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Oldest Pearl Harbor veteran, 106, gets a patriotic and fond farewell

Oldest Pearl Harbor veteran, 106, gets a patriotic and fond farewell
The casket of Navy veteran Ray Chavez, who until his death at age 106 last month was the oldest American survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, arrives at Miramar National Cemetery in San Diego for interment Thursday. (Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

This week, Poway said goodbye to its most famous citizen, Ray Chavez, who until his death at age 106 last month was the nation’s oldest surviving Pearl Harbor veteran.

After a 90-minute Mass at St. Michael’s Catholic Church on Thursday, the funeral cortege, led by dozens of motorcycles, rolled underneath an enormous American flag hanging from a fire ladder truck and past hundreds of Poway schoolchildren waving miniature flags.

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There were also scattered groups of local residents waving flags and handmade signs on street corners along the way toward the 15 Freeway.

Chavez’s daughter and longtime caretaker, Kathleen Chavez, said after the service that her quiet and humble dad would have been overwhelmed by the day’s events, which concluded with a burial with full military honors at Miramar National Cemetery.

“He would’ve looked around at all of this and said, ‘I don’t know why they’re making such a big fuss over me,’” she said.

Chavez surged into national prominence three years ago when fellow Pearl Harbor veterans recognized him as the oldest survivor of the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack that ushered the U.S. into World War II. Over the course of the war, Chavez took part in eight major naval battles and rose to the rank of chief quartermaster.

Because of his senior position among Pearl Harbor vets, Chavez was a frequent guest at commemorative events around the country, including annual trips to the memorials in Hawaii and a visit to the White House last Memorial Day weekend.

Until his health declined in recent months, Kathleen Chavez said, she and her father had been planning to fly to Oahu to attend last week’s 77th Pearl Harbor commemoration.

Thursday’s funeral Mass was led by Father Mel Monreal, who told the audience that Chavez never missed Sunday services unless he was ill or traveling to a Pearl Harbor event.

“Whenever we talked about it, [he said] he was there at the right time in a very important moment in history,” Monreal said. “He was ready to die for our country, but not only that, he lived for our country.”

The service was preceded by a pair of eulogies by Chavez’s nephew, Denny Specht, and his personal trainer, Sean Thompson.

Thompson helped Chavez regain his health five years ago, and they became the unlikeliest of friends. Thompson, who is in his 30s, said Chavez became his idol and moral compass in life.

“You never know when someone will come into your life and change it for the better. He meant the world to me,” Thompson said after the service.

Specht told the crowd that Chavez and his late wife, Margaret, took him in as a boy and raised him into adulthood. He described Chavez as a smart and silent man who taught by example how to work hard, be a man and do things right.

After the war, Chavez bought a home in Pacific Beach for his family, which included daughter Peggy, and he started a gardening business. It was a good life until Thanksgiving night 1956, when Peggy, her husband and their toddler daughter were killed in a car accident. The Chavezes adopted Kathleen, who followed her dad into the Navy and served for nearly 20 years.

Kathleen Chavez attended Thursday’s service in her Navy dress white uniform. It was one of many traditional military elements of the service. There were honor and color guard presentations, a Navy hymn, a flag-folding ceremony, a bagpiper and the funeral escort by the Patriot Guard Riders, a volunteer corps of motorcyclists who honor fallen service members.

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Before the service, San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer read a dedication marking Dec. 13 as Ray Chavez Day, describing Chavez as “a true patriot who protected our nation.”

At the burial service, Chavez was honored with a 21-gun salute, a playing of taps, readings of letters from politicians, a performance by the San Diego Law Enforcement Emerald Society Drum and Pipes brigade, songs and prayers.

Monreal said Chavez often reminded him of Mother Teresa, the nun who was canonized in 2016 as St. Teresa of Calcutta.

“Like her, Ray spent his life doing extraordinary things in an ordinary way,” Monreal said. “God has already cut out for him his next line of duty.”

Kragen writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.

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