By Chris Stone
The death of Navy Capt. Jack Evans earlier this year was one of the most “heart-wrenching” experiences of Stuart Hedley’s life. Both Pearl Harbor survivors, the two shared a bond.
In remembrance of Evans, whom he called a “wonderful, wonderful man,” Hedley wears his late friend’s bolo tie daily.
But his death had broader implications than cutting short a friendship. It brought an end to what is thought to be the last active chapter of the national Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which closed as a corporate entity in 2011.With a simple “mahalo,” a Hawaiian sign of gratitude, the 97-year-old retired Navy chief petty officer on Saturday brought an end to the final meeting of the association’s Carnation Chapter 3 in La Mesa.
He said that without a vice president, the post Evans held, bylaws say the group must disband.
“I regret that we have to discontinue our chapter because we do not have sufficient survivors to maintain,” said Hedley, its president. “As was already stated, we are a dying organization. We are done. Mahalo.”
Once thought to be the nation’s largest Pearl Harbor survivors group with 586 members, the San Diego group now has 61 people associated with it, including spouses and honorary members. Chapter 3 started Sept. 4, 1963, with 314 members.
In the San Diego area, seven survivors of the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941, are still alive — but only two were ambulatory enough to attend.
Story continues below
The gathering in a La Mesa meeting hall of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints honored Hedley and Clayton Schenkelberg, 101, of San Carlos. They celebrated the 61st anniversary of the national association and the birthdays of the two survivors, who turn a year older in October.
“These individuals are true American heroes,” said Scott Herrod of the La Mesa church. “You have taught our generation and all generations to come life’s lessons on how to live, what it means to love others and to be American.”
With a Hawaiian theme – from food to attire to dance — the association meeting included a pork dinner, a hula dance, patriotic songs and the final official business of the chapter.
But that doesn’t mean the group will disappear. Regular meetings are done, but they plan to meet informally at a restaurant in November and will continue their faithfulness to the remembrance of the horrific surprise attack that killed 2,467 at the dawn of World War II — placing wreaths on Dec. 7.
“My whole emphasis now is to keep us together as a friendly group,” said Hedley, who joined the association in 1984.
Asked what the group meant to him, Hedley said, “It has fulfilled a desire in my heart to remember the oath of office that I took in 1940 to defend this country against all enemies foreign and domestic. We got more enemies inside our country than we got out.”
About the chapter ending, he said, “It’s tough. However, I am going to continue as long as I got breath speaking at high schools, organizations.”
And he has his sights set on returning to Hawaii in 2021 for he 80th anniversary of the attack if he is healthy enough to make the trip.
Hedley has been asked to be the grand marshal at a National City parade in November, and he repeatedly said he remains available to speak to groups.
Asked what the association has meant to him, Schenkelberg said, “Friends like Stu.” They have been friends many years.
Schenkelberg, who served 27 years in the Navy, said he tried to come to as many meetings as possible.
The members made him feel that they were proud of him, he said.
Meetings have been “a place for him to come and meet his friends and share an experience that very few people had,” said Patrick Schenkelberg, his son. “You hear stories that you are never going to hear anywhere else.”His love and admiration for his father quite evident, Patrick said the greatest compliment people pay him is when they say he is like his father.
“It doesn’t get any better than that,” the son said through tears.
Schenkelberg’s granddaughter Kayla joined in.
“He’s one of the most genuine men who I have ever met,” she said. “He’s always been there for the family. He’s there for everyone he meets. He cares about everyone so much.”
In addition to his military service, Schenkelberg spent 20 years working at San Diego city schools.
“Major media doesn’t focus on the living history that have slowly been disappearing. They are living history,” Kayla said.
“It should be recognized nationwide that these are the heroes who kept this country [safe],” the granddaughter continued. “There needs to be more appreciation for the survivors. This is beautiful. I want more people to know who my grandfather is.”
Schenkelberg told NBC San Diego in 2016 that he rushed to move explosives away from people after hearing the bombs going off over the Navy yard.
Japanese pilots flew so close to the barracks he could see a pilot smile, Shenkelberg reported.
Task and Purpose recounted in 2016 that after the USS West Virginia was hit by a torpedo, Seaman 1st Class Hedley escaped by running along one of the main guns, jumping onto the USS Tennessee nearby, and then into the water, which was engulfed in flames.
“He came up for air twice, and each time he thought the fire would scorch his lungs, but it didn’t. Eventually, Hedley made it to shore, but as many as 100 of his fellow crewmates died that day,” said the report.
Seventy-eight years later, Hedley ended his remarks with an emotional call.
“America is asleep. Most people in this country don’t know what is going on,” he said.
“Our motto should be in the heart of every American: Remember Pearl Harbor. Keep America alert.”
>> Subscribe to Times of San Diego’s free daily email newsletter! Click hereFollow Us: