Ray Chavez, Oldest Veteran Survivor of Pearl Harbor, Dies at 106

Ray Chavez, 106 and the oldest U.S. military veteran survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor 77 years ago, has died.

A resident of Poway, Calif., Chavez died in his sleep Wednesday. He had been suffering from pneumonia, said his daughter, Kathleen Chavez, according to Associated Press and San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the National Park Service at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, confirmed to the AP Wednesday that Chavez was the oldest survivor of the attack that killed 2,335 U.S. military personnel and 68 civilians on Dec. 7, 1941.

Prior to the attack, Chavez worked through as a minesweeper aboard the USS Condor as it patrolled the harbor's east entrance. He and others spotted a Japanese submarine periscope and notified a destroyer, which sunk it shortly before Japanese bombers surprised everyone, bombing the harbor.

gallery_xlarge Ray Chavez 106 dies Oldest living survivor of Pearl Harbor dies
In this Dec. 5, 2016, file photo, Ray Chavez, a Pearl Harbor survivor from Poway, Calif., poses for a photo as he was eating breakfast in Honolulu. Chavez was working on a minesweeper, the USS Condor, in the early hours before the attack. The oldest U.S. military survivor of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Chavez died Wednesday at age 106. Photo: Audrey McAvoy, AP

After having worked until the early morning, Chavez had already gone home nearby to sleep. He specifically told his wife, Margaret, not to wake him.

"It seemed like I only slept about 10 minutes when she called me and said, 'We're being attacked,' " he recalled in 2016. "And I said, 'Who is going to attack us?' "

"She said, 'The Japanese are here, and they're attacking everything.' "

He ran back to the harbor to find it in flames.

Chavez spent the next week there, working around the clock sifting through the destruction that had crippled the U.S. Navy's Pacific fleet.

He was very proud of his time served in Pearl Harbor, he often told reporters. When asked what left most left its imprint, NBC 7 in the San Francisco Bay Area reported he replied:

"War. Being in right in the middle of it. It was quite a surprise. I saw everything. Smoke and fire."

Eventually, Chavez ferried troops, tanks and other equipment to war-torn islands across the Pacific, from Guadalcanal to Okinawa, SFGate reported.

He never suffered wounds, but he exited the military in 1945 after suffering form post-traumatic stress disorder. He became a landscaper and groundskeeper and loved tress and plants, said his daughter.

"He finally retired when he was 95," she added.

He attributed his longevity and return to health to working in the outdoors, following a healthy diet and sticking to a strict workout program.

After not mentioning Pear Harbor for decades, he finally returned to Hawaii in 1991 to participate in the 50th anniversary of the attack.

"Then we did the 55th, the 60th, the 65th and the 70th, and from then on we went to every one," his daughter recalled. She told SFGate that he planned to attend the 2018 gathering next month until his health began to fail.

Chavez was born March 12, 1912, in San Bernardino, California, to Mexican immigrant parents. As a child, he moved to San Diego, where his family ran a wholesale flower business. He joined the Navy in 1938.

Chavez was popular in his later years, as others approached him for autographs and photos at memorial services. He remained humble, his daughter said.

"He'd just shrug his shoulders and shake his head and say, 'I was just doing my job,' " said Kathleen Chavez. "He was just a very nice, quiet man. He never hollered about anything, and he was always pleasant to everybody."

She described him as a shy, charming man whose secrets to a long, good life included making friends, obeying the law and "to get as much education as you can and also to be kind to all people, especially the elderly and the less fortunate." His parents, he said, taught him the latter.

Chavez was preceded in death by his wife, Margaret. His daughter is reportedly his only survivor, although NBC 7 reported he also has a surviving cousin.

Funeral services are pending.