When Frank Kataiva wasn’t holding an audience captive with his words on top of Diamond Head in Hawaii he would often pause in reflection.
He would take a moment to look out over the azure sky and brilliant water. In the distance the now calm beaches hugging Pearl Harbor.
“I am sure it brought back a lot of memories, a lot of sad memories, thinking about those days up there when those planes came in and he couldn’t do anything fast enough to get the word to somebody else,” said Ruth, his wife of 62 years.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Kataiva, then a 20-year-old Army soldier, stood in the same location, witness to the devastating Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. He and his fellow watchman were able to fire off a few rounds from their rifles but were otherwise unable to help those in the distance.
“We had a phone up on top, and from down below, they told us, ‘This is not a practice. The Japanese are attacking Pearl Harbor,’” he told the Clarion in a 2006 interview.
Frank was ordered to man his post and report everything he witnessed directly to a Navy commander.
During a 30-year stretch, he returned to that same post every five years, marking the attack’s significant anniversaries. But 2006 was the last year he made the trip — Frank died Jan. 4, just a month after the 70th anniversary of the attack. The former Soldotna resident was 90.
He would have liked to attend 2011’s Pearl Harbor survivor ceremonies, Ruth said, but his health got in the way and he likely wouldn’t have been able to complete the hike to the top of the famous overlook.
“I don’t think I could imagine him going back even (to Hawaii) last month and not trying to make the climb,” said Cathy Williams, one of his three daughters.
In his younger years, Frank would proudly affix his Pearl Harbor “survivor hat,” hike to Diamond Head and talk with anyone and everyone about the day that shaped America’s history forever.
“They would all be gathered around dad because they realized what he was talking about,” Williams said. “(They’d say) ‘Oh my gosh, sir, can I shake your hand? And, ‘Sir, can we have our picture taken with you?’ It was a really proud moment for me.”
Frank was a man who loved to talk — the economy, politics, life — just about anything, Ruth said. But, Pearl Harbor was usually the centerpiece of his story collection. He was proud of his service, she said.
“He was always kind of hard of hearing and he would always say, ‘The war was very loud,’” Williams said. “When we got older we learned to appreciate what he would tell us.”
One such story involved youthful excitement and an old service cart still in place at Diamond Head.
“Being 19-year-olds, (on) Friday they were always in a hurry to get to town, so the best way to get from the top to the bottom would be the tram,” Williams said. “Whether it was he or the other guy up there, someone went down on the tram, took the brakes off and let them go. But, you should have heard dad say it.”
Frank’s grandson, Levi Lynch, fondly remembers his grandfather retelling stories to those in attendance at his old post.
“Everyone just connected with him all of a sudden … they wanted to be a part of history — they wanted to hear what my grandpa had to say,” he said. “It was pretty neat.”
Lynch, 32, is a Sgt. 1st Class with the Army’s 1st Special Forces Group. He said he was able to say goodbye to Frank after being granted emergency leave. He is scheduled to return to Afghanistan in a week and a half.
He had a special bond with his grandfather.
“He advised me on how to turn my life into a positive thing, do the right thing and he encouraged me to join the military,” he said. “Having seen the man that he had become and how people looked up to him and respected him — he had that vibe that when he would walk into a room he could interact with about anybody.”
The two would often share service stories and, despite the generation and technology gap, similar threads ran through the pair’s tales. He plans to tell those stories for generations to come.
“I said, ‘They are going to know about you,’” Lynch said recalling his last conversation with Frank before his death. “I’m going to try and keep his story alive as best I can, at least in our family.”