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Charles Dowd

“The battleship California was from here (to) across the street from where I was, and I didn’t know that I got burned until after it was all over,” Charlie Dowd of Anaconda told the Missoulian in 2011. Dowd remains one of the last survivors of Pearl Harbor in Montana.

Pearl Harbor requires precious little context.

"Like the attacks of Pearl Harbor and 9/11, Russia's attack on our democracy should prompt a profound reassessment of our security and response," wrote a Missoulian guest columnist in July.

Whether you agree with the sentiment, there's no mistaking the reference.

It’s just one particular harbor on the south coast of Oahu. But Pearl Harbor ranks among the most significant sites in the world — and so much more.

The two words are etched into our national pysche. They represent a benchmark in history, a touchstone for novelists and filmmakers, a monument to imperial aggression and a reference point for political point-makers.

More than 350 Japanese aircraft attacked the deep-water naval base at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu on Dec. 7, 1941, plunging the United States into a war that changed us forever.

That happened 77 years ago Friday. This is not particularly a milestone anniversary. No formal commemoration is planned in Missoula. There are few survivors of the attack left alive in Montana, or anywhere else.

The oldest U.S. military survivor, Ray Chavez, died Nov. 21 in San Diego. He was 106.

The Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, founded in 1958, still carries an alphabetical listing of each of the 2,400 U.S. casualties on its website. But the association itself sunset in 2011, after the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor, for lack of active, healthy members.

Hal Conrad of Lewistown was 90 at the time. He turned over the Montana records to the state chapter of the Sons and Daughters of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. Even that chapter no longer exists, though Conrad is alive and doing well. (See related story.)

The Missoulian’s last profile of a living Pearl Harbor survivor was in 2011. Charles Dowd, 87 and legally blind, came to Missoula that December from his home in Anaconda to speak to the local Rotary Club and the Rocky Mountain Museum of Military History.

“Devil Dog” Dowd was an impressive man with a sharp memory, and he recently caught the attention of a U.S. senator. In August, Sen. Steve Daines honored Dowd as his Montanan of the Week, submitting a statement of recognition in the Congressional Record.

We search for fresh angles to mark the tragic, momentous day and increasingly come up short. But still we remember Pearl Harbor. How can we forget?

In March, a search commissioned by Microsoft’s Paul Allen found the wreckage of the USS Helena off the coast of the Solomon Islands, where it was sunk by Japanese torpedoes in July 1943.

"The USS Helena was the second of five vessels named for Montana's capital city, and was the first ship to receive the Navy Unit Commendation for its role in the World War II battles,” wrote Amy Beth Hanson of the Associated Press in a story that appeared in April in the Missoulian. “It survived a torpedo strike during the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and sunk Japanese vessels in other battles.”

New schools named for Jeannette Rankin opened in Kalispell and Missoula this year. Forever sewn deep into the legacy of the nation’s first congresswoman, and included in almost every public mention of the Missoula-born Rankin, is reference to the fact that she cast the only “nay” vote opposing U.S. entrance into World War II after Pearl Harbor. 

The Dec. 7, 1941, stories of Montanans such as Dowd, Conrad and Hamilton's Dave Crain have been recorded.

A 17-year-old Dowd and another Naval radio officer raced to the roof of an armory on Ford Island and fired 1903 Springfield 30-06 rifles at low-flying Japanese torpedo bombers. Dowd told us he’ll never know if he hit any, or how he and Jensen weren’t killed.

Crain was also on Ford Island, the focus of the Japanese attack in the middle of the harbor. He was 20, an aviation machinist mate who was getting ready to wash clothes in his naval barracks when the first bombs fell.

“They shook the whole island,” Crain told the Missoulian in 2007. A call to return to stations prompted a memorable dash with his squadron for Hangar 6 at the south end of the island.

“By the time we got to the hangar, we were strafed a couple of times and everybody was diving for any cover they could find,” Crain said.

He, too, got in some shots at the attacking aircraft, with a 50-caliber machine gun from the belly of a damaged float plane — "me and about 10 hundred other guys,” he said. “It went down.”

Conrad, also 20, was with the Army Air Corps at Hickam Field, at the entrance of the harbor about a mile away. He was guarding a water tower when he spotted a fleet of about nine silver planes approaching the harbor and watched as the first bombs drop.

He told the Billings Gazette in 2011 that he saw the “red meatball” on the side of one of the planes and hurriedly called his supervisor on a field phone.

"The Japs are bombing the hell out of Pearl Harbor," he remembered yelling into the receiver. The report, he said, was met with disbelief.

The shock has worn off all these decades later.

Stan Cohen, the Missoula author and publisher of pictorial histories, hasn’t made what use to be an annual trek to Oahu to sell his 1981 book “Attack on Pearl Harbor” on Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day. The every-other-year stateside commemorations, held from coast to coast, were among his favorite events, but Cohen said those were discontinued about five years ago.

Still the Pearl Harbor book sells well — Cohen said Thursday he’s running low on his current supply after shipping 100 out to the USS Arizona memorial. He and Mountain Press published his second Pearl Harbor pictorial offering earlier this year. It’s called “Raising the Fleet” and is, Cohen said, a comprehensive history on the salvaging of the damaged and sunken U.S. ships.

Pearl Harbor packs a more subtle punch these days, when Japan is our friend and ally, and next year’s 75th anniversary of D-Day in France looms on the commemoration horizon.

Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, “happens every year,” Cohen said. “In a sense, it’s just another day.”

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Mineral County, veterans issues

Outlying communities, transportation, history and general assignment reporter at the Missoulian