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Last African-American Pearl Harbor survivor lives in Valley

Nelson Mitchell is the last remaining African-American survivor of Pearl Harbor. He lives in Peoria, Ariz. (KTAR Photo/Bob McClay)

PEORIA, Ariz. -- Saturday has a very different meaning for one Valley man.

Saturday is Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day, the 72nd anniversary of the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. America entered World War II just one day later.

Millions of Americans were pressed into action after the bombing. Some came home, some gave all. As the years have gone by, the number of World War II veterans has dwindled. The last remaining African-American to survive the bombing of Pearl Harbor lives in Peoria.

Nelson Mitchell's grandparents were slaves in Georgia. Mitchell, now 93, spent his early years picking cotton on his family's farm in Texas.

In 1940, he joined the Navy, and was assigned to the U.S.S Jarvis, a destroyer. At that time in the Navy, African-Americans could serve only as a cook or a captain's steward, assisting in whatever daily necessities the captain had.

"All of the whites, they could do anything they wanted to on the ship," Mitchell said. "But we were restricted to waiting on the officers. But that was a better life than what I had working on a farm."

The Jarvis was stationed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Mitchell was in bed when the Japanese started bombing.

"I got up, out of my bunk, and the ship was shaking. I looked out and the whole bay was full of fire."

He immediately got to work and did his job.

"I didn't have a battle station, but I did stay in the pantry and waited on the officers until the bombing was over."

The Jarvis wasn't hit. It was able to get out to sea and patrolled the Hawaiian coast for two weeks following the bombing, looking for Japanese submarines.

After Mitchell was reassigned, the Japanese torpedoed and sank the Jarvis during the Battle of Guadalcanal the following August. All 233 men on board were killed.

Mitchell left the Navy in 1948, and took a job working in a warehouse in California. He and his wife moved to Phoenix in the 1950s to be with his asthmatic father. Their first house was built on three-and-a-half acres of land that Mitchell bought for $2,100 at what is now 40th Street and Interstate 10.

His dad died at the age of 81. Mitchell did not clarify what happened to his wife, whether the two divorced or she passed away. She is not part of his life now, and Mitchell lives alone.

He worked at Luke Air Force base and later as a gardener, and retired just three years ago.

Mitchell said he thinks about being the last African American survivor of Pearl Harbor.

"It just shows that, I reckon that if you take care of yourself...so far I've been pretty healthy," he said.

Mitchell jokes that he'll just be glad to be around for his 94th birthday, which is next month.

Mitchell said times have changed since he served. Things are better for African-Americans in the military now.

"They can make ranks and can do a lot of different things," he said. "They have a great opportunity. If they don't make it, it ain't nobody's fault but themselves."

He said that they get the training now that he could have only dreamed of.

"When I was in the service, I was denied that type of training," Mitchell said. "But one thing about it is, I said that whatever I do, I'm going to do it to the best of my ability."

That's a philosophy that Mitchell has lived by for 93 years.

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About the Author


Years with the company: I started on January 2, 2006.

Education: I was born in San Antonio, Texas, but we moved to Phoenix when I was one-year-old in 1957. I grew up here and graduated from Alhambra High School and attended Phoenix College.

Family: I am married to my wife Rene', who is a librarian in the Washington school district. During free time, I may be found playing basketball in the driveway with my son, Devin. He's also keeping me busy with school, Little League, and playing in chess tournaments around the Valley.

Favorite food: Lots of favorite food, but our favorite restaurant is Fajitas.

Favorite spot in Arizona: The Little America Hotel in Flagstaff.

Favorite news memory: We have to go back to October 15, 1979. I was a country music air personality at KROP Radio in Brawley, California, when we had a 6.7 earthquake. Thankfully, there were no deaths and only minor injuries, but the entire community was pretty freaked out and listening to the station on their transistor radios. I would not want to go through an earthquake again, but it sure was a great night to work in radio and see how it can make a difference in people's lives.

First job: Working as a stringer for 'The Arizona Republic' at high school football games. My first real job was flipping burgers at the old Sandy's Hamburgers at 51st Avenue and Indian School Road. My first radio job was as announcer at KALJ radio in Yuma in 1977.

First concert: Doug Oldham gospel concert in the 1970s at the old East High School in Phoenix.

Favorite sports team: Phoenix Roadrunners minor league hockey. My dad took me to a game when I was in grade school, and I was hooked. I wanted to be a radio hockey play-by-play man. I used to take my cassette recorder and sit up in the rafters of the Coliseum and do play-by-play. It was great later in life to also take my son to Roadrunners games. Too bad the team just folded, I'll miss them. (Going to the Coyotes is fun, but they're not "my" team.)

Outside interests: My family and I are active in our church - Northern Hills Community Church in Phoenix. We enjoy going to movies, sporting events, and like to vacation at the Beach Cottages in the Pacific Beach area of San Diego. And I love to play catch, basketball, football with my son.

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