On a frozen Friday morning, 97-year-old Dick Higgins placed an American flag along Veterans Memorial Bridge in downtown Bend to honor Pearl Harbor survivors on the 77th anniversary of the infamous attack.
Higgins, the last known Pearl Harbor survivor living in Bend, hoisted the flag into place on the bridge with the help of two other local veterans. Drivers honked their car horns and waved as they passed.
Higgins was an honored guest at the Pearl Harbor anniversary ceremony, hosted by the Bend Heroes Foundation, an organization that raises funds and creates memorials for Central Oregon’s military veterans and first responders.
The sub-freezing temperatures didn’t deter Higgins from attending the ceremony. He bundled in a winter coat, scarf and a weathered envelope cap with Pearl Harbor Survivors embroidered on the side — the same cap worn by all the survivors.
Higgins needs a cane to walk and wears a hearing aid, but he still has vivid memories of the attack that changed the course of American history.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Higgins was two years into his service as a Navy radio operator when the Japanese attacked. He remembers jumping from his bunk on Ford Island when the Japanese planes flew over his barracks. As bombs dropped and guns fired, he was ordered to clear the debris from the Naval airfield and try to salvage planes that were intact.
“We were very busy,” Higgins said Friday. “We were trying to move planes away that weren’t on fire from ones that were because those gas tanks would explode. We were trying to move them away so we wouldn’t lose all of them.”
Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Honolulu, Hawaii, said airfields like the one Higgins was on took the brunt of the Japanese attack.
“He was right in the heart of it,” Martinez said. “What we call ground zero.”
About 20 Pearl Harbor survivors made the trip to Honolulu on Friday for the annual ceremony at the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which includes the USS Arizona Memorial.
Two years ago at the 75th anniversary, about 200 survivors traveled to Honolulu.
This is an especially poignant year since the number of Pearl Harbor survivors has dwindled considerably, Martinez said. It’s difficult to track how many survivors are alive, but the number is well below 2,000, Martinez said.
“All of them are in their 90s,” Martinez said. “It’s just the twilight of World War II veterans.”
Initially, Bend had six Pearl Harbor survivors. Three were alive during the 75th anniversary of the attack, and Higgins is the last remaining survivor.
He was determined to be at Friday’s ceremony in Bend, despite the 21-degree temperature and ice on Mirror Pond below the Veterans Memorial Bridge.
Higgins’ daughter Vicki Bolling, grandson Michael Bolling, granddaughter Angela Norton and 4-year-old great-grandson Josiah Norton joined him at the event.
Higgins and his family have made the trip back to Pearl Harbor for the 60th, 65th, 70th and 75th anniversaries.
The family hopes to take Higgins back to Pearl Harbor for the 80th anniversary when he is 100.
“We love to go every five years,” Angela Norton said. “It’s just depending on grandpa’s health.”
Norton said her grandfather feels a sense of responsibility being the last Pearl Harbor survivor in Bend. He has a rare perspective from a turning point in American history, she said.
“This is what he is passionate about,” Norton said. “He is passionate about educating people, especially the younger generation, about what it means to be a true American.”
Each year at this time brings back memories for Higgins. Many of the details have faded from his memory, but what he remembers most during the attack was the camaraderie he had with the members in his squadron as they worked non-stop, covered in ash and oil, to prepare planes for flight.
He sees the anniversary as less about himself and more about remembering those who died in the attack.
“It’s an honor for those who didn’t make it,” he said.
— Reporter: 541-617-7820, firstname.lastname@example.org