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1919-2019: Joe Walsh, one of region’s last surviving Pearl Harbor veterans, has died

Pearl Harbor survivor Joe Walsh, 97, of Fallbrook, tosses flower petals in the water during the Pearl Harbor memorial event at the Oceanside Harbor's fishing pier. At left is his son Tom Walsh, of Oregon. (The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

Back in 1987, Marine veteran Joe Walsh co-founded the North County chapter of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association because he believed the men he served with on that fateful day of Dec. 7, 1941, “deserved to be remembered.”

Now it’s his turn. On Dec. 21, Walsh passed away after a brief illness at the Pacifica Senior Living complex in Vista. He was 100 years old.

Walsh was the last surviving active member of the association’s Chapter 31, following the death last February of chapter co-founder John Quier, 98, of Fallbrook.

As the chapter’s longtime president, Walsh organized Pearl Harbor Memorial Day services each Dec. 7 at Oceanside Harbor. Over the years, he never missed a single service, including the one held earlier this month, just two weeks to the day before he died.

“I think he was holding on for this year’s service,” said daughter Joan Culver of Fallbrook.”It meant a lot to him.”

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At his 100th birthday party last March, Walsh said his memories of that morning 78 years ago were still razor-sharp.

“You don’t forget something like that,” he said.

Then a Marine in the 3rd Defense Battalion, Walsh was at a color guard ceremony in the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard when the Japanese attack began at 7:55 a.m. He and his fellow Marines manned three anti-aircraft guns, trying to shoot down the invading planes before they could sink the American battleships near the harbor’s entrance.

“I didn’t have time to get scared,” he recalled. “You don’t think about it. You did what you were told to do. You manned your gun and tried to get anyone you could.”

A few weeks after the attack, Walsh was shipped to the desolate Johnston Atoll in the South Pacific to build air defenses. Then, after a brief stint in Navy flight school, he spent the rest of the war in the Marine Corps’s VMO-8 observation squadron, according to a biography written by local World War II historian Linda Dudik.

Walsh served for nine years in the Marines, retiring at the rank of gunnery sergeant. During the Korean War he was called back to active duty to serve as a drill sergeant major at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, Culver said.

Although he was proud to have served his country, Walsh never glamorized his military experiences and he was grateful that his sons never had to fight in a war. He found those years challenging and often harsh, especially the severe deprivation he suffered on Johnston Atoll.

“It was pretty rough,” he said last spring. “All I could think of was how to get the hell out.”

A native of East Orange, N.J., Walsh joined the Marines in 1938 not for the adventure but for the steady income it would provide. It was the Great Depression and jobs were scarce. Walsh earned $19 a week in the Marines and sent $10 from every paycheck home to his mom, who had raised him and his siblings alone after his father abandoned the family when Joe was 5, Culver said.

Walsh met his future wife, LaVonne “Bea” Phaneuf, at the wedding of a fellow Marine in 1945. That marriage didn’t last, but the Walshes’ union, sealed in 1946, endured for 73 years and produced six children. Bea was also a Marine veteran, having served in the Aviation Women’s Reserve Squadron 21 at Brown Field in Quantico, Va. She was one of just 23,000 women who enlisted during World War II.

Dudik said Friday that she would visit the Walshes every Saturday at Pacifica and she and Culver would push the couple around in wheelchairs side by side. “They were a lovely couple. They held hands when we wheeled them down wide hallways and sometimes they even kissed,” Dudik said.

For decades after he left the military, Walsh never shared his war memories with his family. That changed in the mid-1980s when he was invited to speak to students at a North County school and was shocked to discover the children had never heard of the Pearl Harbor attack, Culver said.

That led to the founding of Chapter 31 and the annual memorials at Oceanside Harbor’s small-craft fishing pier. In 2006, working with his wife and Quier, Walsh successfully campaigned to have the city install a stone Pearl Harbor memorial monument by the pier.

“The guys who were over there who didn’t make it back deserved to be remembered,” Walsh said in March. “We didn’t want to forget any of them.”

At its peak in the 1990s, Chapter 31 had 130 members. That count gradually dwindled in recent years as members passed away. At this month’s Pearl Harbor Memorial Day ceremony in Oceanside, the only two Pearl Harbor veterans in attendance were Walsh and Oceanside resident George Coburn, 99, who served on the USS Oklahoma, which was sunk by a torpedo during the attack.

After World War II, Walsh returned to New Jersey where he earned a business degree at Seton Hall University. Except for his Korean War years in El Toro, he spent the rest of his career working for Prentice Hall Publishing. From his home in Encinitas, he traveled by car throughout the Southwest selling legal and tax books to judges, lawyers and CPAs. He retired in 1986 at age 67, and moved with Bea to Fallbrook, where the couple lived for nearly 30 years before moving to Pacifica Senior Living a few years ago.

Walsh is survived by his wife and their six children: Kate Walsh of San Diego; Joan Culver of Fallbrook; Patrick Walsh of Arizona; Mary Adams of Portola Valley; Thomas Walsh of Oregon; and Christopher Walsh of Encinitas; as well as many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Walsh’s ashes will be interred in a brief graveside service at 12:30 p.m. Jan. 27 at Miramar National Cemetery in San Diego. Culver said his tombstone will be engraved with the words “Prince of a Fellow,” the beloved and fitting nickname by which her father was known among family and friends since his boyhood days.

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© 2019 The San Diego Union-Tribune