Young Donald Boehner was just 15, sitting at his mother’s kitchen table in Minneapolis, playing cribbage with a friend, when he heard the stunning radio news report that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor.
America was going to war. He was going, too.
“I told my mother right then, ‘I’m joining the Navy. I’m going to do my part,'” Boehner told Asbestos.com from his home in San Diego, California. “From that day forward, there never was any doubt in my mind what I was going to do.”
That was 71 years ago. It’s why we recognize National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day on Dec. 7.
Like most Americans that day, Boehner knew his life would change dramatically, charting the course for a career in the United States Navy that would span World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, a combat service to his country that has made him an unassuming American hero.
It also will cost him his life.
Boehner, 86 now, was diagnosed three months ago with malignant pleural mesothelioma, a deadly cancer caused by years of exposure to asbestos aboard the six different ships where he served so admirably.
He was given six to nine months to live, a prognosis he has faced with the same courage and resolve he showed throughout his career. Fluid drained from around his left lung recently has allowed him to breath again without needing oxygen, but he has declined the chemotherapy and radiation that might prolong his life another few months.
He lost his wife of 63 years, Joanne, in February, leaving him with great memories of their life together, the children they shared, and his Navy career they lived.
“He told me, what’s the point of chemo if it means just a couple more months,” daughter Sandy Munger said. “He says ‘I’ve got a date with my lady, and she’s waiting for me.’ He really loved our mother. He taught me what true love is.”
Although Sandy lives with her own family just 30 minutes away, and visits him often, Boehner lives alone at his insistence now in the mobile home he once shared with Joanne. He receives Hospice Care once a week.
He remains stubbornly independent, but at a much slower pace. He has accepted the coughing, and the trouble catching his breath. He still drives short distances. He and Sandy went gambling together at a nearby casino a few weeks ago. Neighbors found him recently up on a ladder, looking at the roof of his home, where a shingle had blown off in high winds.
The thought of waiting for help is foreign to him, much like it was 71 years ago when he leaned closer to the radio for more details of Pearl Harbor, where 2,402 Americans died and 1,282 were wounded. Four Navy battleships, four cruisers and an anti-aircraft training ship also were destroyed, along with 188 U.S. aircraft. The details only made him more determined.
“My mother kept saying, no, no, no, I wasn’t going, but I was determined, and she knew it,” Boehner said. “I just kept bugging her to sign the papers. Finally, she signed. I was in the Navy at 17. They called it the Kiddie Cruise.”
Boehner was sent to California for training, then left for the South Pacific to join the war. He spent much of his time in the Navy as a boiler technician , where he operated and maintained the engines and generators that powered the battleships.
He never gave any thought to the asbestos all around him, and neither did anyone else. Asbestos was critical to fireproofing the ships and insulating the parts all around him. Navy veterans today are among the most vulnerable to mesothelioma and other asbestos-related diseases.
“When you had to repair something down there, you’d cut into it, and it was like snowing in the fire room,” he said. “We thought it was funny. The ventilation was poor. That [asbestos] powder was everywhere.”
During World War II, Nelson served on USS Farenholt and USS Nelson, both destroyers. He left the Navy, but he returned for the Korean War, where he served aboard USS Isbell. He also was on USS Valley Forge, an amphibious landing ship that delivered Marines to Vietnam. He remembers when it served as a makeshift morgue.
“I went from being one of the youngest out there to one of the oldest,” he said. “I used to go to the reunions, but not anymore. There aren’t many of us left from my early years. Some of the memories don’t leave you. They never do.”
Boehner spent Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day at home Friday, mostly alone, flipping through old photos of his family, of his days in the Navy, of the good times and the bad. He still has his old Navy uniform. He has lost so much weight from being sick it just hangs on him now.
He still laughs when he remembers one of his ships docking in Charleston, South Carolina, then taking a motorcycle to Florida, where he crashed and had to hitchhike back to the base. He still winces when remembering the bodies he saw lined up on the deck of a ship alongside his.
He laments the passing of the spirit and the American patriotism he felt 71 years ago when he decided to join the Navy, because that’s how everyone felt back then.
“I hear people say today they want to live to be 100. Not me. Some of the things I see now make me glad I won’t be around much longer,” he said. “The younger generation, it just doesn’t appreciate what it has, and what we went through so they could have these things. I think the veterans understand.”