When his six children were growing up, Robert Jared Dickson never talked about that Sunday morning when paradise turned to hell. Only when he was much older did the U.S. Navy veteran from Arlington share how he spent Dec. 7, 1941.
Once a Wyoming farm boy, at 19 Dickson was a sailor aboard the USS Curtiss. The seaplane tender was tied up across from Pearl Harbor’s Ford Island, moorage for the USS Arizona and other vessels on Battleship Row. He’d been at the Navy base near Honolulu just 12 days when Japan’s surprise attack killed more than 2,400 Americans.
In a 24-foot open boat, with death and destruction all around him, Dickson rescued one survivor, and later recovered bodies in the gruesome aftermath of the bombings, torpedoes and strafing.
“I don’t think I was much of a hero — more a scared kid from the farm,” Dickson said in 2012 during my first visit to his Arlington home.
Dickson, surely a hero, died at home on Oct. 22. He was 98.
“He was very happy to talk about his youth, growing up on the farm,” said Dennis Dickson, one of the World War II veteran’s two sons. “Pearl Harbor — I knew, and I would just ask him. But he really didn’t want to talk about that,” the Arlington man said. “Closer to his elderly years, he did open up a little bit.”
Again in 2016, before a trip to Hawaii for the 75th anniversary commemoration of the Pearl Harbor attacks, the elder Dickson told his story in The Herald.
He recalled being aboard the 527-foot Curtiss, and having a “big tray of eggs and toast” when Japanese planes swooped in, “so low and close I could actually see the pilots.”
His ship was able to get underway and fire at the planes. But once he was in the smaller launch, a Japanese plane crashed into the Curtiss, causing a fire. A bomb exploded on a deck, and 20 of Dickson’s shipmates were killed.
“Two of my friends died,” said Dickson, interrupting the silence in his living room in 2012. He recalled “the worst part,” scrubbing human tissue off the Curtiss and piling body parts at a dock near the naval hospital.
Both Dickson and his ship went on to serve in the Pacific during World War II. He attended college in Wyoming for a time after the war, but soon came to the Northwest with two brothers to work at an uncle’s successful construction business. Dickson became a contractor who built hundreds of miles of roads, many for the U.S. Forest Service and Washington state.
“You couldn’t travel throughout the state without him there to explain, ‘I built that road, and I built that road,’” Dennis Dickson said.
With his wife Dawn, Dennis accompanied his father to Hawaii for Pearl Harbor 75th anniversary events in 2016.
“He was part of a brotherhood — to see it was very touching,” Dawn Dickson said, recalling a sunrise service they attended, Navy ships in the harbor, receptions, speakers and ceremonies. “It was the last big trip he ever took.”
Robert Jared Dickson is survived by his children: Kathy Dickson Johnson, Linda Dickson Jones, Robert Lewis Dickson, Dennis Lee Dickson, Ellen Dickson Slovacek and Kristine Dickson Tate.
“It was his whole life, experiences on the farm in Wyoming all through his work career,” Tate said of the book. “The chapter of his Pearl Harbor experience is compelling. It was mostly things he had written down — I didn’t want to lose his language.”
Widowed three times, he was preceded in death by: Elna Lewis Dickson, his high school sweetheart and the mother of his children; Marie Spletter Dickson and Mary Shurtleff Dickson.
Tate said her father “was a marshmallow, very loving and kind.” A lifelong member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he rarely talked about his war experiences until late in life. “Then he started telling them at schools, and he wrote them down and gave them all to us,” she said.
There are few Pearl Harbor survivors alive today. A year ago, for the first time in more than seven decades, no USS Arizona survivors were at Pearl Harbor when officials commemorated the attack’s 77th anniversary, according to The Washington Post.
On Sept. 13, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser newspaper reported the death of 98-year-old Lauren Bruner, the second to last sailor to escape the sinking USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941. The article said just three Arizona crew members were still alive in September. Bruner, in Saturday’s ceremony, was to be the final USS Arizona survivor to be interred on the sunken ship.
The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, citing federal Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, said that of the 16 million Americans who served in the war about 495,000 were alive in 2018 — and nearly 350 were dying each day.
Dawn Dickson thinks back on her father-in-law’s final trip to Pearl Harbor.
“Everybody stood and clapped on the plane,” she said. “Such honor was given to him. He had a smile on his face the whole time.”
Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; firstname.lastname@example.org.