Archie Gregory has spent four decades visiting schools, riding in parades and speaking at functions to deliver one basic message: that he is not a hero. Not now, not ever.
In his mind, he wasn't a hero when the bombs first struck at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Gregory, a sailor in the Navy who was serving on a repair ship, had stepped onto another vessel to visit an old school friend the moment the explosions began.
The force threw him into the water and gave him a concussion that left a permanent scar. But he doesn't attribute his survival to heroism, just luck.
The next several days, he maneuvered a small boat around the harbor to rescue survivors and fish out bodies. He then served in the Pacific campaign for the rest of the war and was a chief boatswain's mate at the time of his discharge.
But he doesn't call all that heroism, just doing his job.
Doing their jobs. That's the mantra Gregory and his fellow survivors have repeated over the years, no matter how many times they're feted, no matter how many wide-eyed kids ask them questions.
"Everybody aboard that ship is your brother, and if you don't do your job, you may be causing his death," said Gregory, the only Pearl Harbor survivor currently scheduled to ride in Huntington Beach's Fourth of July Parade. "To go out there and try to be a hero, that's not what we're about."
Gregory, who lives with his stepdaughter in Huntington, has ridden in the city's holiday parades since the 1970s. In years past, he joined fellow survivors on a float with an ornate banner. Next week, though, his appearance will be downsized somewhat — he'll ride in his stepson's Corvette, possibly without fellow veterans at his side.
The 97-year-old is part of a diminishing link to America's past, and his group's reduced role in the Huntington parade spells out the decline: Pearl Harbor Survivors of Orange County, California passed on a float this year because, with several members having died since last July, it couldn't muster enough funds for one.
So when Stacey Newton, the assistant director of Huntington Beach's Independence Day festivities, found that the parade could include at least one survivor, she was overjoyed.
"What we were told was, they weren't going to participate because there weren't enough of them," she said. "So that's why we were excited when Archie's [step]daughter called and said he'd like to participate."
Gregory sits in his stepdaughter's spacious living room in SeaCliff, an upscale community a few blocks from the beach, and sifts through a briefcase where he keeps a lifetime of mementos. Newspaper articles about him fill the pouches, while a signed birthday card from PresidentGeorge W. Bushand a plastic bag of honorary pins fit among the other items.
This is his public legacy, the one the media has returned to time and again, the one that has kept his portrait as a twentysomething in circulation. Though before and after that moment at Pearl Harbor, he lived a quiet and sometimes hardscrabble life: losing his mother at age 2 and working on his uncle's cattle ranch at 8, supporting his family after the war as a milkman and manufacturer.
For years, he tried to avoid talking about his war experiences. It took the Pearl Harbor Survivors Assn., a nationwide group founded in 1958, to get him to open up. Along with fellow survivors, he began visiting schools, riding in parades and establishing friendships that have endured for decades.
Now, Gregory has survived the organization as well. Last December, the survivors association shut down, due to natural causes: Members were aging or fighting illnesses, while others simply had other obligations as they neared 100.
William H. Muehleib, the organization's national vice president, said the group peaked at 28,000 members and had probably dwindled to less than 2,000 by the time it folded.
"What we have are educated guesses" about the number of remaining survivors, he said.
Many of the organization's local chapters, though, have continued operating independently. Gregory's group, which covers Orange County, still meets monthly at the American Legion hall in Los Alamitos and keeps a brisk schedule of appearances.
Gregory believes there is a message to be learned from Pearl Harbor, and it's far from a sentimental platitude.
The attack, he said, resulted from America's complacency and failure to keep adequate watch. The military put too many ships together in Hawaii and guarded them too loosely. The speed of the enemy raid, he believes, showed how quickly America's defense could crumble.
"We had the strongest fleet in the world," Gregory said. "We didn't think anybody could touch us. And they came and took us out in 15 minutes."
A delayed homecoming
Last December, funded by the Greatest Generations Foundation, Gregory and dozens of other Pearl Harbor survivors returned to Hawaii to visit the attack site. It was Gregory's first time back in 70 years. He had shied away from returning until then, having replayed the memories so many times in his mind that he imagined seeing the location would make them worse.
In the end, he was glad he visited. Over the 10-day trip, he attended memorial sites around the harbor and the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, better known as the Punchbowl. And he got another chance, rarer with each passing year, to connect with others who shared his experiences.
"I was right where I could have gotten killed at any given minute," he said, remembering the day seven decades ago. "I was one of the lucky ones."
Home from Hawaii, he went back to his routine. His survivors group met at the legion hall every month to share news and talk about upcoming classroom visits. On June 3, he and other Pearl Harbor veterans rode in the annual Balboa Island Parade. According to Sally Nockold, the Orange County group's event coordinator, Gregory even hula-danced in the parade.
Nockold plans to attend the Huntington parade, just as she does all the group's events she can. She relishes the same sights every time: the seated spectators rising to their feet, the children running forward to shake hands.
And if the Huntington parade manages just one survivor this year, that's good enough for Nockold.
"Their goal is, they will continue to meet until the last one's gone," she said.