Clayton Schenkelberg, Oldest Survivor of Pearl Harbor, Passes Away At 103

Clayton Schenkelberg speaks about World War II in 2015 (Photo Credit: CBS 8 San Diego)
Clayton Schenkelberg speaks about World War II in 2015 (Photo Credit: CBS 8 San Diego)

Clayton Schenkelberg, thought to be the oldest living survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor, passed away at the age of 103 on April 14, 2021.

He was born the year before the Spanish Flu pandemic hit the US and survived a bout of COVID-19 in his final year. Family members say that he tested positive for the illness but never showed any symptoms.

During his life, he also witnessed one of the most tragic days in U.S. history. On December 7, 1941, he was a Navy torpedoman at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked. He volunteered to drive the train that took underwater missiles away from the Japanese planes and then came back with a rifle and began returning fire.

Clayton Schenkelberg remained in the Navy for another 20 years after the war. He married and raised seven children. Eventually, he moved to San Diego and worked as a high school custodian. When he passed away, he was living in a senior care facility in San Diego.

According to his son, Patrick, Schenkelberg never felt like he did anything special during the war. “He had a job to do and he did it.”

Schenkelberg was born on October 17, 1917, in Carroll, Iowa. His mother passed away when he was just 9 years old. The stock market crash that started the Great Depression occurred when he was 12. His father died in an accident when Schenkelberg was only 17.

He joined the Navy in 1937 like his brother had before him. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor and had just finished his shift and was planning to spend some time with his girlfriend when the surprise attack started.

In total, 2,400 U.S. service members were killed and another 1,200 injured on that day. Over 30 ships were destroyed or damaged along with hundreds of aircraft.

Though it was widely believed that Schenkelberg was the oldest living survivor of that attack, he never wanted the attention for himself. At the annual Pearl Harbor Day remembrance at the USS Midway Museum in 2016, he said that they were still paying respect to the ones who didn’t survive the attack.

After retiring from the Navy in 1967, he worked for 20 years as a custodian at Patrick Henry High School and other schools in the area. He was also an active member of Our Lady of Grace Parish in El Cajon, CA. He volunteered to collect donations and distribute food and clothing for over 30 years.

Schenkelberg is survived by five of his children and more than 40 grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren. He is predeceased by his wife, Alithea, and two of his sons.

One of Schenkelberg’s descendants is still active in the Navy and arranged for a flag to be flown in Schenkelberg’s honor over various places in Pearl Harbor.

There is a memorial service scheduled for May 6th at 10:30 a.m. at Our Lady of Grace Parish. Attendees are asked to wear Hawaiian shirts as is the custom for Pearl Harbor survivors to wear to gatherings.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE