Those who gathered recently in Des Moines to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor were not sure that any Iowans who survived the attack were still alive. After a story on the event, Radio Iowa has found at least two.
One survivor is 99-year-old Francis Riley, who lives in Cedar Rapids. His granddaughter, Sherry Steine Ross, says he joined the Navy in 1933 as there weren’t many jobs available. “Joined and got stationed in Hawaii in June of 1941 — and I am sure he thought he won the jackpot,” Steine Ross says.
She says her grandfather was stationed on the USS Vestal — which was a repair ship that was tied up the USS Arizona. Her grandfather was preparing to raise the Hawaiian flag, known as the Union Jack. “They were I believe at least two minutes away from actually flying the Union Jack when the Japanese bombers started coming over. He was roped to the Arizona, so the hits from the Arizona also ricochet and hit the Vestal — some of the explosions hit the Vestal. And the Vestal was hit twice also,” she says.
Riley got an up-close look at the attackers. “He heard this noise coming and he looked up and he saw the red flag and he knew it wasn’t good. They were so close to the boat that…he saw a bomber and looked him in the eye and waved at him as they were bombing. And he said he made eye contact with him. And he said it was just horrific, there were fires, explosions, flames everywhere,” according to Steine Ross.
Steine Ross says her grandfather actually called for tugs to pull the Vestal away from the Arizona after the commander arrived back on the ship. Riley suffered burns in the attack and lost fellow sailors. She says something that happened on the Arizona after the attack stuck with her grandfather. “You could hear them tapping morse code from the Arizona, the men that were still alive, he said you could hear that for weeks. He had tears rolling down his face. So, the things that he talks about like that actually had a tremendous impact on me as much as the bombing itself,” she says.
Riley was a signalman and traveled all over the world during and after the war. “He made it through the entire war and then ended up at the Bikini Islands in 1946. So, he was involved in all aspects from 1941 to 1946,” Steine Ross says. He witnessed the atomic bomb tests on Bikini Island as one of his last assignments before leaving the Navy in 1946. Steine Ross says her grandfather didn’t talk about Pearl Harbor and the war very much until she asked him to come and speak about it to one of her classes in college. She says he then would talk about it a little more.
Steine Ross says her grandfather did return to Pearl Harbor to attend the 50th-anniversary ceremony. “He thought that the men who served should have gotten a lot more attention than all of the politicians who were there,” Steine Ross says with a laugh. “He says it was very emotional before the ceremony, but the ceremony itself he thought the people who were there should have been more highlighted than the people who were speaking.” Steine Ross says her grandfather is in good health with the normal aches and pains for a 99-year-old.
Another Iowa Pearl Harbor survivor is Alvin, “Stub” Lindquist of Albert City, who celebrated his 102nd birthday on December 11th. Online information shows he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in December 1937. He was called to active duty in July 1938 and served for eight years. He served on the USS Tennessee from 1938 to 1942 — and was on board when Pearl Harbor was attacked.
(If you know of any other Iowans who survived the Pearl Harbor attack and are still alive, please contact Radio Iowa.)