Donald Pepin was positioned at the tip of the arrow of America's thrust into World War II. With his own eyes, he saw from his U.S. Navy ship 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 for Pepin's nation.
Pepin, one of several buddies from St. Paul's East Side who together joined the military with no great forethought only to be on the front lines in one of the most defining days in U.S. history, died 71 years after surviving the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He was 91 and died Aug. 21 following a brief illness.
The morning of Dec. 7, 1941, was like so 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 -- large enough for only two occupants -- crept into the harbor. The Ward's crew wasted no time. The second shot it fired punctured the tiny vessel, and barely an hour later the historic air assault filled the harbor sky with smoke and wails of dying Americans by the many hundreds.
"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.
'Brothers through and through'
Pepin's destiny with history did not begin with any patriotic fervor welling in a teenage boy's chest, said his daughter, Denise Pepin.
The Ward's crew was made up of Naval reservists, many from Minnesota. Among them was Pepin and seven other St. Paulites from an East Side neighborhood who signed on years before WWII "because they needed the extra money for their families," Denise Pepin said.
"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. Dad was an East Sider. That was his frame of mind at the time."
Pepin was put into active service in 1938 and transferred with other Minnesotans to San Diego and then onto Hawaii.
Once there, Denise Pepin said her father found his initial time there "very pleasant," in part thanks to shore days, when they would get a break from the ship.
"They really liked being on the beach," she said. "They'd take pictures with girls and have their beers and stuff. You know how boys are."
Those boys soon became men on 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 cloaked in doubt 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."
'It was vindication'
She said her father and his comrades for decades could never savor sinking that sub. Despite the urgent report from the Ward about its encounter, crew members have expressed frustration that headquarters in Hawaii met the dispatch with skepticism.
With the sunken mini-sub's discovery, "that's when they patted each other on the back," Pepin's daughter said. "It was vindication for them that they did their job."
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, sometimes 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 and more disturbing 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 was preceded in death by a sister, Dorothy Wilson. He is survived by daughters Diane, Debra and Denise, and son David. A celebration was scheduled for 4 to 8 p.m. Thursday at Mueller Memorial Parkway Chapel, 835 Johnson Pkwy., St. Paul, with memorial services starting at 7 p.m. Burial will be at Fort Snelling National Cemetery.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482