99-Year-Old Pearl Harbor Survivor Passes Away From COVID-19

Pearl Harbor survivors Stu Hedley, 91, left, salutes, as Doyle McKee is thanked for his service by Rebecca Shaffner during the annual Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony aboard the USS Midway Museum's Flight Deck in San Diego, Friday Dec. 7, 2012. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Pearl Harbor survivors Stu Hedley, 91, left, salutes, as Doyle McKee is thanked for his service by Rebecca Shaffner during the annual Pearl Harbor Day Remembrance Ceremony aboard the USS Midway Museum's Flight Deck in San Diego, Friday Dec. 7, 2012. (Photo by Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

One of Pearl Harbor’s most dedicated veterans has passed away at the age of 99 after a battle with the COVID-19 virus. Stu Hedley dedicated his later years to keeping the memory of the attack on Pearl Harbor alive, educating thousands of people over the years about the battle. Hedley would have turned 100 in October.

Hedley refused to let the memory of the battle die or let the importance of the battle be forgotten, offering his time for talks around San Diego and other areas. He would try to cram in as many public talks as possible, sometimes taking on multiple on the same day.

His major efforts have certainly made a difference, as he believes he reached around 200,000 people through his talks.

Ever the humble man, Hedley refused to be deemed a hero, always deflecting the comment onto those who did not survive the war. “They were the heroes,” he would usually say in response. He saw his mission to keep the legacy of Pearl Harbor alive as his honor and his duty to those who were lost in the devastating conflict.

“He never wanted what happened at Pearl Harbor to be forgotten,” said marketing director at the USS Midway Museum, David Koontz. “He was passionate about making sure we remembered the courage of those who were there that day.”

Hedley was present when the Japanese launched the surprise attack on the major US naval base on December 7th 1941, witnessing one of the US’ most impactful events first hand.

Hedley’s WWII service

Stu Hedley Saluting
Stu Hedley, president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, Chapter 3, salutes the colors during a remembrance ceremony for the 73rd anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor aboard the USS Midway. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Liam Kennedy/Released)

He was born on October 29 1921 in Florida and was raised near Buffalo, New York. After developing an intense interest in the military during his childhood, Hedley attempted to join the US Navy straight out of high school but was rejected due to being 4 foot 11 inches tall.

After he had grown a little taller, he was finally accepted into the Navy. On his 19th birthday, he was stationed aboard the USS West Virginia, a powerful Colorado-class battleship.

The West Virginia was moored in Battleship Row in Pearl Harbor when the attack began, receiving multiple hits from Japanese torpedoes and improvised bombs. She would sink into the shallow waters of the harbor.

Over 100 of Hedley’s shipmates from the West Virginia were killed in the attack. He managed to avoid death on multiple occasions and survived a devastating explosion in one of the battleship’s gun turrets that killed 12 men.

Although it was moored in the harbor, escaping the ship was just as dangerous as staying on it, as the water below was covered in burning fuel oil from the damaged ships. Fuel oil from the USS Arizona had reached the West Virginia and ignited, with the ship’s own fuel contributing to the blaze. Men had to make their way around or below these flaming patches of water to escape the stricken vessels.

Hedley was transported to a medical facility via an ambulance after reaching dry land.

“I grew up in a hurry that day,” he said in a 2016 interview. “We all did.”

“Little did I realize at the age of 10 that one day I was going to be involved with all that.”

Despite the amount of damage sustained by the West Virginia, she was eventually raised and repaired, returning to duty before the end of WWII.

After the attack Hedley served aboard the USS San Francisco, which became one of the nation’s most decorated ships, and the USS Massey. During the war, he participated in the battles of Guadalcanal and Okinawa, as well as many more.

Hedley would finally retire from the Navy in 1960, after spending 20 years in the service.

Life after the Navy

Stu Hedley Talks To A Group Of People
SAN DIEGO (Feb. 25, 2015) Retired Chief Petty Officer and Pearl Harbor survivor Stu Hedley leads a tour of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association Museum to the Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet 2014 Sailor of the year finalists. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Zachary Bell/Released)

After he left the Navy, he raised five children in Clairemont. He wouldn’t return to Pearl Harbor until 1970, where he was stunned by memories and flashbacks to his terrifying ordeal back in 1941. Like so many other veterans, Hedley had remained tight-lipped about what he’d seen during the war, even to his own wife. After visiting Pearl Harbor he began to talk about his wartime exploits and joined the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association.

The association’s motto was “Remember Pearl Harbor, Keep America Alert”, and was filled with 70,000 members worldwide at its peak.

Hedley made it his personal mission to educate people about Pearl Harbor while ensuring the battle was never forgotten.

“Pearl Harbor was not a defeat,” Hedley often said. “It was an eye-opener.”

He believed it was important for people to understand the circumstances surrounding the attack just as much as the attack itself.

“I remember going to (the San Diego-area city of) Ramona with him once to talk to some Boy Scouts,” said Kathy Hansen, a Navy veteran and a long-time friend of Hedley’s. “Kids are a tough crowd and he told them stories for two hours. They couldn’t get enough.”

Hedley was the president of his local chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association when the organization was disbanded due to low member numbers.

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“It’s certainly the end of an era,” he said when the association was disbanded, “and it leaves me a little heartbroken.”

Hedley’s wife of 64 years, Wanda, and his daughter Pam had already passed at the time of his death. He is survived by his three daughters; Barbara, Patty, and Nancy, and his son, Ray.

Jesse Beckett

Jesse Beckett is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE