It was a slow Sunday morning in December — the kind where it feels only proper to sleep in — when 17-year-old Marvin Emmarson awoke to an explosion. It was just before 8 a.m., Dec. 7, 1941.
Emmarson ran to the deck of the USS Selfridge, a steam powered destroyer that was the flagship of the Navy’s Destroyer Squadron 4. Still groggy from a night ashore, he caught a glimpse of a Japanese warplane as it flew over Pearl Harbor.
As Emmarson ran below deck to his post in the fire room to help make steam for the Selfridge’s engines, 20-year-old Dick Higgins also heard the sounds of war planes from his barracks on Ford Island. Planes at the nearby airstrip filled with thousands of gallons of fuel burst into flames.
“Those turkeys woke me up!” recalled Higgins, a radio operator at the time.
Thursday marks the 82nd anniversary of the attack that sent the U.S. into World War II and — perhaps against the odds — both men remain alive to recall that day. The Central Oregon residents are among the last of a quickly vanishing generation.
In 2021, the Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors, an organization created to honor the legacy of those who served on Dec. 7, estimated there were 75 Pearl Harbor survivors still alive. Now there are 25, including Higgins, 102 of Bend, and Emmarson, 99 of Sisters.
“Every once in a while we hear about another one from an obituary, but we know officially of about 25 who are a part of our organization,” said Kathleen Farley, the California chapter president with Sons and Daughters of Pearl Harbor Survivors.
A total of 2,390 people died on Dec. 7 in 1941 — though none from Higgins’ unit. The Navy, the branch Emmarson and Higgins both served in, took the heaviest losses.
Of those that did survive, many more were lost in the latter part of the war. Emmarson’s best friend Owen Bauserman, whom he enlisted with in Portland, lost his life in the battle of Vella la Vella. Even those who survived the war, could not survive time.
Farley, whose father was also a Pearl Harbor survivor, helps organize an annual pilgrimage to Pearl Harbor for survivors and their families. Their shrinking ranks has become even more urgent for people like Farley and Angela Norton — Higgins’ granddaughter — to act as emissaries for their families’ legacies.
Norton, 46, lives with Higgins, her husband and her two children, 9-year-old Josiah and 5-year-old Nolle, in Bend. She sees it as magical that her son gets to spend so much time with his great-grandfather.
“I think it is so neat for myself and for my kids to hear (his story) in such detail, so that it is cemented in our minds … so that we can retell the story when he’s no longer with us,” Norton said. “It would be fantastic if he kept living and living, but we know that one day he won’t be here. And his story needs to continue to be told.”
Josiah and his great-grandfather often will sit and talk about everything Higgins has experienced in over a century of living, including the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl and his service in World War II. Just the other day, Norton overheard Higgins telling Josiah a story she had never heard before. It’s a wonder that he still has more stories to tell us, she said.
“I’m now 46, and I’m still learning new things (about him),” Norton said.
In contrast, Emmarson represents those survivors that have kept their stories quiet, yet close to their heart. John Tehan, Emmarson’s stepson, said his stepfather rarely spoke about his time in the war, but he could tell that it was a deeply formative experience for him.
“I just know that it was a huge part of his life even though he didn’t talk about it. Every day he wore a baseball cap that said Pearl Harbor survivor on it. He’s worn that every day and my family has known him almost all my life,” Tehan, 75, told The Bulletin.
Tehan said Emmarson’s experiences during the war didn’t hold him back in life. Emmarson is a kind, soft spoken person, Tehan said, who treated his mother the way any son could dare hope. Shortly after Emmarson married Tehan’s mother in the 1980s, the group moved to Sisters where they have lived ever since.
Every year, Dick Tobiason and veterans from the Bend area gather for a special ceremony at the Bend Heroes Memorial in Brooks Park. Higgins is usually there, but not this year. Instead, Tobiason arranged a special gathering at Bend High School for students and veterans to come together in remembrance of those who lost their lives — and those who survived — the attack on Pearl Harbor.
— Morgan Owen, firstname.lastname@example.org