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011911 WWII veteran
Pearl Harbor survivor Ed Chlapowski died Sunday in Billings Photo by LARRY MAYER/Billings Gazette

BILLINGS - Ed Chlapowski survived the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and spent the rest of his long life making sure those who died on that infamous day would never be forgotten.

On Sunday, a little more than 69 years after notifying the world that "This is no drill - Pearl Harbor is being bombed by the Japanese - this is no drill," the 88-year-old Navy veteran died at his home in Billings.

He was one of Montana's last survivors of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack that propelled the United States into World War II.

A member of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, Chlapowski was frequently asked to speak about his experiences and was often interviewed by reporters pulling together stories commemorating one of the most significant events in U.S. history.

In a 2007 interview, he told a reporter that it was his job to report the deaths of Pearl Harbor survivors to the association and see that plaques are presented to their families. Someone else will have to perform that duty for him now.

He was among about 84,000 military personnel stationed in Hawaii that day. Only a couple thousand are still living. In December, before the survivors' association's annual meeting in Honolulu, there was talk of disbanding the group because so few members remained. But they voted to carry on for at least another year.

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Chlapowski joined the Navy on June 18, 1940, a year and a half before the war began, and was discharged in July 1945 at the end of the war. The Massachusetts native was 19 when the war started, and he had trained as a radioman.

At a 2009 commemoration of the attack on Pearl Harbor, he told his story at a packed meeting of the Downtown Billings Rotary Club.

He'd previously served on the USS Arizona and had paid his last visit to the ship on Dec. 6, 1941, catching up with friends still aboard. He got up early the next day for a 3 to 7 a.m. watch at a submarine base. He remembered that his shift had been a quiet one with no hint of trouble.

"No messages came in from anywhere," he said.

At the end of his watch, he had breakfast at the base cafeteria and headed for his barracks, enjoying a clear Sunday morning in paradise. He'd just sat down on his bunk on the fourth floor of his barracks and was untying his shoe when he looked out the window and saw a hangar roof at Hickam Field blown away.

"I turned to see the planes coming in and saw the ‘meatballs' on the side," he said.

"Meatball" was a reference to the Japanese rising sun insignia on the aircraft.

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"The hair on the back of my neck stood up, just as it still does today when I think of it," he said.

Chlapowski said he ran to the radio room, where he knew the crew was short on Sundays. A supervisor handed him as message, and, in Morse code, he notified the rest of the world.

With other seamen in their white Navy uniforms, he was ordered into formation on a green field near a destroyer fueling station, he said. Japanese planes from six carriers out in the Pacific were strafing, bombing and torpedoing all around before the men were told to disperse.

He saw the smoke begin to rise from the Arizona after she took her first hit. Then, at 8:06 a.m., a bomb struck the ship's starboard side, about where Chlapowski's duty station was when he was aboard her.

The bomb exploded the Arizona's ammunition magazine.

"The first thing I saw afterward was the ship was gone where the No. 1 and 2 turrets had been," he recalled.

The ship continued to burn for two days. Of 1,400 sailors aboard, 1,177 perished. Some of his friends were among the dead.

Chlapowski married Betty Thomas in Seattle on Feb. 11, 1943, in Seattle. They shared nearly 68 years together.

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