A funeral procession fit for an American hero traveled through the streets of San Diego Thursday in honor of the late Ray Chavez, who was the oldest veteran survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Chavez died peacefully in his sleep on Nov. 21. He was 106.
A day of tributes to the Navy sailor began with a funeral procession made of Patriot Guard Riders, a nonprofit group that works with the family of lost veterans and service members. The group of motorcycle riders led Chavez' casket from a funeral home to St. Michael's Catholic Church, where his funeral service was held.
During the service, family members and close friends spoke about the passing of the great man they knew.
"Uncle was just an amazing man. He was a hard worker," Summer Serrano, Chavez's great-niece said. "He worked until he was 96 years old and he didn't think he could pass a driving test so that's why he stopped working."
She said he was a humble, loving family man.
"He always planned our family reunions just to keep us together and that is why the extended family is here today," she said.
Chavez has a shoulder injury that made it painful to raise his hand above his shoulder but that didn't stop home from saluting the color guard when he threw out the first pitch at a Padres game in 2015, his nephew said.
"Halfway through the song, he started losing his grip. He couldn't hold his salute," the nephew said. "So he took his good arm in hand and held his arm up to finish his salute. That is the kind of a man Uncle Ray was."
On the way to the church, the procession passed a Poway Fire Department house, which had a sprawling American Flag raised above the route in honor of Chavez.
Pearl Harbor Veteran Ray Chavez Mourned in San Diego
Upon arrival, the admiring public stood on the sidelines, at attention, as a military honor guard carried the flag-draped casket into the church, where a private ceremony was held for loved ones.
Sean Thompson, who was Chavez's trainer for the past five years, said he trained Chavez twice a week for five years and became a close friend to Chavez.
"In just 6 short months he had put on 20 pounds of pure muscle," Thompson said. "He was now walking without the need of a walker and barely using a cane. Away went his wheelchair for daily use, and away went my notion that at some point you're too old to better yourself."
Thompson served as one of Chavez's pallbearer Thursday. He recalled a time where someone asked Chavez why he was stilling carrying his cane. "He quickly responded, 'To keep all the women off me,'" Thompson said.
One Patriot Guard Rider described the importance of being part of Chavez' funeral ceremony.
"It’s hard to say if one veteran is more special than another. Because of his age, he was the oldest surviving member of the Pearl Harbor attack, so that in itself was pretty special," the rider, who goes by "Dr. Fix It" said.
Students from St. Michael's School, which belongs to the parish where the funeral mass took place, lined the street with flags as the procession left the church. Chavez spoke to the students at the school about his Pearl Harbor experience on Veterans Day.
"It was such an honor to be there and to experience his stories and to serve at his funeral," said Daniel Gemmingeen, an eighth-grader at St. Michael who served as one of the altar servers for Chavez's funeral service.
The procession's second leg, from the church to Miramar National Cemetery, where Chavez will be buried, began around 11:30 a.m.
Chavez served missions on a minesweeper and attack transport ship and responded to Pearl Harbor on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
Chavez did not often share stories about the attack on Pearl Harbor but, on one occasion, the sailor recalled being called to active duty as one of the most important memories of his life.
"War. Being in right in the middle of it," Chavez said. "It was quite a surprise. I saw everything. Smoke and fire."
Chavez's daughter, U.S. Navy veteran Kathleen Chavez, said he had not wanted to reflect on his WWII experience until recently because, really, he was a bit shy. Kathleen is grateful, however, that Chavez was able to share his story in recent years.
"To hear those stories not just from a teacher to hear them from somebody who actually experienced those things is very moving," said Valeria Slocomb, a seventh-grader at St. Michael's. "It is very special."
As the oldest living veteran of the attack, Chavez flew to Honolulu to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Pearl Harbor in December 2016. He was accompanied by his daughter and escorted by San Diego firefighter Mitch Mendler and retired New York firefighter Joe Torillo, a survivor of the 9/11 attacks.
Last March, the Poway resident celebrated his 105th birthday with a solid workout at his gym. A couple of days later, a big party was held for him on the flight deck aboard USS Midway Museum.
Stu Hedley, president of the local chapter of Pearl Harbor survivors, said with Chavez’ passing, there are only 10 Pearl Harbor survivors remaining.