Retired Army Lt. Col. Calvin Garner survived Pearl Harbor and more than 26 years in the military.
Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker
Retired Lt. Col. Calvin Garner is a Navy veteran of World War II and an Army veteran who saw service in Vietnam.
Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker
On Saturday night - on the 61st anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack - Garner will flick the switch, illuminating the tree in front of the Columbia County Justice Center at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday.
"It think it will be a joyous occasion, I really do," Garner said.
Garner spent the early morning hours of Dec. 7, 1941, on a boat named after a World War I battle his father fought in - the Battle of the Argonne Forest. He was just an 18-year-old Navy seaman and saw horrors he'll never forget.
"During the battle, we pulled men out of the water, which was on fire from the oil," he said. "It was a hard time."
The U.S.S. Argonne was stationed in Pearl Harbor's Naval Yard Dock across from Battleship Row.
"It hit all around and they striped us and everything else, but they did not make a direct hit," Garner said.
Topside that morning, Garner heard the roar of the plane engines and assumed - as many other American soldiers did - it was more American planes practicing bombing runs with water bombs. But those weren't American planes and the bombs were filled with powder, not water.
"I saw it all. I saw the first wave," Garner said. "We saw the red dots and we knew it was the Japanese. We saw the first torpedos come and the first bombs fall."
Garner and his fellow seamen spent the next few weeks on search-and-rescue operations finding and recovering the bodies of American soldiers and sailors. They boarded the U.S.S. Arizona - half-sunk from torpedo and bomb hits - after it cooled down, attempting to identify the remaining burned bodies.
"It is just like yesterday. It was an experience," Garner said. "You had to ask the Lord to give you special strength."
As a storekeeper first class and after 4 1/2 years in the Navy, Garner left in the mid-1940's to spend seven years earning a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in theology. After graduation, he re-entered the service, this time as an Army chaplain.
Garner spent the next 22 years in the Army, retiring in 1978 as a highly-decorated lieutenant colonel. During his time, he served a year in Vietnam, among other assignments, he said.
As a military chaplain, Garner distinctly remembers many of his sermons, but one sticks out vividly.
"One of the most spiritual services that I ever conducted was on Christmas Eve night in Vietnam," Garner recalled. "I had the little makeshift chapel we had there at the compound filled with soldiers. They had their automatic weapons and firearms and hand grenades and everything. They had even made some reflectors and put the candles on them. You should experience something like that. That was ... I can still feel it. I am glad I could be with them. I am glad I could give them hope. It was an uplifting thing."
Now 79, Garner can still fit into his uniform, which bears, among other awards, two Bronze Stars and two Air Medals - one of each with an oak leaf cluster - and two Battle Stars for his service at Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway.
Today, Garner admits retirement is not nearly as eventful or suspenseful as his time in the military. But he's still going strong by regularly speaking at other churches and his own when the pastor is out and performing weddings, funerals and other services.
Because of his military career, Garner was able to travel all over the world - from London to Tokyo and back and many places in between, he said.
"It all worked out and I had wonderful experiences and I met people from every section of our nation," Garner said. "We still have the greatest country in the history of the world. It was great. I feel that I did exactly what I was supposed to do in life. I have no regrets."
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