116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Every Dec. 7, Francis Riley’s family would show their love and appreciation for his service at Pearl Harbor.
That tradition will continue as they honor the memory of the beloved patriarch who died Tuesday, July 5, the way he lived his life — on his own terms, in his own Cedar Rapids home, said granddaughter Sherry Steine Ross of Cedar Rapids.
Riley was 99, and would have turned 100 on Oct. 29.
“We lost an American hero when he died,” she said. “There’s not that many left of his Greatest Generation.”
Riley was among the last survivors of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and may have been the last Iowa survivor, although several attempts to confirm that were unsuccessful.
On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 — a date which President Franklin D. Roosevelt said “will live in infamy” — Riley was a 19-year-old Navy signalman on the USS. Vestal, a maintenance ship tethered to the ill-fated USS Arizona, so the Vestal’s crew could install a radar on the battleship.
At 7:58 a.m., Riley was raising Hawaii’s flag, known as the Union Jack, when a Japanese plane with an open cockpit flew so close to him that he could see the pilot smile and wave as he bombed the Arizona.
“I didn’t know what the hell was going on then even,” Riley said in an oral history recorded for the Grout Museum in Waterloo. “ … Then I seen the Arizona going up and busting up.” On the video, you can see tears welling up as he recalled that day.
He quickly sprang into action as the surprise attack continued. A bomb landed near him, but he wasn’t injured. The Vestal, however, was damaged by direct hits and explosions on the Arizona, and began taking on water.
The Vestal crew was ordered to abandon ship, and Riley and the others jumped into the oily water, where he said he saw the wounded and the dead. After several minutes, the crew was ordered back onboard, and Riley’s job was to get his ship moving, using a tugboat. The first tug sank, so Riley called another, which successfully moved the ship across the harbor.
Bob Neymeyer, the Grout Museum historian who came to Cedar Rapids to interview Riley in 2014, noted that Riley’s initiative saved the Vestal from going down with the Arizona, but despite other honors and medals, he was never recognized for this action.
“We have been collecting the stories of Iowa veterans since 2004, all in a digital format,” Neymeyer added. “The intent is to recognize the service and sacrifice of Iowans and make them available to the public. … Some, like Mr. Riley, have never talked about it. We appreciate them being willing to trust us with their stories.”
To hear an excerpt of his interview, go to groutmuseumdistrict.org/voices-of-iowa/detail/72816/Francis-Riley
According to the History Channel and website, the attack lasted under two hours; damaged or destroyed nearly 20 naval vessels; killed 2,400 U.S. military and civilians; and wounded another 1,000. The next day, Congress declared war on Japan.
Steine Ross said her grandfather returned to Pearl Harbor for the 50th anniversary ceremony in 1991, but was disappointed.
“He was actually pretty angry that they made it about the politicians and not about the soldiers there,” she said, “because he had to sit way far back and wasn't anywhere near the Arizona or the platform. He was more moved by going there by himself than he was (by) the actual ceremony.”
Riley, born near Mount Auburn in Benton County, enlisted in the Navy in January 1941, and after training, was stationed at Pearl Harbor. According to the Grout Museum’s history project, he served as a signalman from 1941 to 1946, and as a gunner/armed guard with Merchant Marine ships from 1942 to1944, after leaving Pearl Harbor, where he had helped salvage damaged battleships in the aftermath of the attack.
He ended up serving in all four theaters of World War II.
“I got around the world a couple of times,” he said in a 2016 Gazette interview.
Among his assignments, he was outside of Japan when the two nuclear bombs went off, Steine Ross said, and in 1946, was part of a flotilla that observed the atomic test blast at the Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands, between Hawaii and the Philippines.
“They sent them about 20 minutes outside of the islands where the bombs were set,” Steine Ross said. “They told them to cover their eyes, count to 30 and then turn around, and he literally saw the hydrogen bomb going off in the mushroom cloud. And he was in there three days later, cleaning up boats, trying to get radiation off boats.”
Over the years, he gave multiple interviews for television and newspapers, Steine Ross said, and because of internet links and searches, fielded requests from all over the world for an autographed photo.
“It’s a pretty unique story,” she said.
It’s a story she never heard until around 1997 or ’98, when she asked her grandfather to speak to her American history class at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids.
“He didn't talk to anyone in the family about it,” she said, “and after that, it still took quite a long time before he really talked about it a lot. But he would tell us stories here and there. After my grandma died in 2009, he would talk about it a lot more.”
To Steine Ross, he will always be the person who instilled in her family “the love of country, the respect for the flag, the respect for veterans — God and country — and he instilled that in us our entire lives. He didn't want to be called a hero. He did what had to be done, you know?”
But she and her sister, Lorette Vanourny, founded Deafinitely Dogs! in his honor, placing PTSD service dogs with veterans. With memorial donations that may come in the wake of his death, they’re hoping to be able to pair another dog with a veteran. Not just any dogs, but Brittany spaniels, like their grandfather raised.
“They're amazing dogs and they are amazing service dogs,” Steine Ross said.
Even though it was never diagnosed, Riley had PTSD, she believes.
“He had his moments of quick temper and then you get over it and you move on,” she said, “but there was always love. … He was a good, good man. Loved his family. Loved my grandma. It was just always family. Family and country and God.”
Riley was buried Friday in St. Joseph Cemetery, during a private family graveside service with military honors. A celebration of life will be held from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at his favorite eatery, Tommy’s Restaurant, 393 Edgewood Rd. NW, Cedar Rapids.
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