Donald Pepin was poised at the tip of the arrow of America's thrust into World War II. From his U.S. Navy ship, he witnessed the first evidence that Japan was bearing down with malice on Pearl Harbor.
And after the USS Ward fired the United States' first shots in the war at an enemy midget submarine, Japan's bombers soon filled the skies in what became a day of infamy.
Pepin, one of several buddies from St. Paul's East Side who joined the military with no great forethought, only to be thrust into the front lines in one of the most defining days in U.S. history, died Aug. 21, 71 years after surviving the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was 91.
The morning of Dec. 7, 1941, was like many others in Hawaii's Pearl Harbor. Pepin and many of his fellow Naval Reservists on the Ward -- dozens of them from St. Paul -- felt they were in paradise, yet serving their country and collecting a paycheck to boot.
Pepin was on lookout that morning, when a Japanese midget submarine crept toward the harbor. The Ward's crew wasted no time. The second torpedo it fired punctured the tiny vessel. Barely an hour later the historic air assault filled the harbor sky with smoke and the wails of dying Americans.
"You can't imagine how quick you could wake up when they start dropping bombs on you," Pepin said in an interview in December with WCCO-TV on the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Ward's crew was made up of Naval Reservists, many from Minnesota. Among them were Pepin and seven others from an East Side neighborhood who signed on years before World War II "because they needed the extra money for their families," said his daughter Denise Pepin.
"The eight of them, they all went down to St. Paul to sign up together," she said, "and they all ended up on the same ship. They were brothers through and through."
The guys were sent for training on the Great Lakes and began as part-time sailors. "They didn't really ever anticipate a war situation," she said. "When you are 16 or 17, you are thinking about gas in the car and having a girl to go on a date."
Pepin was put into active service in 1938 and transferred with other Minnesotans to San Diego and then on to Hawaii. Once there, Denise Pepin said, her father found his initial time there "very pleasant," in part thanks to shore days and breaks from the ship. "They really liked being on the beach," she said. "They'd take pictures with girls and have their beers and stuff."
Then came Dec. 7, 1941.
Denise Pepin said her father's descriptions made it sounded "like someone pulled down the shades, and from that moment life wouldn't be the same. They had bombs coming at them and planes coming at them. They had to man their guns and actively try to save their ship."
As for that sunken mini-sub, it wasn't until 2002 that searchers found it on the ocean floor, confirming an account from the Ward that had been doubted for many years. "It was intact and had a hole in the conning tower," Denise Pepin said. "It still had the torpedoes attached to it."
In honor of the many Minnesotans who served on the Ward, the 16-foot-long gun that fired on the sub sits on the State Capitol grounds near the west side of the Veterans Service Building. Alongside is a monument to the crew of the Ward.
After the war, Don "Pep" Pepin raised a family, worked a blue-collar job at a 3M plant in St. Paul and stayed in touch with his shipmates, often at "First Shot Club" reunions and in 2005 during his first trip back to Pearl Harbor in more than 60 years.
While Pepin always embraced recounting his Pearl Harbor experience, he was more reluctant to share a later duty he had while serving on the Ward in the Far East as it delivered Marines for amphibious landings.
"'We had to watch them from the deck,'" Denise Pepin recalled her father saying. "'We had to watch them go to their deaths.' He said that was really hard. Sometimes they wouldn't even make it to shore and there would be gunfire. He only talked to me once about that."
Pepin is survived by daughters Diane, Debra and Denise, and son David. Services have been held.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482