Pearl Harbor survivor shares stories from quarantine in Central Oregon

Dick Higgins, a 98-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor, talks about his childhood while his granddaughter, Angela Norton, captures it for his Instagram chat. Wednesday, April 15, 2020. (Ryan Brennecke/The Bulletin)

BEND – Dick Higgins has stories to tell, and wants to share them before he forgets.

The 98-year-old great-grandfather from Bend may be living in a pandemic, but he’s survived some of history’s greatest crises. He grew up in small town Oklahoma and lived through the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. He enlisted in the Navy after high school and was propelled into history when he awoke Dec. 7, 1941, to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

So last month he turned to Instagram. He is using the social media platform to share short videos of his history and post them to the account he calls quarantine_chats_with_gramps. Higgins is one of the oldest living survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor, which the U.S. surgeon general recently compared to the coronavirus pandemic.

Higgins has five videos so far and a growing following of about 40 people, and counting.

He’s doing it from his Bend home he shares with his granddaughter, Angela Norton, and her family: Husband, Ryan, and their 5-year-old son, Josiah, and 6-month-old daughter, Nolle.

Higgins, who spent his career in radio engineering after serving as a radio operator in the Navy, never heard of Instagram until his granddaughter set up the account for him.

“I don’t even know what it is,” Higgins said in the first video he recorded on Instagram on March 22. “That came along after I got out of the electronics business.”

Norton uses her cellphone to record her grandfather’s stories for the Instagram account. The posts follow the events of his life in chronological order.

In one video, Higgins recalls his first childhood memory, of a circus coming to his small Oklahoma town.

 “We were running down the street following the circus wagon,” he said in the video. “Seeing all those tigers and lions and stuff we had never seen before.”

In the latest video, posted Thursday, Higgins talks about living through the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

Soon he will discuss Pearl Harbor, Norton said.

The account also features fun posts showing Higgins feeding his 6-month-old great-granddaughter, Nolle, and him dancing to Justin Timberlake’s song, “Can’t stop the feeling.”

 “We are trying to keep his mind active and sharp,” Norton said. “And keep him engaged.”

Higgins’ Pearl Harbor experience is a story his family knows well.

Higgins, then a 20-year-old Navy radio operator, was two years into his service when Japanese planes roared over his barracks on Ford Island on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.

Through gunfire and bombs dropping, Higgins cleared the wreckage from the airfield to salvage planes that were still intact and prepared them for flight.

Daniel Martinez, chief historian for the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument in Honolulu, Hawaii, said the Ford Island airfield where Higgins served is considered ground zero of the Japanese attack.

“He would have witnessed the opening of the attack on Pearl Harbor,” Martinez said.

It is difficult to track how many Pearl Harbor survivors are still alive since there is no official count being kept, Martinez said.

But Higgins is among the oldest living survivors in the nation, he said.

It’s simple math. A survivor who was 18 during the attack would be 96 today.

The number of survivors keeps dwindling. Higgins was one of six survivors in Bend, and now he’s the only one.

At the national anniversary ceremony in Honolulu last year, only about a dozen survivors were in attendance. At the 75th anniversary, three years ago, about 200 survivors made the trip to Hawaii.

 “Every generation goes through that, and we are going through that with our World War II veterans,” Martinez said.

Martinez worries that many of the remaining survivors are vulnerable to COVID-19 and are in nursing homes that are susceptible to the virus.

 “How many have we lost that we don’t know?” he said.

Higgins’ family is grateful he is not in an assisted living facility, where they wouldn’t be allowed to see him during the pandemic.

The family is making sure Higgins stays healthy through the isolation, and does his daily exercises.

Friends have offered to grocery shop for the family to reduce the risk of exposing Higgins to the virus.

 “We are trying to protect him,” Norton said. “All our friends have offered to go to the grocery store because they know we are a high-risk family.”

Higgins is motivated to get past the pandemic and return to Pearl Harbor for the 80th anniversary next year, when he is 100.

And he has plans beyond that.

 “I want to outlive my wife’s brother-in-law,” Higgins said, “who was 106.”

Higgin’s married his wife, Winnie Ruth Higgins, in 1944, and they were together for 60 years until her death in 2004.

While the pandemic isolation can be difficult, Higgins is making the best of it. He likes to sit in his La-Z-Boy chair and watch the History Channel. He also gets to spend extra time with his great-grandchildren.

 “For the last month, we have been home every night cooking dinner together and being outside when the weather is nice,” Norton said. “There has been a ton more quality time at home.”

On Wednesday, Higgins sat in a chair on the front porch to record a video for his Instagram account.

Norton aimed her cellphone at her grandfather as he talked about farming during the Great Depression. He recalled planting watermelons between other crops so he would have watermelons to drink instead of having to carry a water jug.

Norton paused the video and told her grandfather, “You could tell hours of stories, couldn’t you?”

Higgins smiled and nodded his head.

 “Well I don’t know,” he said. “If you give me a starting point, I might be able to.”

This story is published as part of a collaborative of news organizations across Oregon sharing stories in the public interest. The Malheur Enterprise is part of the collaborative.