Don Long doesn’t consider himself a hero – he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time and, by luck, survived.
Today, 75 years later, Long is going back to that place; he’s going back to Pearl Harbor.
Long recently told his story during an interview at his home in Napa. Friendly but sharp and alert, Long shuffled through photographs and newspaper clippings, pulling out anything related to Dec. 7, 1941. More than a dozen pictures of World War II planes were pinned to the wall in his home office with colorful push-pins.
As a senior in high school in Barnum, Minnesota – a town that in 1938 had a population of 263, “including livestock” – Long said he figured he’d end up in the war, so why not sign up himself.
“Hitler was kind of over running Europe,” he said. “For a young buck,” the Navy was an appealing way to see the world.
At age 19, Long headed to boot camp in March of 1941, leaving his parents with his siblings back on their diversified farm.
After graduating from radio school, he was stationed in Hawaii at Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station where he was greeted by locals in real grass skirts.
“It was sure a lot different than Minnesota, I’ll tell you that,” he said. In October 1941, Long remembers spending his weekends heading downtown, swimming and surfing off Diamond Head.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Long, still new to the Navy and to his assigned patrol squadron, was “on duty,” which meant it was his turn to watch over one of the patrol bomber (PBY) planes that was anchored in the bay. There were 15 airplanes in the squadron, but only 12 sets of beaching gear so three planes had to either be in the air or on the water, he explained.
He relieved the previous watchman at about 7:45 a.m. that Sunday, and settled into the pilot’s compartment to await a drill. But the drill never happened.
It was about 8 a.m. and Long was watching the shore expecting to see signal lights. Instead he heard the sound of aircraft flying by as well as the sound of explosions. He assumed it was the Army Air Corps doing some “Sunday maneuvers” until he noticed the Japanese “meatball” on the side of the planes.
“I saw aircraft flying over the hangars and explosions and fires on the ground,” he said. “Moments later, a plane anchored near mine began to burn violently after being strafed.”
The planes’ fuel tanks were not bulletproof, he said. “Gas and oil (were) spilling into the water.”
Bolting from the pilot’s seat, Long went for a life jacket when the plane he was in began being shot at. “I remember seeing little water fountains shoot up as the machine gun bullets went through the bottom of the plane,” he said. The plane went up in flames – Long still inside.
He dashed toward the rear exit and jumped out.
“I swam through that burning gas and oil and left the airplane,” he said, explaining he had learned how to swim through “burning water” in boot camp.
Fifteen or so yards from the plane, Long remembers diving under water to remove his heavy, high-top regulation work shoes. Afraid of being shot at and swimming for his life, Long made his way to a buoy and watched as the hangars burned and all of the planes on the water were set on fire or sunk.
“To my knowledge, I was the only survivor,” he said referring to those who were watching the planes on the bay that day.
The fires continued on shore, but the attacking planes had left. Finally, Long spotted a boat looking for survivors and waved them down.
“We never expected to see you again,” he recalled his shipmates saying after he was taken to shore.
Covered in oil and burns on his face and hands, Long was taken to sick bay. “I’m certain I looked pretty bad,” he said, but in comparison to other survivors he was in perfect health.
He was discharged from the infirmary later that day and joined others waiting with rifles on the beach for a Japanese invasion that never happened.
“It was chaos,” he said. “Nobody knew what to do.”
Back home in Minnesota, after hearing about the attack over the radio, Long’s mother was a “basket case,” he said. It took several days for her to learn her son was still alive.
Eventually, his days at Kaneohe Bay went back to “normal.”
Long went on to spend 22 years in the military, earning his “wings,” becoming a flight instructor and retiring as a commander.
Following his military career, Long was a high school teacher for 15 years, instructing students on woodworking, electronics, math and how to drive. For his third career, Long ran sport fishing boats. It turned out, he loved sailing nearly as much as he loved flying.
“It’s just you against the elements,” he said of both.
Although he missed his days in the military, Long put that life and the events of Dec. 7, 1941 behind him. He focused on his new life and his (late) wife, Madeline, whom he married in 1943. The couple had one daughter. They moved to Napa in 1990 to be closer to her and her two sons.
“I’ve been very, very fortunate,” Long said, reflecting on his life.
It wasn’t until recently that Long became more interested in recounting his days in the military. In his 90s and as one of the dwindling number of survivors of Pearl Harbor still living, Long became sought after for events and interviews, and ended up joining the San Diego Chapter of Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.
He is currently in Hawaii to attend the 75th remembrance of Pearl Harbor. The Greatest Generation Foundation is sponsoring the trip.
The foundation wanted to fly 75 survivors out there, Long said, but he believed that only 29 were going to be able to make the journey. “Everybody’s died off,” he said.
This will be the first time Long has been back to Pearl Harbor in more than 30 years, but he was excited for the trip. “If I had my way,” he said, the foundation would bring out a restored patrol bomber plane and put him in it.
“Let’s put it on the bay,” he said, “I’d jump in the water” and relive the experience. It would be “very nostalgic.”
Still spry and full of energy, Long said that, although he doesn’t feel like it was that long ago, he’s been told he’s a part of history.
But he doesn’t see himself as any war hero or anyone special at all really. “I happened to be in Pearl Harbor.”
“Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them,” he said, quoting William Shakespeare. “That’s what I feel happened to me,” he said, referring to the latter.
“I lucked out.”