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Pearl Harbor survivor Chuck Kohler, 89, displays a photograph of himself in 1946 at his home in Concord, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2013. Kohler will be giving a talk at the USS Hornet museum in Alameda on Aug. 17 and will be presented with a quilt to help open the museum's "Quilt of Valor" exhibit. Kohler is also the grandfather of Olympian rower Kara Kohler who earned a Bronze Medal in the 2012 Olympics. Her photograph is at right along with a flag autographed by her and her teammates which she gave to her grandfather. (Susan Tripp Pollard/Bay Area News Group)

CONCORD -- In those final moments of peace on Sunday morning Dec. 7, 1941, U.S. Navy sailor E.J. "Chuck" Kohler was sitting at a typewriter in an office on Ford Island at Pearl Harbor, tapping out a letter to his mother.

"I heard the sound of an approaching aircraft in the background," said Kohler, then a 17-year-old Seaman 1st Class. "Suddenly, the sound of that plane changed and I knew immediately it was in a power dive."

Moments later, a bomb shook the building, Kohler said, blowing in windows and showering him with glass and debris.

When he ran outside, Kohler saw a Val dive bomber sweep past, a red ball painted on its wing, the symbol for the rising sun and the Imperial Japanese Navy.

"I knew right then that we were at war," said the Concord resident, now 89.

The attack that brought the United States into World War II began at 7:55 a.m. and lasted two hours. But when the smoke cleared and the last Japanese aircraft had disappeared over the horizon, 2,400 people were dead. Nearly 1,300 others were injured.

On Saturday, Kohler will give a talk about what he witnessed that fateful morning when he visits the USS Hornet, the aircraft carrier that is now a floating museum in Alameda.

His talk will open the museum's "Quilts of Valor" exhibit, which will feature quilts created by the Amador Valley Quilters of Pleasanton. Their work is part of a national project that aims to give a quilt to all service members touched by war.

The group will present quilts to Kohler, Vietnam veteran Howard "Will" Williams and Herb Constant, a veteran of the Korean War. Frank Mitchell, who served in Afghanistan, also will receive one.

Minutes after the attack on Pearl Harbor began, a duty officer ordered Kohler to take cover in a construction ditch. He refused.

Instead, Kohler and another sailor found a .50-caliber machine gun and mounted the weapon inside the waist window of a grounded PBY Catalina flying boat.

"I would want my country and my family to know that I died fighting, not hiding," Kohler said.

The gun's tracer bullets helped him aim as he fired just ahead of an attacking aircraft, he said.

"It did an abrupt rolling turn," said Kohler, who believes his bullets hit the plane, "and it was gone from my field of fire."

Billowing black smoke and the rush to care for the injured are among his most vivid memories of that morning, Kohler said.

"You knew right at the time that a lot of people were losing their lives, and (it was happening) at that very moment," he said.

Born in January 1924 in a log cabin in Hampden Township in Minnesota, Kohler left school in the eighth grade to help run his family's farm. He joined the Navy in April 1941 at age 17.

"The Navy seemed romantic," Kohler said. "They promised you travel. They promised you a trade. They promised you excitement."

After training as an aircraft metal worker, Kohler was assigned to Aerial Patrol Squadron VP23 and arrived in Hawaii in early October 1941. By then, Nazi Germany dominated Europe and the Japanese were poised to sweep through the Pacific.

Americans sensed they would be drawn into the war, but were still blindsided by the Pearl Harbor attack, Kohler said.

Kohler underwent additional training after the Japanese raid on Hawaii, including in preparation for the United States' invasion of the Majuro Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands, in January 1944.

After he left the Navy in 1947 as a Petty Officer 1st Class, Kohler worked a variety of jobs, including in road construction, and in June 1954, married his wife, Judith. The couple has four children, 16 grandchildren and 19 great-grandchildren.

Kohler said he rarely spoke about what he experienced on Dec. 7, 1941. But that changed six years ago, when he gave a talk to a group at his Mormon church.

Until then, even Kohler's son did not know that he was a Pearl Harbor survivor.

Kohler now gives talks to anyone who will listen.

"I represent more than 2,400 other guys who don't get to stand and speak for themselves," he said.

Kohler never finished the letter that he was writing to his mother when the raid on Pearl Harbor began.

After that first explosion, he said, a thought flashed through his mind: An officer might reprimand him because his duties did not include office work or using a typewriter.

"I reached back and grabbed that letter, crumpled it in my hand and threw it away," Kohler said. "I wish now that I had kept it. It would have been a real memento."

Reach Peter Hegarty at 510-748-1654 or follow him on Twitter.com/Peter_Hegarty.

IF YOU GO
Pearl Harbor survivor E.J. "Chuck" Kohler of Concord will speak and unveil the "Quilts of Valor" exhibit at 1 p.m. Saturday aboard the USS Hornet, 707 W. Hornet Ave., Pier 3 in Alameda. For information, visit www.uss-hornet.org or call 510-521-8448.