PEORIA, Ariz. — Saturday has a very different meaning for one Valley man.
Saturday is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, the 72nd anniversary of the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. America entered World War II just one day later.
Millions of Americans were pressed into action after the bombing. Some came home, some gave all. As the years have gone by, the number of World War II veterans has dwindled. The last remaining African-American to survive the bombing of Pearl Harbor lives in Peoria.
Nelson Mitchell’s grandparents were slaves in Georgia. Mitchell, now 93, spent his early years picking cotton on his family’s farm in Texas.
In 1940, he joined the Navy, and was assigned to the U.S.S Jarvis, a destroyer. At that time in the Navy, African-Americans could serve only as a cook or a captain’s steward, assisting in whatever daily necessities the captain had.
“All of the whites, they could do anything they wanted to on the ship,” Mitchell said. “But we were restricted to waiting on the officers. But that was a better life than what I had working on a farm.”
The Jarvis was stationed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Mitchell was in bed when the Japanese started bombing.
“I got up, out of my bunk, and the ship was shaking. I looked out and the whole bay was full of fire.”
He immediately got to work and did his job.
“I didn’t have a battle station, but I did stay in the pantry and waited on the officers until the bombing was over.”
The Jarvis wasn’t hit. It was able to get out to sea and patrolled the Hawaiian coast for two weeks following the bombing, looking for Japanese submarines.
After Mitchell was reassigned, the Japanese torpedoed and sank the Jarvis during the Battle of Guadalcanal the following August. All 233 men on board were killed.
Mitchell left the Navy in 1948, and took a job working in a warehouse in California. He and his wife moved to Phoenix in the 1950s to be with his asthmatic father. Their first house was built on three-and-a-half acres of land that Mitchell bought for $2,100 at what is now 40th Street and Interstate 10.
His dad died at the age of 81. Mitchell did not clarify what happened to his wife, whether the two divorced or she passed away. She is not part of his life now, and Mitchell lives alone.
He worked at Luke Air Force base and later as a gardener, and retired just three years ago.
Mitchell said he thinks about being the last African American survivor of Pearl Harbor.
“It just shows that, I reckon that if you take care of yourself…so far I’ve been pretty healthy,” he said.
Mitchell jokes that he’ll just be glad to be around for his 94th birthday, which is next month.
Mitchell said times have changed since he served. Things are better for African-Americans in the military now.
“They can make ranks and can do a lot of different things,” he said. “They have a great opportunity. If they don’t make it, it ain’t nobody’s fault but themselves.”
He said that they get the training now that he could have only dreamed of.
“When I was in the service, I was denied that type of training,” Mitchell said. “But one thing about it is, I said that whatever I do, I’m going to do it to the best of my ability.”
That’s a philosophy that Mitchell has lived by for 93 years.
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