Precisely four years from the day he returned to "The Pearl" for the last time, Eldon Baxter died.
Baxter, 97, was the Quad-Cities' last known survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He died Monday.
Baxter's daughter, Nancy Barton, said her dad's goal was to live to be 100. But hospice help was called in Sunday as his health worsened. It seemed to her that he was fighting death, Barton said, so she tried to help him let go.
"I guess he was waiting for me to say goodbye," she said. "I said goodbye, and a few minutes later, he was gone."
Father and daughter spent a lot of time together. Baxter moved in with Barton after his wife died in 2011. He suffered a stroke last year that finally put limitations on an active lifestyle that lasted well into his 90s, including weekly rounds of golf.
Until the summer before last, Barton regularly delivered her dad to the Elks Club, so he could have a few beers with friends. He never disappointed an audience when it came time to recall "The Pearl."
"You say 'Pearl Harbor' to him, and you're there for two hours," Barton said, adding that she never tired of his tales. She said she heard about the infamous start of the U.S. involvement in World War II for her entire life, and she was proud to be present at the Pearl Harbor memorial when the commander of the Pacific fleet sought out her father and shook his hand.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Baxter was a storekeeper aboard the U.S.S. West Virginia when Japanese bombers attacked the U.S. Naval base at Oahu, Hawaii. He survived when 106 of his fellow crew members perished.
For Baxter, that day was the most memorable of his life. As he aged, his memory faded, but his recollections of Pearl Harbor were spared.
I had the honor of interviewing Baxter several times. He took considerable pleasure in his celebrity status among local veterans, and his stories about "The Pearl" were specific, succinct and emotionally animated.
For the 72nd anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 2013, Vietnam Veterans Association Chapter 299 paid for Baxter and Alvis "Al" Taylor to return to the Pacific island for ceremonies at the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial.
Taylor, also a Pearl Harbor survivor, died Jan. 16. He was 93.
While Taylor was uneasy about returning to Pearl Harbor, fearing what memories the trip might awaken, Baxter was eager and excited. On a previous trip, he said, "Everybody wanted to hear from me."
At his home in December 2011, Baxter told me he didn't wish to talk about the future, only the past. His most keen memories were 70 years old. He didn't trust his memory with anything, except Pearl Harbor.
"The first Japanese bomber I saw flew over the (USS) Arizona, and the pilot waved at us," he began. "That's how close he was. I saw the first torpedo. It was about 300 yards off. They just kept coming.
"Did I think we would all die? I didn't have time to figure nothing. After all the torpedoes and bombs were hitting us, we got the call to abandon ship.
"There were two waves (to the attack), and we prayed like hell. Our prayers were answered, because the rescue boat came."
The battleship was listing so badly from its wounds, Baxter had to take only one step down to reach the lifeboat.
As he told his story, his voice grew steady and sure.
"Find a vehicle with a key in it and head for the bomb shelter!" he nearly shouted. "All we could do was watch. A bomb was dropped right down the smokestack of the Arizona. That's what blew it up."
The blows kept coming — even after the Japanese had exhausted their bombs.
"It was either Dec. 8 or 9, and we were at a receiving station, getting our new ship assignments," he said. "I was told, ‘Sit down here right away and write a letter home.'"
But the damage had been done. Baxter's family in Davenport received word of his death long before his letter arrived.
"My parents got notified by the Department of Navy that I'd been killed in action," he said. "They had a funeral for me. Three of us from the area were in the newspaper, and the story said we'd been killed."
About two years later, while on his first leave from the Navy, Baxter's mother took him to the basement of the family home. Then, she called the local newspaper.
"She had them take a picture of me with the spray of flowers from my funeral," he said.
"It's something that stays clear in your mind. But I don't have trouble sleeping at night. It was just something that happened. We had no control over it."
Jack T. Smith, an honorary member of the Mississippi Valley Pearl Harbor Survivor Association, said Baxter was an original member of the group that was formed in 1951. He remained active until about two years ago.
He will be laid to rest Thursday — the 76th anniversary of the attack — at Rock Island National Cemetery, Arsenal Island, in the casket selected by his daughter.
"It has an American flag on the inside of the lid, and small flags on the inside corners," she said. "He would like that. He had a real connection with the flag."