80-years later, Pearl Harbor survivor provides a doorway to history

Eighty years ago Tuesday, the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor propelled the United States into World War II. That act also helped define a generation of Americans whose service and sacrifice laid the foundation for a more perfect union.

An intimate, late-morning celebration at a San Jose diner also provides a doorway to history. The guest of honor is a hero from an inflection point in American past.

"Usually I remember the morning I woke up at Pearl," said Warren Upton, 102, when asked about Dec. 7, 1941.

That date is infamous, but it was also a catalyst for heroics and survival. Upton was a red-headed, 22-year-old petty officer, shaving below decks, on-board the USS Utah. His planned trip ashore was stopped, by two torpedoes. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor was underway. And the Utah was on her way to capsizing.

"It was quite an inferno…they were strafing us still," said Upton. "I went over the side then, and slid down the side of the ship as she rolled over."

Upton was able to make it into the water, and onto shore, saving a fellow sailor along the way.

Such stories from that fateful day are becoming more rare. The Pearl Survivors group in San Jose used to have multiple members, not just one.

Randy Michaud’s father served on the West Virginia, and passed away in 2014.

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"He was a cool guy. He didn’t talk much about it when he was alive, and when I was little. But to think, if he hadn’t jumped overboard, I wouldn’t be here," she said, as tears welled in her eyes.

Historians say the country and culture will be at a loss, when time and fate takes the last of these survivors.

"The significance of those individuals being able to tell us why they did what they did, how they did what they did, and why it was important to them at that time, is necessary for us to fully understand our present circumstances and the potential future that we’re moving into," said Dr. Robert Sanders, a military history and national security expert at the University of New Haven.

For Upton, a love of family, country, and service continues to anchor him.

"I’m happy to be with my family," he said.

But he is forever moored to those Americans who didn’t live to tell the tale of Pearl.

"It’s a thing to never forget. We can’t let down our guard," said Upton.