As the United States commemorates the 75th anniversary of the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor on Wednesday, Ray Chavez will join his fellow veterans in paying tribute to the 60,000 military personnel stationed in Oahu, Hawaii. But getting there was a herculean effort. For the last few years, the 104-year-old – known as the oldest-living Pearl Harbor veteran – has hit the gym to prepare for this trip.
In the past few decades, Chavez has traveled to Hawaii to honor those lives lost. But after an injury, he wanted to make sure he could physically handle the six-hour trip from San Diego to Hawaii once again. So he started working with personal trainer Sean Thompson three years ago – gaining 20 pounds of muscle in the process.
At 101, injuries from a fall left him in severe pain. He couldn’t stand, he could barely walk, and he had lost about 60 pounds. He sat around and felt no joy in life. Within six months of working out three times a week, he saw vast improvements. Most importantly, he no longer felt pain.
Now, he can’t imagine his life without the gym. “Sean is my life saver,” Chavez told the San Diego Union-Tribune. “He worked me all over and straightened me right up.”
In a short NBC video, Chavez runs through various exercises, with his encouraging trainer/BFF by his side. “You’re getting your Hawaiian shirts all ready, Ray?” Thompson asks. “Oh yeah,” Chavez responds.
Over the weekend, he arrived in Hawaii. As he rolled into the airport, he received a hero’s welcome. But he doesn’t exactly consider himself one. “Well, I’m not exactly a hero, because there were thousands of other heroes, too,” he said, according to NBC San Diego. “But I’m very proud of the honor bestowed on me.”
Chavez – the son of Mexican immigrants – enrolled in the Navy at age 27, about three years before the events of Pearl Harbor. He still remembers the day clearly. December 6 felt like an ordinary day, he told the Library of Congress in 2009. “We were assigned to go to the, sweep the channel and area on the west side of the channel because there was another sweeper on the east side,” he said. “But we were on the west side and we usually started about 12:30 in the morning, on the sweeping operations, and we usually got, we completed on the operation about 6 to 6:30 in the morning.”
At about 3:30 in the morning, his team saw a submarine in restricted waters. “We never thought anything about it because we left it up to the Ward and to COM14,” he continued. He returned home to his wife and daughter and, exhausted, fell asleep. Just before 8 a.m., she tried to wake him up. At first, he didn’t believe what his wife told him, but eventually, he got up and saw the harbor on fire.
“By that time there was a torpedo plane flying over, a Japanese torpedo plane, kept flying over our house and very low,” he said. Chavez sprung into action. He headed to the harbor, where he stayed for 10 days straight. He was there for the entire US involvement in World War II. “I was in there all during the war, from start to finish. I was in Pearl Harbor when it started,” he told NBC San Diego. “I was in Okinawa when it ended.”