96-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor insists he’s lived ‘a normal life’

  • Walter Borchert puts his hand on his during taps at the end of the Pearl Harbor Remembrance 2017 at the New Hampshire Veterans Home event on Thursday, December 7, 2017 in Tilton. Borchert was a young sailor aboard the destroyer USS Worden at Pearl Harbor that fateful morning 76 years ago. GEOFF FORESTER—Concord Monitor

  • A veteran holds the program for the 2017 Pearl Harbor Remembrance ceremony at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton on Thursday. GEOFF FORESTER / Concord Monitor

Monitor staff
Thursday, December 07, 2017

Walter Borchert insists he isn’t special.
   “You could probably find five other people with a more exciting life,” the 96-year-old Pearl Harbor survivor said Thursday, glancing around the crowded auditorium at the New Hampshire Veterans Home in Tilton.

And by some measures, Borchert is right. After he left the Navy, he married his wife, Gloria, had a son and moved to New Hampshire. He worked for a number of years at a company that serviced milk machines.

But he was there in that tranquil Hawaiian harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, a date which will live in infamy as President Franklin Roosevelt later put it.

Borchert is one of a few people still alive today who witnessed the attack in which more than 2,000 Americans were killed.

Borchert was 18 years old and working on the USS Worden in Hawaii. He was hanging out in the galley, below the main deck, when the first Japanese bombs dropped.

“I was eating an egg sandwich and drinking a cup of coffee when I heard this ‘pow, pow, pow’ noise,” he said.

At first, Borchert wasn’t concerned. There were target practice sessions at Pearl Harbor all the time, he said. But then the noises kept coming – and more sporadically than would be normal.

Borchert decided to climb up the ladder to the main deck to see what was going on. He saw the USS Arizona rise up out of the water after it was hit by a bomb, before it eventually sank. Japanese fighters swarmed the ship’s deck. He used his sidearm to shoot at planes with little effect. Larger guns hit their mark and he watched a few Zero fighters fall from the sky in flames.

Those are images Borchert never forgot. Even 76 years later, he has nightmares.

“I wake up and don’t know where I am,” he said. “I hear bombs dropping.”

Borchert was one of about 70 veterans gathered in the veterans home’s auditorium Thursday to commemorate the anniversary of the attack.

“Almost 3,000 people died during Pearl Harbor. Those who survived, I don’t know how they did it,” said Bill Bertholdt, president of the home’s resident council.

Most of the veterans at the ceremony were in wheelchairs, like Borchert. Those who could, stood for taps.

At 96, Borchert has trouble hearing and admits he doesn’t see well.

“Everything hurts, and what doesn’t hurt, doesn’t work,” he joked.

Borchert has lived in three different military hospitals in his older age. He said the New Hampshire Veterans Home as been by far the best.

“It’s clean, and they take good care of you,” he said.

Every day, Borchert wakes up at 4 a.m. and gets a mug of coffee with sugar and cream and a donut, which he says clears the rasp in his throat. He spends much of his time listening to audio books.

But, mostly, he misses Gloria, who passed away a few weeks ago. They were married for 74 years.

“When the phone rings, I always think it’s her,” he said.

Gloria was the one who convinced him not to go back into the Navy after the war. She said she wouldn’t marry him if he did.

Their life together was a good one, Borchert said. He tried to move on from what he had experienced at Pearl Harbor, but the memories always remained.

“It’s something that never leaves me,” he said. “I’ll never forget what happened.”

Before he moved into the veterans home, Borchert would attend a Pearl Harbor service at his Lutheran church every year.

He corresponded with a quartermaster who served on the USS Worden who was living in Maine for a number of years before he passed away. He belonged to the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which disbanded in 2012 due to lack of participation.

There aren’t many Pearl Harbor survivors left. Experts estimate that about 2,000 out of 60,000 original survivors are still alive.

He said people come to him a lot to talk about Pearl Harbor – sometimes residents at the home, other times newspapers and TV stations.

Bourchert admitted he’s “not very talkative,” but he wants to do his part. This is the way it’s always been, he said. Time goes on, and people are scared of forgetting.

When Borchert was growing up, he remembers, he read articles about living Civil War heroes around the time of the battle of Gettysburg.

He remembers reading about one veteran who recounted the war year after year, because he wanted others not to forget. 

“His picture was in the paper constantly, every year until he passed away.”

(Leah Willingham can be reached at 369-3322, lwillingham@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @LeahMWillingham.)