By Kip Hill / The Spokesman-Review
Vina Mikkelsen knows the toll that the assault on Pearl Harbor — the sneak attack that launched America into World War II — had on her husband of more than six decades.
“He fought that war to the very end,” Mikkelsen, who’s been widowed for four years, said of her husband, Denis. “At night he’d just throw his arms out, fighting, trying to save himself, I guess.”
“It got so I couldn’t even sleep with him.”
The 86-year-old Mikkelsen, who married the sailor from Wilbur, Washington, after a two-week courtship, now orchestrates the small ceremony commemorating the attack from her one-bedroom apartment at Harvard Park, a South Hill retirement home. With $59 in the bank for the Spokane chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association and the memories of hosting monthly gatherings of veterans at the home she made with Denis in Medical Lake, Mikkelsen said she’s determined to defy the march of time and continue honoring those who woke up to the horror of a Japanese attack that killed 2,403 people.
“I just think it’s important that we do something for Pearl Harbor,” Mikkelsen said. “For my husband.”
A small group of widows, family members and friends will gather Thursday at Harvard Park for lunch and then a trip in the Spokane Transit Authority’s Stars and Stripes bus to the Pearl Harbor memorial at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. A short ceremony is scheduled when the group arrives around 1:30 p.m.
In the past, when the group numbered closer to 100, veterans would scatter flowers and leis in the Spokane River. In 1965, the group hosted Capt. Mitsuo Fuchida, the Japanese commander of the attack who would later become a Christian evangelist, according to newspaper accounts.
Denis Mikkelsen swam from the burning deck of the USS West Virginia, one of the American warships torpedoed and strafed in the attack that began before 8 a.m. that Sunday. The Navy radioman told The Spokesman-Review in a 2007 interview he was ordered to douse ammunition with a hose to prevent the same type of explosion that sank the USS Arizona, killing 1,177 crew members, when there was a rumble beneath the main deck.
“I thought, this is the end,” Denis Mikkelsen said.
Instead, Denis Mikkelsen was ferried away from the wreckage and finished his career in the Navy in 1964. The couple moved to Spokane to be close to Fairchild Air Force Base, where he received medical care. They eventually settled on a 20-acre plot in Medical Lake where they raised beefalo, a cattle-bison hybrid, and Vina Mikkelsen volunteered in the church.
Vina Mikkelsen said her husband initially resisted joining the local chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which was chartered in 1963 under the auspices of longtime chairman James Sinnott. At its height, the group boasted 125 active members from around the area.
“Our daughter was working for Tom Foley, and a guy went in there looking for something for the Pearl Harbor survivors,” Mikkelsen said. “She said, well, my daddy was one.”
That day, sometime in the early 1980s, Denis Mikkelsen got a call from Sinnott, Vina Mikkelsen said. He quickly joined, and later served as the association’s president for several years.
Kurt Flechel also initially resisted joining the group, said his widow, Jean Flechel.
“A lot of people think it’s automatic, but it wasn’t,” Flechel, 91, said. “I’m sure there are still survivors around that never were part of any group. My husband reacted to a lot of pressure to join.”
Kurt Flechel was serving as a pharmacist mate in the Navy’s dispensary on Ford Island, his wife said. A Japanese bomb exploded in the building’s open courtyard during the attack, but the medical facility remained operational to treat the wounded.
After the war, Kurt Flechel finished his deployment as a Navy deep sea diver, exploring sunken Japanese subs for intelligence, Jean Flechel said. He died in 1972, but she continued attending the meetings of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, where she met Vina and Denis Mikkelsen.
“Vina, bless her heart, she’s still trying to keep the group going,” Jean Flechel said.
The guest of honor at Thursday’s remembrance will be Ray Garland, the association’s final living service member. He was stationed on the USS Tennessee the day of the attack. A Marine, Garland was electrically shocked trying to douse a fire in the officer’s quarters.
“I just remember, in the sick bay, they were really busy with all those that were seriously wounded,” said Garland, now 95 and living in Coeur d’Alene.
Vina Mikkelsen plans to lend Garland the jacket bearing the association’s name that belonged to her husband for the ceremony, a tradition that started when Denis Mikkelsen died in 2013. Garland said he doesn’t have a jacket of his own.
“I’m kind of a lonesome dog,” Garland said. “I don’t have anybody else I have too much in common with.”
Garland’s ship was right next to Mikkelsen’s when the Japanese bombs began to fall. Now, Garland signs the postcards of children who send them to his home for an autograph as a survivor of the attack.
“I’ve probably done 30 or 40 requests for kids,” Garland said.
For Vina Mikkelsen, the continued observances of the attack’s anniversary are about preserving, however small, the companionship her husband felt with others who’d survived the nation’s first attack of the Second World War.
“Somebody has to do this, and the organizations, they’ve all folded, there’s not many left,” she said. “It’ll get smaller and smaller and smaller. Maybe it’ll die, who knows? But I’m going to try as long as I can.
“And I think that’s what Denny would want me to do.”