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Barnum alumnus recalls fiery start to World War II

Age 92, Donald Long enjoys driving back to Barnum from California each summer to visit high school friends and favorite places. Long attended a total of 12 schools from first through 12th grade, but said he feels very lucky that he got to spend all his high school years in Barnum. Jana Peterson/

You've heard of baptism by fire?

Such was the beginning of World War II for Barnum graduate Donald Long.

A member of the Barnum High School Class of 1939, Long started in the Navy in March 1941 after a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in Tofte, Minn. By Dec. 7, he had been stationed at Kaneohe Bay Naval Air Station -- across the island of Oahu from Pearl Harbor -- as part of the VP-12 squadron for a few months.

As Long tells it, that morning he was assigned to be aboard one of the planes anchored out in the bay.

"Because the squadron didn't have enough sets of beaching gear, or wheels, three of the planes always had to be in the air or water," Long explained.

His watch began at 7:45 a.m. that morning, when he was dropped off at the PBY (aka the Catalina Flying Boat). When he got there, he took a quick look around to make sure everything was in order and tested the Aldis Lamp he would be using for signal practice (done with blinker and flags).

Just before 8 a.m. he was looking toward the shore for the signal lights when suddenly he heard the sound of aircraft flying nearby and the sound of explosions. He initially assumed it was the Army Air Corps out for some Sunday morning practice runs.

He quickly figured out he was wrong.

"The sequence of events over the next few minutes is not entirely clear," he wrote in 1992, 51 years after the attack. "I saw aircraft flying over the hangars and explosions and fires on the ground. Moments later a plane anchored near mine began to burn violently after being strafed. (The old aircraft fuel tanks were not 'bullet proof' and the fuel leaked out and was ignited by the shells.) Seconds later, one of the attacking planes made a run in my direction."

Long bolted from the pilot's seat and went to grab a life jacket as the bullets hit his plane.

"I remember seeing little water fountains shoot up as the machine gun bullets went through the bottom of the plane," he wrote. "They hit the wing tanks, too, and almost immediately the entire plane was engulfed in flames -- with me in the middle of the fire. At this point, I know I thought, 'Get out!' and I dashed toward the rear exit through the flames with no more thoughts of a life jacket."

He dove into water covered with burning gasoline. Luckily, Long could swim.

"We were taught to swim through fire on water during boot camp," he said. "I don't recall being burned, but I found out later that I was. I was aware of how difficult it was to swim with my shoes on -- heavy, high-top, regulation work shoes."

When he got 15 to 20 yards from the plane, Long went under the water and removed his shoes. In the meantime, the attacking planes made one or two more runs on the plane he'd been guarding and it quickly sank. Worries that he would be their next target turned out to be unfounded.

Only two or three minutes had passed since the attack began, but when Long looked around the hangars and planes on shore were all burning; the planes on the water were either burning or sunk.

Kaneohe Bay was attacked five minutes before Pearl Harbor.

Twenty people died at Kaneohe Bay that bright Sunday morning that suddenly turned deadly. Two of the dead were civilians; the rest were young American sailors who never dreamed their Navy service would so quickly turn deadly. They were buried on the air station where they had thought they would find their tour of duty in Paradise.

"The attacking planes were low enough so I could see the rising sun markings [of Japan] and I must have realized we were under attack, but my first thoughts were of my personal wellbeing because I was still floundering out in the bay some 1,000 to 2,000 yards from shore," he wrote.

He spied a channel marker about 100 yards away and swam over to it. A triangular structure anchored to a thick wooden base about four feet square, he climbed on top and spotted a boat that was out looking for survivors. They took him back to shore, where Long was greeted by shipmates who had thought he was a goner.

He was the only survivor off the three planes that had been in the water, Long found out later. And while only 20 died at Kaneohe Bay -- a fairly small Navy base -- that morning, the assault claimed the lives of more than 2,500 people, wounded 1,000 more and damaged or destroyed 18 American ships and nearly 300 airplanes, according to the website.

"I was told I looked pretty bad," said Long, who was awarded a Purple Heart medal for his injuries in the line of duty. "My head, face and arms were burned and I suppose the oil and salt water didn't help my appearance. I was taken to sick bay where, by comparison to other survivors, I was in perfect health."

After being treated and bandaged, Long was back on the job the same morning to guard against possible Japanese landing parties. A day or two later, he was pictured in a Duluth newspaper as a local boy who survived the attack that shocked the nation. The oldest of Bert and Anna Long's six children, the news that he survived the attack was greeted with much relief by family and friends at home in Minnesota.

Long served during WWII as a radioman and a gunner on PBY patrol boats in the Pacific area, seeing action at Pearl Harbor, the Battle of Midway, Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands, among other locations. When the war ended, he remained in the Navy for a total of 22 years, becoming a pilot, then a flight instructor.

A life well lived

It's been over 70 years since that day in December. Now Long is a tall, lanky 92-year-old man whose had at least three careers -- as a Navy pilot, a high school teacher and a sport fishing guide -- and a long, happy marriage. He met his wife, Madeline, at a roller rink.

"I remember, your mother was a little concerned that you'd met someone at a USO," said Iris Johnson, a lifelong friend who met Long shortly after he and his family moved to Barnum the summer before his freshman year.

Long chuckled, admitting that he may have fibbed to his mother about where he met Madeline.

"The USO was a more respectable place to meet a girl than a roller rink," he said.

She was a beautiful girl, Johnson said. Long agreed. "Like a movie star," he said about the daughter of Swedish immigrants, noting that they met in 1941 when he was going to radio school in Oakland, Calif.

They didn't marry until 1943.

"I met her before the war, but then lots of things changed in a hurry," he said. "We corresponded. I came back to the States and we dated a few times."

When they married, the chaplain asked them how long they'd known each other. It eased his mind, Long said, when they told him two years.

"There were so dang many wartime marriages, where folks would meet one day and get married the next," he said.

Madeline and Donald had one daughter, who goes by Kit, or Kitty. Kitty has two sons, now grown, named Ben and Andrew. They all live in California, which is where Don and Madeline stayed after they were married.

They were married 64 years. Over that time, Long finished his career in the Navy -- peacetime duties included stints in Newfoundland and Iceland -- then went back to school to get his teaching certificate.

After he retired from teaching, Long worked with a sports-fishing charter boat outfit that ran from San Diego to Mexico. Did we mention Long also has a Coast Guard license to carry passengers?

"We spent many winters in Mexico, in Caba San Lucas," he said.

Making a list

When Madeline died six years ago, Long decided it was time he started checking a few things off his bucket list.

"Coming back here, to Barnum [and many other places in the upper Midwest, from Iowa to Wisconsin and even Canada] by myself was first. Well, with the dog," he said on a trip back in 2012. "I've accomplished that about four times now."

It's not that Long hadn't visited when he was married. He had. Sometimes the whole family would fly, or drive a motor home; another time he came with just one grandson on a camping trip.

No. 2 on the list?

"I want to fly an airplane again," he said, estimating that he's flown 34 kinds of airplanes during his years as a Navy flight instructor and pilot. "Of course, I would do it with a licensed instructor. The consequences are pretty dire if you make a mistake in an airplane."

It seems many of his wishes are related to transportation.

Long also said he wants to ride a horse again.

"I've been exercising," he said. "I think I could do it."

He likely could. He looks as healthy as a horse, his wits are sharp and his humor lively. He's a get-it-done kind of guy, one who isn't content to sit in an armchair and watch the world go by. Sometimes it gets a little scary, but he wouldn't want it any other way.

Like the time he was canoeing a few years back -- at age 86 -- on the Sacramento River with the dog.

"The river was running reasonably fast," Long said after Johnson prodded him to tell the tale. "We were drifting in the current about 5 miles per hour, when I saw a piece of brush ahead that I couldn't avoid. I thought I could just duck."

The canoe snagged on something under the water and quickly tipped over, dumping Long, his (recently deceased) wife's dog and all his fishing equipment.

"The anchor rope twisted around one of my legs," he said. "I was wearing a life jacket, but with the current and the anchor pulling me down, I had to work pretty hard to keep my head above water."

At that point he decided he'd better take action to rid himself of the unwanted anchor.

"My biggest concern was the dog," he said with a chuckle. "I didn't know if he could swim."

Long took a deep breath and started feeling the way down his leg to the anchor rope, somehow loosening its grip. As he swam to shore, he couldn't see the dog.

"One of the most joyous moments of my life was when I saw that little black head come over the bank," he said.

He remains an avid fisherman, although now he has a different canine companion, a mixed breed dog named Tigger that he got from a shelter a couple years ago.

Long said his motto is "Moderation in all things."

"Even in moderation, be moderate," he said. "Because a toot or a binge or an extra scoop of ice cream is OK, too."

No old man

While some older folks wear alarms around their necks in case of a fall, Long wears an iPhone 4. When asked if he has a photo of his daughter and grandsons, he grabbed the phone and asked for an email address to send a photo from the phone. In short, Long is pretty technologically savvy.

"He's not like other old men," Johnson said with the fondness of an enduring friendship. "He never tells the same story twice, and he won't let me tell the same story again either. He's always doing something different. ... Even if he doesn't know people, he'll walk right up. He's always looking for something interesting."

A glance inside Long's Honda Element offers insight into the man and his hobbies, if not his thoughts.

The passenger seat has been modified so Long's only passenger -- his dog Tigger -- can more comfortably look out the window or even ride on the dashboard. Behind the front seat, fishing poles hang from the ceiling, joined by the ukulele (and its handmade case) that Johnson gave him. (He wryly notes that a ukulele is better than a guitar, because it takes up less space in the car.)

He's proud of his car and how self-sufficient he is when he travels, pulling a fishing boat behind him.

"I've got it rigged up so I can make a bed here," he said, showing how one side of the back seat will fold down so he has space to stretch out. "I sleep in the car often when I travel. I've got a fridge in there, toilet facilities. I could stay there for a week without a problem."

You see, after 92 years of living, Long isn't in a hurry. He's all about enjoying the trip.

"I enjoy revisiting places I've been," he said. "I was in Yellowstone a year ago. My wife and I had been there before, the campground where we stayed was snowed in."

He pointed out the window of long-time friend Art Goewey's cabin on Hanging Horn Lake, one of the places he enjoys visiting when he returns to Carlton County.

"A tree used to be right there. Kitty was 3, I think. I remember her out there swinging. Going back to the old places, for the me's of the world, is more important. I know I can't see all the marvelous new things there are. So going back to the old is more satisfying."