Pearl Harbor survivor turns 101, says he’s not done having birthdays

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas – Members of the 502nd Air Base Wing, along with members of the Alamo Honor Flight and family members join Pearl Harbor survivor and Air Force veteran Kenneth Platt during his 100th birthday celebration May 5. Photo By: Kathy Salazar

Sig Christenson

San Antonio Express-News

Retired Air Force Tech Sgt. Kenneth Platt says he didn’t see this day coming.

The oldest of three remaining Pearl Harbor survivors in the San Antonio area, he didn’t imagine he’d live to be 101. He’ll cross that threshold today, and he says he’s not done having birthdays.

“I feel real good about it right now,” Platt said on Sunday. “My health is holding up pretty good so far.”

Platt, former Army Staff Sgt. Heinz Bachman, 100, and retired Navy Chief Petty Officer Gilbert Meyer, 98, are the last three Alamo City veterans of Pearl Harbor. Meyer will turn 99 in July. Bachman, a native of Mülhausen, Germany, will reach 101 on Oct. 22.

Judging from his appetite, Platt’s health is excellent. At a low-key celebration Sunday at his home on the Northwest Side, near Balcones Heights, he slowly but surely demolished most of a barbecue plate: chicken, sausage and trimmings that included cole slaw, corn and pinto beans.

His wife, Lorena, 96, is amazed he’s still here.

“He worked hard. It just seemed that after he retired, he just kept doing better, where he didn’t have to get up in the morning and go to work,” she said.

A granddaughter, Marissa Scheffler, 39, of Kosciusko, just east of Poth, thinks drinking black coffee has something to do with Platt’s long life. “Look at him! He’s a strong man!” she said.

Sitting at their kitchen table , Platt and Lorena were surrounded by family and friends. Platt was dressed in jeans, a button-down, long-sleeve shirt and slippers.

Earlier this month, the couple celebrated his 101st birthday in advance with veterans and well-wishers at a Jim’s restaurant nearby. At that gathering, just like Sunday’s, Platt ate heartily and was the same gregarious guy people gravitate toward at annual Pearl Harbor Day luncheons.

At those events, you can always pick him out of the crowd, holding forth in a booming, gravelly voice.

“Her and I have been together 76 years,” Platt said of Lorena on Sunday as guests chatted in the kitchen.

Life is a long, winding road, but he takes it all in stride. Platt adapted to a profound transformation in technology while serving as an Air Force mechanic. He worked on aircrafts that ranged from World War I-era propeller planes to the B-47, a turbojet-powered strategic bomber.

“That was the first jet bomber we ever had,” he said.

Platt joined the Army two months before his 16th birthday. He spent nine years in the Army, followed by 13 in the Air. The Air Force workday — 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. — suited him better, and in the Army, he’d chafed at some of the duties, which included marching, drills and war games.

Platt’s 100th birthday came and went amid the coronavirus pandemic, yet another bullet he dodged. The first one came around 8 a.m. Sunday, Dec. 7, 1941, when he was sound asleep in Schofield Barracks in Honolulu, 18 miles from Pearl Harbor’s Battleship Row.

Platt got a rude wake-up call when bullets fired by a Japanese pilot shattered a window four feet away from where he was sleeping. The legend is that Platt crawled under his bed, but there’s some question whether that really happened.

All the weapons in the barracks were locked up that morning, and the keyholder was missing in action.

“I think they broke the case open,” said Platt’s son, Wayne. “They pried them out.”

A Japanese strike force of 353 aircraft, launched from the decks of six aircraft carriers, wrecked the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet, destroying most of the aircraft on the ground.

The enemy planes came in two waves over 75 minutes, sinking or damaging 21 ships in the most lopsided American defeat of the war. The USS Arizona, now a memorial in Honolulu, lost 1,177 sailors and Marines. The casualty total reached 2,403 Americans dead, including 68 civilians.

Congress declared war on Japan the next day.

Platt seemed to lead a charmed life. Linda Branton, 71, of Pleasanton recalled the day her dad was the leader on a mission and another soldier took his place on point.

“He changed with him, and then that guy was killed,” she said.

A neighbor, George King, recalled another close call that went Platt’s way.

“He had a choice between the Philippines and Hawaii,” said King, 85, of San Antonio. “Guess what happened if he went to the Philippines?”

American forces defending the Bataan Peninsula north of Manila Bay surrendered to the Japanese on April 9, 1942. Some 75,000 U.S. and Filipino prisoners were forced to march 66 miles to a holding area at Camp O’Donnell. Only about 54,000 made it.

Kenneth and Lorena Platt married in Lufkin on Aug 4, 1945. Days later, atomic bombs devastated the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Japan surrendered soon after, ending the war.

“A wonderful thing, the end of it,” Platt once said. “A terrible thing it started.”

Nowadays, Platt admits to feeling a little weaker every year, and he worries he’ll lose his sight in one eye to macular degeneration. But he presses on without complaint. His daughter has been diagnosed with lung cancer, but he speaks of it in a matter-of-fact tone.

“Sometimes he gets down a little bit. He was pretty worried about me in the beginning,” Branton said. “I’m glad that he seems better about it now.”

Platt’s trademark sense of humor and booming laugh haven’t deserted him. Asked what Lorena thought of his 101st birthday, he replied: “She thinks it’s wonderful.”

He followed with a story that drew a chuckle.

“I said one time when we were getting ready to go to bed, ‘You knew when you married me, you’re going to be going to bed with a 100-year-old man, did you?'”

Platt doesn’t see anything mysterious about his longevity.

“A guy asked the other day, ‘What do you attribute your long life to?”‘ he said before blowing out three candles on a cake. “You know what my answer was? I just haven’t quit breathing yet!”


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