Luther Edward Dixon sat aboard the USS Mississippi battleship near Iceland on Dec. 7, 1941, when a voice over the loudspeaker announced that, on the other side of the globe, the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor.
“Two days after the attack … we set course for Norfolk, Virginia to get supplies, artillery and the big guns,” Dixon said. “After that, we headed down through the Panama Canal and across to the Pacific Ocean, where we rejoined the Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.”
Dixon shared his story while surrounded by a small group of family and friends gathered at his home on Friday to celebrate the veteran’s 100th birthday.
“I guess 100 is a big deal,” Dixon said. “I praise the Lord that I made it this far.”
During the intimate event, family member and Army specialist Jacob Bustamante, 24, presented Dixon with an encased American flag that included the veteran’s name and a black and white photo of the USS Mississippi.
“Yes, that’s the ship that I spent most of my time on,” said Dixon, who also received a certificate of appreciation from the office of 1st District Supervisor Robert Lovingood.
Ahead of Friday’s celebration, Judy Carbajal told the Daily Press that her father remembered how the announcement on the ship included word that the Japanese had used an “atomic bomb” in the attack.
“My dad said everybody on the battleship looked at each other in confusion and asked what an atomic bomb was since nobody heard of it,” said Carbajal, who lives across the street from her father in Hesperia.
While the announcement was incorrect, the atomic bomb was later used in 1945 when the U.S. dropped a five-ton A-bomb over the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
Carbajal described her father as “very reclusive” and “weak” due to his advanced age, but she said she was “glad that he’s here” for his birthday celebration.
“There are times when he has flashes of clarity and lucidity,” Carbajal said.
Dixon appeared extremely lucid during the gathering as he rattled off snippets of memories, including how he was born in West Virginia and was 19-years-old in July 1940 when he enlisted in the Navy, eventually serving his country for six years.
He explained how the French began building the nearly 50-mile Panama Canal on the isthmus in the 1880s, and offered a version of why U.S. took over construction in 1904.
“The French pulled out of the job because they couldn’t handle the humidity and the giant mosquitoes,” Dixon said. “But President Roosevelt finally got the job done when the U.S. bought the rights to the canal and finished the job. I traveled the canal by ship a few times during the war.”
History records that of the tens of thousands of workers who began constructing the canal, over 85% were hospitalized and 22,000 died primarily due to mosquito-borne yellow fever.
Additionally, construction of the canal by the French ceased in 1888 when funding was pulled from the project. Incessant rains, heavy landslides, and the spread of yellow fever and malaria were also mentioned among the challenges to French construction crews.
As an engineer and welder, Dixon’s main duties at Pearl Harbor included traveling by tugboat to help search for and save naval equipment that had been damaged or sunk during the attack.
Dixon recalled how he performed several underwater welding and cutting projects as he helped salvage several of the sunken ships in Pearl Harbor.
“On the Mississippi, a lot of us slept on hammocks,” Dixon said as he sat next to a short stack of books, Bibles, and dozens of framed family and military photos that dated back to the 1930s and ’40s. “When the ship swayed to one side, the hammocks would also sway. We even washed our own dishes.”
At one point, Dixon broke out into a British accent while explaining how he and his fellow sailors would share meals with allied troops in Europe.
After meeting his soon-to-be fiancé, Mary, during leave in Virginia, the couple married in 1943 when Dixon was stationed in Washington state.
“My mom was 17 and my dad was 23 when she took a train to Washington to marry him,” Carbajal said. “At their ages, it was quite scandalous at that time.”
The couple would go on to spend nearly 70 years together before Mary Dixon died in 2013.
After leaving the service, Dixon returned to his hometown in West Virginia where the couple started a family. During that time, Dixon worked at a plant that supplied sand to a glass plant, Carbajal said.
“With no future in West Virginia, my dad decided to follow his friends who moved to Michigan to work at a tank plant that was later converted to a Chrysler plant,” Carbajal said. “He worked there from 1951 to 1963. He eventually got tired of the brutal winters of the Midwest and started looking for a place to move.”
After seeing a newspaper ad about work in California, the couple and their two daughters, Judy and Deanna, eventually moved to the dryer and warmer climate of California.
From 1963 to 1976, Dixon worked at the National Can Corporation in Vernon, where he helped produce cans that held Shasta soda, cat food and spray paint.
Dixon and his family lived in Gardena, Anaheim and Rialto before moving to the High Desert in 1971. He later retired and spent nearly 20 years attending and serving at Temple Baptist Church in Hesperia.
“My dad became active in the church, where he helped widows and people who needed assistance,” Carbajal said. “He was gifted in machinery, so he did a lot of repairs at the church.”
When asked about his secret to longevity, Dixon pointed up, held back tears and said, “Praise the Lord, I hope every one of you gets born again. You must receive Jesus as Lord and savior.”
As he clutched the encased flag, Dixon recited a portion of the Lord’s prayer found in the Gospel of Matthew and a shorter version in the Gospel of Luke.
After his recital, Dixon said, “I want to go to heaven when I die and I’m ready. I know that Jesus is my savior.”
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