While the date of Dec. 7, 1941 has continued to live in infamy — as famously promised a day later by then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt — Al “Abby” Ramirez, who was 15 years old at the time, remembers the day itself as being nothing too out of the ordinary.
“All I remember was coming out of church and the news came out that Pearl Harbor was bombed,” he said. “I didn’t know what Pearl Harbor was. I had never been there, so I thought nothing of it. I was just a kid.”
The ramifications of that historic attack would go on to change the course of world history, and also would have a profound effect on Ramirez, who just a couple years later would later get an up-close — at times too close — view of the realities of war.
Ramirez, who lives in Mission Hills, plans to be in Santa Maria on Wednesday, the 75th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, for a Pearl Harbor Day remembrance ceremony. That attack, in which the Japanese Navy launched an assault on the U.S. Naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, directly led to the U.S. becoming involved in World War II.
Like many boys and young men at the time, Ramirez was swept up in the war effort.
“After the war broke out, I thought I wanted to join the Navy at first,” the 90-year-old said this week from his Lompoc Valley home. “I just felt like I had to do something. My buddies were all saying, ‘Let’s go join the service.’ We didn’t even graduate from high school; we left in the 10th grade.”
Ramirez was still a teen when he enlisted in the Navy in January 1944. After going through training in San Diego, he was deployed as a gunner aboard the DuPage in the Philippine Islands. On Jan. 10, 1945, he got his first real taste of combat when a kamikaze pilot targeted his ship.
“As we were coming in, the sun was in our eyes and a Japanese bomber came right at us,” Ramirez said. “It hit the port side of the ship. One bomb went over the side and one landed on the deck. They didn’t blow up.”
The attack killed 35 men aboard the ship and wounded more than 150 others. Immediately afterward, though, the survivors were pressed into dealing with the 500-pound undetonated bomb that now was aboard their ship.
A lieutenant on the ship asked for volunteers to remove the unwanted passenger. With the entire ship in very real danger, Ramirez and a handful of his shipmates sprang into action.
After getting protection for their hands, he said, “we picked that bomb up and threw it over the side. If it rolled around and hit that metal wall, it might’ve blown up and sunken the ship.”
While the crew members avoided that potential disaster, Ramirez noted that they still had a lot to deal with on board the ship.
Ramirez was part of a crew that went searching for dead bodies, and he distinctly remembers finding the body of one of his shipmates who, along with a second seaman, had been decapitated by one of the attacking plane’s propellers.
“I got so sick just seeing it,” Ramirez said.
Less than a year later, while on a mission to pick up Army troops in the Philippines, Ramirez and his shipmates received word that the war was over.
Ramirez, who was raised by his grandparents in Santa Barbara, left the Navy shortly after and, after having trouble finding work in his hometown, later re-enlisted in the Army and ended up fighting with an Airborne unit in the Korean War.
After 21 total years of military service, Ramirez moved to the Lompoc area in the mid-1960s and worked a civilian job at Vandenberg Air Force Base. He still has many of his military medals, including eight battle stars, on display at his home.
After losing his wife of 50 years, Gloria, about 15 years ago, Ramirez has kept himself busy. One of his most beloved activities is jumping from airplanes. After performing 90 parachute jumps during his military career, he has done 15 since, including one around the time of each of his last three birthdays, most recently this past September.
He has dedicated the jumps to various causes, including tragedies involving military members and first responders.
He also is a member of the American Legion, helps coordinate flags for military burials and helps maintain flags in public areas around the Lompoc Valley.
He said that keeping younger generations aware of the battles fought by his generation is important so that Americans maintain a healthy respect for the U.S. flag. For example, he said it bothers him to see local flagpoles with school flags waving below U.S. flags. He said such a setup is disrespectful to veterans.
“They don’t teach this in schools and they need to,” said Ramirez, who finally received his diploma from Santa Barbara High in 2013 after leaving the school 70 years prior to join the service. “They need to teach kids what it means, that people fought for that flag — their fathers, and their fathers.”
Don Ramirez, one of Abby’s three children, agrees.
Although Don didn’t serve in the military — he and his late brother had medical conditions that prevented their acceptance, but his sister did serve — he is active in several veteran-related projects, including the restoration of the Lompoc Valley Veterans Memorial Building and Vietnam War Memorial, and is an officer in the Sons of the American Legion.
“We’ve lost all this patriotism,” he said. “Patriotism is no longer here. We’ve got all these people that don’t even fly flags or they’d rather fly a football flag than an American flag.”
Don, who lived in Hawaii for 17 years and has visited Pearl Harbor, has often referred to his father as his hero. He said he’s hopeful that the sacrifices made by his dad and others from his generation will continue to be remembered.
“They’re dying fast,” he said of the members of the so-called Greatest Generation. “They’re down almost 180,000 a year. And people just don’t understand what they went through to keep us free here. We have a lot of great stuff here and people don’t understand why we have it.”