SIERRA VISTA — Hanging on the wall of Arthur Hendrickson’s apartment is a photo that captures one of the most pivotal moments in American history.
In the 1941 photo, Hendrickson, then a 22-year-old Navy airman, kneels by a sailor in a white uniform on the shore of Ford Island in Hawaii, both staring beyond several stationary planes at a curtain of smoke and fire.
“When I was in the Navy, and I was lucky, I was never assigned to a ship,” said Hendrickson.
Leaning on a walker, he gazed at the photo. “War is a horrible thing.”
Hendrickson, a 99-year-old veteran of World War II and a resident of Prestige Assisted Living in Sierra Vista, is modest when it comes to speaking of what he experienced on Dec. 7, 1941 — “a date which will live in infamy,” according to then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt — when he was stationed at Pearl Harbor.
The date lives on in American memory as the day that over 2,000 servicemen — 1,177 of whom were on the USS Arizona — lost their lives in a surprise airstrike by the Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service, and launched the U.S. into World War II.
Hendrickson and many others on the shore felt “bewildered” as the attack happened, he said.
“Something like that happened so quick, and then it’s over with,” he said. “The two waves of airplanes came over and did their damage.”
Hendrickson and his brothers, including an older brother who was stationed with him at Pearl Harbor and a younger one in the U.S. Army, all returned home to their mother following the end of the war, a conflict that claimed over 56 million lives, according to Guinness World Records.
The total number of casualties at Pearl Harbor seems small when compared to the number of people who died in the war overall, said Hendrickson.
“Consider the amount of people who were killed in the war,” he said. “For example, they dropped two bombs, one on Hiroshima and one on Nagasaki, but they were nuclear, but there were thousands and thousands of people killed, just in a flash like that. But they don’t write about that, you know, it’s too horrible to think about.”
Hendrickson, who was born in Oklahoma in 1919 and retired as a Chief Petty Officer after 20 years of service in the Navy, doesn’t speak much about his own military career. Although he traveled throughout the world, he humbly calls it “very dull stuff.” But the stories live on in the images that cover the walls of his apartment: apart from the photo taken of the attack on Pearl Harbor, there is a picture of a plane sitting amid swirling snow at the South Pole, a portrait of a fellow serviceman and good friend, and a photo of the men from his Navy boot camp in 1939.
“It’s incredible,” said Kimberly Mazick, community relations director at Prestige Assisted Living, after hearing about Hendrickson’s experiences in World War II. “I just recently made this career change, and I have met some amazing residents, people like Arthur — you can’t learn history like this in a classroom.”
Hendrickson knows that people who fought in World War II won’t be around much longer to share their stories. An avid reader and follower of current events, he hopes that new generations can learn from the past, he said.
“They should be taught the horrors of WWII, WWI, the Revolutionary War, everything,” he said. “War is bad anyway you look at it, but the human race has never learned yet.
“World War II has been over with for (73) years, and they’ve never stopped fighting.”
Although Hendrickson takes a critical view of war and politics, he said he would be curious to see what the world looks like in the future, and mentioned that he believes in reincarnation. When asked what he would like to come back as, he reflects for a moment before laughing softly.
“If I come back, I would like to come back as a human on a little Pacific island somewhere, just me and my family,” he said. “And just live day to day.”