton. We just hugged each other,” said Jerry, who died in 1996.
Clayton and Alithea married in 1942. The couple settled in San Diego and Schenkelberg worked as a school custodian after nearly 30 years in the Navy. They were together 74 years until her 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 caught COVID-19 in the last year but was not sickened by the disease, the Union-Tribune reported.
Schenkelberg was an active member of the local Pearl Harbor Survivors Association chapter until it shut down two years ago.
Stuart Hedley, who was the president of the San Diego chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association when it shut down in 2019, said it was his understanding that Schenkelberg was the the oldest survivor in the country, the Union-Tribune reported. Schenkelberg’s son, Patrick, said various officials have told him the same.
The official death toll at Pearl Harbor was 2,403, including 2,008 Navy personnel, 109 Marines, 218 Army service members and 68 civilians. Of the dead, 1,177 were from the USS Arizona, the wreckage of which now serves as the main memorial to the attack that ushered America into World War II. Fifty-five Japanese were killed.
The total number of wounded was 1,143, including 710 Navy, 69 Marines, 364 Army and 103 civilians, the Pearl Harbor Visitors Bureau says.
Hedley estimates less than 100 Pearl Harbor survivors remain. He’ll lead the “two-bell ceremony,” a traditional Navy farewell, during Schenkelberg’s funeral service Thursday in San Diego.
Follow reporter Robin Opsahl on Twitter: @robinlopsahl
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