As a combat veteran and a retired, award-winning TV news and sports camera operator, George Larsen told good stories. An old one recounted how he first thought it was an earthquake that rattled him awake in Hawaii on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
“Then I heard sounds like heavy thunder,” the ex-U.S. Coast Guardsman wrote in his memoir.
“As I was getting dressed I heard faint sounds of airplane engines,” Larsen wrote.
Then a 22-year-old radio operator from Marin County, he ran outside his quarters at the Coast Guard’s Diamond Head lighthouse in Honolulu to see three airplanes with “big red dots on their wings” fly in formation toward Pearl Harbor.
The surprise attack by the Japanese Imperial Navy that drew the U.S. into World War II had begun. All through that war Larsen traveled the world with the Coast Guard.
Afterward he became a pioneer TV technician. In 1978, he produced the visuals to an NBC news report on the assassinations of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk that brought him an Emmy.
Larsen, who lived most of his life in Marin County and for decades was indispensable to activities there of the former Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, died Monday at a Petaluma care home. He was 101.
Larsen was one of the nation’s oldest Coast Guard veterans. His passing leaves in Sonoma County only one known veteran of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
“He was a larger-than-life person,” said his daughter, Tracy Brooks of Petaluma. She said her dad stayed on the go into his 90s by traveling with his late wife, Patricia, sailing, skiing and playing golf.
“He loved telling stories,” Brooks added. “And he was very funny.”
Larsen was born in San Francisco on Feb. 21, 1918, and grew up in Mill Valley. After graduating from San Rafael High School he looked with spotty success for work.
He recalled in his 2007 memoir, “On the Edge of War,” that a resistance to being drafted into the Army prompted him to enlist in the Coast Guard.
“It was October 29, 1939, when I took the oath,” he wrote.
He trained as a radio operator and in time was stationed at the Coast Guard’s shore radio station alongside the Diamond Head Lighthouse.
When the attack came that Sunday morning in December of 1941, it took Larsen a while to realize that it was not a simulation but was real, and that Japanese boats might appear at the shore at any time.
He wrote that from the lighthouse at Honolulu he and his watch partner “could see huge columns of black smoke billowing up into the sky. We could feel the concussion and hear the explosions from this second attack. We wondered how many sailors, marines, soldiers and civilians were killed or wounded.”
The following day, Larsen was ordered onto a rescue mission on the small island of Niihau, off of Kauai. It was populated by native Hawaiians.
He wrote in his book, “It seems that a Japanese fighter plane had crashed on Niihau and the pilot had taken control of the island. I guess officially this was the first territory that the Japanese had captured from the USA.”
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