By Karen S. Spangler, Managing Editor, Ho`okele
Wearing a big smile and proudly dressed in his immaculate white chief’s uniform-that’s how people will remember Pearl Harbor survivor George Bennett.
For many years, George was a frequent visitor to Hawaii and the Pearl Harbor Day ceremony which commemorates the Dec. 7, 1941 attack on Oahu.
“He always wore his Navy chief’s uniform whenever he came for Pearl Harbor ceremonies. He was very meticulous about his uniform. He didn’t want a thread out of place,” said Jim Taylor, Pearl Harbor survivors’ liaison for Navy Region Hawaii.
At the age of 90, George passed away peacefully in his sleep on April 7 in Battleground, Ore.
Rear Adm. Rick Williams, commander of Navy Region Hawaii and Naval Surface Group Middle Pacific, issued a statement to be read at George’s memorial service.
“As a young Sailor, George Bennett faced danger with bravery and determination. He dodged enemy bullets to head to his battle station to defend his shipmates. He then fought across the Pacific to defend our nation, preserve our way of life, and advance our ideals of liberty and democracy,” he said.
“We will remember George and those with whom he served-the ‘Greatest Generation’: Americans with uncommon values, strength and resolve. We will never forget the burdens and sacrifices George made as a young Sailor in Pearl Harbor. His honor, courage, commitment and service-throughout his life-are an important reminder of how we should approach today’s challenges and why we can never take readiness for granted,” said Williams.
George joined the Navy in February 1941 and was a 17-year-old Navy radio operator when death rained from the skies over Oahu on Dec. 7, 1941.
When the Japanese fighters swarmed through the skies and attacked Pearl Harbor, George was in his barracks near hangar six on Ford Island. He recalled that a Japanese airplane flew past his window and was so close he could see the pilot in the cockpit.
“He was running from his barracks down the road to his battle station, all the time being strafed by Japanese aircraft. He kept ducking for cover while running,” Taylor explained.
“Upon arrival at his battle station, he climbed up on the roof to fight the fire in the hangar, still being strafed. As he continued to fight the fire, he witnessed the USS Nevada run aground. “When asked later if he was afraid of dying, he said, no, the only thing he was afraid of was getting in trouble because he didn’t have his cover on,” Taylor said.
Taylor said that George was also rather mischievous and shared a story about the young Sailor and his shipmates. “One night, George and his shipmates had a few too many to drink and thought it would be fun to have a lemon meringue pie fight in the officers’ swimming pool. They were ‘volunteered’ to clean up the pool the next morning.”
After the war, George continued his job as a radio operator on PB4Y-1 bombers, going on bombing runs out of Guadalcanal. He spent six years in the Navy and served 34 years in the Navy Reserve, retiring as a Navy chief petty officer.
He later worked for 35 years as a communications manager for Union Pacific Railroad. He is the father of three children: Jane, Eileen and Mike.
Even as he moved into his golden years, George led an active and interesting life. He served as the national secretary for the Pearl Harbor Survivors’ Association before it disbanded in December 2011 and was also the president of the Clark County, Ore. chapter of the group. A part of living history and dressed in his whites and Pearl Harbor survivors’ hat, George frequently shared his story with students in Oregon schools.
He spoke about the dwindling numbers of Pearl Harbor survivors during an interview with “The Oregonian” last December.
“We Pearl vets are passing on quickly. As national secretary, I get notified when a member dies, and there are many more these days,” George told “The Oregonian.”
Although George broke his hip last October, it didn’t keep him from doing what he wanted to do-getting ready to marry the love of his life.
In February of this year, he again found wedded bliss when he married his sweetheart. His romance with Donna Higgins began during a dance at the assisted living facility where both of them lived. Even though he was still mending from his broken hip, George was ready for his “walk” down the aisle.
“I can get along pretty well with my walker. She’ll be pushing me in the wheelchair to the dining hall, I guess,” George joked with “The Oregonian” writer.
Taylor, who conducts the ash-scattering ceremonies and interments for Pearl Harbor survivors, was a longtime friend of George.
“George always maintained his youthful spirit and loved to wear his Pearl Harbor survivor’s hat. He said that laughter was one of the keys to his longevity,” Taylor said.
“In the past 25 years, I have had the honor and privilege to meet hundreds of Pearl Harbor survivors. They each had their own stories and personalities. Chief Bennett was special-he was the epitome of a Navy chief petty officer.
“During the attack, he put his life on the line by running about 300 yards to his battle station while being strafed by enemy planes. I remember asking him if he was afraid. His response was, ‘No, I was just doing what I was trained to do,’” Taylor recounted.
“Chief Bennett came to Hawaii numerous times and I always hosted him. I once called him a hero. His response was, ‘I’m not a hero. I was just doing my job’-the same words I’ve heard from other survivors. He then added, ‘The heroes are those who didn’t make it home, those who sacrificed their lives protecting the freedom our citizens enjoy today.’ Well-in my opinion, Chief Petty Officer George Bennett was a hero!” Taylor said.
Burial for George will be at Willamette National Cemetery, Willamette, Ore. at a date to be determined.