CLEARWATER — Gene Hays, a 21-year-old Navy seaman, was eating an apple on the deck of the USS Phoenix in Pearl Harbor the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when he noticed approaching warplanes, flying low.
That's funny, Mr. Hays remembered thinking as he watched the planes dropping bombs on nearby Ford Island. We don't practice bombing raids on Sundays. He would retell the story to his grandchildren years later.
Then one of the planes flew overhead, a Rising Sun visible on its wings.
"We're being attacked!" he yelled.
Mr. Hays, the last member of the Suncoast Chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, died Thursday. He was 89, and had lived in Clearwater since 1987.
"He saw horrific things that shaped and defined his life," said Brian Corley, Mr. Hays' grandson and Pasco County's supervisor of elections.
Mr. Hays grew up in Kansas and Missouri. He dropped out of school in the eighth grade. When he was 17, his father, with whom he had had a turbulent relationship, gave Mr. Hays $5 and wished him a good life.
He found a home in the Navy, so much so that family members divide his life span as Mr. Hays did — before the Navy, the Navy, and after the Navy.
No event influenced him more than the Pearl Harbor attack, his family said. A widely traveled photograph hints at some of the things he saw. In it, the Phoenix passes in front of raging fires and black smoke engulfing the USS Arizona, which alone lost more than 1,100 sailors; and the USS West Virginia.
His own recollections fill in the blanks. "All hell broke loose," said Corley, 38. "People were jumping off crow's nests, being blown up several hundred feet in the air. The Phoenix escaped the assault unharmed.
Mr. Hays served out the rest of a 23-year naval career in relative calm. He retired in 1959 a chief quartermaster, then the highest rank an enlisted man could attain.
He cared for his wife, Doris, who suffered with emphysema, for the last 15 years of her life. He moved to Clearwater in 1987, the year after she died. He eventually remarried.
In 2001, he saw the movie Pearl Harbor but left before it was over. To relatives, he joked that he already knew how the story ended.
"I think it was just a little too much for him," said Sallyan Corley, 63, Mr. Hays' daughter.
Mr. Hays was hospitalized after a recent fall at an assisted living facility. He did not survive the surgery and died on Thursday.
Inspired by his grandfather's story, Corley has launched "Vote to Honor a Vet," a voter registration program aimed at high school students. Veterans tell their stories about defending democracy. On the program's first day, 550 students signed up.
"It kind of meshes my professional responsibilities with my personal homage to my grandpa," he said.
Mr. Hays was buried on Monday at Florida National Cemetery in Bushnell with full military honors.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 661-2431.