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One of the last survivors of Pearl Harbor lives in Virginia: ‘I was very lucky’

Posted at 4:26 PM, Jan 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-01-07 16:26:05-05

FLUVANNA, Va. -- For as far back as he can remember, Len Gardner has been drawn to the water.

“This is called Lake Monticello. Oh, I thought this was a great spot to build a house. Oh, that is all that there is to do is relax," says Len.

The 98-year-old is admiral of his own navy in Fluvanna County.

“We’ve had boats, sailboats, canoes," Len said.

But the waters in Len's life haven't always been so calm.

Early one Sunday morning, nearly 80 years ago, Len's life would change forever.

On December 7th, 1941 death and destruction arrived by air. Len was serving on the destroyer U.S.S. Reid moored at Pearl Harbor when 350 Japanese planes  attacked.

“I just came out of the hatch," says Len. “There comes a plane. A plane over the mountain. So, I was there at the time it happened.”

“And there was a big boom, I looked up at the bridge and I saw my boss shouting and yelling. I couldn’t hear him because of the noise.”

Sleeping crew members brushed aside Len’s warning.

“There I am shaking them saying  ‘We’re under attack,'" says Len. “You can imagine the reception that got. When our guns started firing, they got the message in a hurry."

Smoke was rising and ships sinking all around Len.

“It was just chaos out there. And it was terrible. Especially the burning fuel oil," says Len. “Guys were on the bottom trying to get out.”

The assault thrust America and the 20-year-old sailor into Word War II.

“You don’t have history on your mind at that time, but you knew the situation had changed," says Len.

2,400 Americans died that fateful day. But there was little time to mourn.

“It was spooky because we didn’t know what was out there," he said. “It was spooky.”

As the destroyer's signalman, Len witnessed the war in the Pacific from New Guinea to Midway unfold right in front of him.

“Then the torpedo planes appeared, and they came in low on the water," he said. “That was scary.”

Fear ended with America’s victory four years later. Len settled in Virginia married and started a family. He founded the county newspaper and served on the board of supervisors.

78 years after the attack the ranks of eyewitnesses are thinning. Len is one of the last known survivors in Virginia.

“It has been a long time," says Len.

This proud veteran is still serving in a way. Len attends the Pearl Harbor ceremonies every December at the War Memorial.

“Those who want to hear it I am willing to tell it," he said.

He feels its his duty to represent those who have gone before him.

“That’s right. That is right. It is unusual to be still living," Len said. “I think I’m the only one.”

This living link to the past counts his blessing every day now that this sailor's rough waters are finally at peace.

“I was very lucky. I was very lucky."

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