Walter Barsell Sr. died last week.
He was 97 years old.
Walter was born in 1920 — just four years before my own dad, Glenn.
My dad served in the U.S. Navy during World War II so I grew up hearing stories about that era.
And naturally, I wanted to interview Walter when I learned he had been at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. That’s the day it was attacked by the Japanese.
Throughout the years, I’d interview Walter three times.
I think the last time was the most memorable — not just because Walter was a nice guy who’d been through an incredible experience, but because I realized we shared the same love of our Savior Jesus Christ.
For those who don’t remember Walter’s story, please let me share it.
Walter, who’d joined the Navy, had served aboard the USS Astoria before he was sent to the naval base at Pearl Harbor on Oahu.
He was just days away from his 21 birthday when the attack occurred.
It was Sunday, shortly before 8 a.m., and Walter was one of about 40 men in a receiving station barracks.
“I was sitting on my bunk, writing a letter home to my parents,” he said.
That’s when he heard a terrific commotion, the sound of planes and explosions.
Walter and other men went to the south window of the two-story building and looked down onto Pearl Harbor.
They saw the low-flying enemy planes.
“You could have hit them with a baseball if you’d had one,” he said.
The planes flew so low that men in the barracks could see the red circle emblems on the aircraft — and the pilots’ faces.
There was a determined look on those faces.
The planes flew over the barracks and went on to drop torpedoes in the channel near Ford Island and battleship row.
“They had an easy target with the battleships,” he said.
Torpedoes slammed into the ships. The men heard the explosions. They saw the fires and black smoke billowing into the sky.
Soon, the men went to an east window and saw Hickam Field, where American planes were lined up for inspection.
“They were sitting ducks,” Walter said.
The men watched as enemy planes bombed the airfield.
“People were running and seeking shelter, because we had no guns to fight back with,” Walter said. “We were not prepared for a sneak attack.”
From their place in the barracks, the men could see a panoramic scene of fire, destruction and explosions — on the airfield and at Ford Island where the battleships were.
Suddenly over an intercom, a voice told the men to leave the barracks, to go across the nearby highway and scatter.
“We were told to leave, because we had no guns to fight with,” Walter said. “The guns were locked in a locker and the sailor who had the keys was ashore.”
So they went into a field.
“We could look down and see the whole panorama of the whole attack and from that vantage point we could look down on the harbor and see all the action,” Walter said.
The men were stunned. They couldn’t believe what was occurring. America had the strongest naval force on earth.
But it was happening.
Eventually, they were called to the docks to clear debris. Walter remembers pulling body parts out of the oil-soaked water.
He and other men then were sent to a ship, tied to a dock. Their job was to help transport ammunition to the top deck. Because there was no electricity, the men used chain hoists to pass the ammunition topside so a few guns could be shot.
Walter remembers the sirens and the sounds of ammunition being fired.
And he recalls something else.
“The sights and sounds were all there, but hardly anybody talks about the aroma of the event,” he said. “Before all this happened, you could smell the gardenias and tropical flowers and within minutes afterward there was the stench of burning oil and gasoline. It all goes together. That smell accents the disaster.”
Please keep in mind that Walter was telling me these intricate details in 2016 — 75 years after the Pearl Harbor attack.
The fact that he could remember those specifics — right down to the smell of the gardenias — astonished me.
So much has happened since that horrific day when 2,403 Americans died and 1,179 were wounded.
The attack drew the United States into World War II. So many lives were lost and the world would know terrible suffering before that war ended.
As time passed, other wars erupted and ended. Technologies were developed. Societies flourished. Men walked on the moon.
Walter went home after World War II and, eventually, became a father to nine children. He’d have grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He had a busy career in the grocery store business before he retired.
He was widowed twice.
So with all those years of experiences, how could a man in his 90s recall something that happened 75 years ago?
For one, it was a traumatic event. People tend to remember those.
It’s also something that Walter most likely talked about throughout the years and remembered each December.
So it’s not hard to imagine how, even seven and a half decades later, how Walter could recount what happened — right down to the smell of the tropical flowers.
I’ve used examples like this more than once when I read about someone who says Jesus is a myth.
To me, people who say Christ’s death and resurrection is a fable would be like saying that Pearl Harbor was a myth.
Some people contend the accounts found in the Bible’s four Gospels evolved many years after Christ’s death and can’t be considered factual.
But Lee Strobel, a former award-winning journalist for the Chicago Tribune, refutes that in his book “The Case for Christ: A Journalist’s Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus.” (Zondervan, 1998)
Lee cites experts, including William Albright, who taught at John Hopkins University.
William said he’s convinced the different books of the New Testament were written within 50 years after Jesus died — more likely closer to 45 years.
When I read this, I think about veterans like Walter, who distinctly recall a dramatic, earth-shaking, life-affecting event decades afterward.
If Walter can remember the Pearl Harbor attack so vividly after 75 years, why couldn’t the Gospel writers provide precise, accurate details 30 or 50 years after Christ’s death and resurrection?
Couldn’t our Lord’s death and resurrection be considered an earth-shaking, life-affecting event?
I believe so with all my heart.
I’m so grateful for the God-given opportunity to visit with veterans like Walter, who can provide us with a deeper perspective.
After my last interview with Walter, we had a brief chance to visit. He showed me photos of his family, news clippings and various types of memorabilia.
He pointed to a picture he has of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane.
I have the same picture at my house.
It was another reminder of a Savior who made a sacrifice so that one day we can live in a place that will be free of wars, death and loss.
I was sad to hear that Walter had died, but I believe he’s in heaven with the Savior of our souls. I imagine Walter probably is young again and enjoying time with family members and friends he’d missed for so long on this earth.
And I wonder if in that heavenly place he’s catching the sweet scent of something very much like gardenias.
Tammy Real-McKeighan is a reporter with the Fremont Tribune. She writes a weekly spiritual column.