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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, June 26, 2004

James Daniels, Dec. 7 friendly-fire survivor

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

He was the last surviving pilot who could tell the story, the only one who landed safely when the sky above Pearl Harbor erupted the night of Dec. 7, 1941, with friendly fire.

At anniversary ceremonies, he would honor the memory of the pilots killed in the fusillade — all of them good friends — by telling their story.

But time caught up with retired Navy Capt. James G. Daniels III. He died Monday. He was 88.

Daniels was born in Missouri in 1915. He was a veteran of three wars and flew 120 combat missions. He commanded the aircraft carrier USS Ticonderoga off the coast of Vietnam.

More than once, he saw good pilots shot down.

The ones that seemed to haunt him most, though, were killed that first night of World War II.

Daniels and five other pilots, who were at sea during the surprise attack, had spent much of the day searching for the Japanese fleet. Finding nothing, they were ordered to land at Ford Island.

Panicky sailors thought they were the enemy. Five of the planes were shot down and three of the pilots killed, including one who took a 50-caliber round in the chest as he floated to the ground in his parachute.

Daniels always felt he was lucky to have survived.

In 2001, as Pearl Harbor survivors prepared to mark the 60th anniversary of the attack, Daniels was moved that he was the last one left.

"You think about it a lot," he said in an interview. "You are the only guy left alive. It scares the hell out of you. Why were you picked on to be the only guy left alive out of that day? I can't outguess the Lord."

Daniels retired from the Navy after 35 years. He was a longtime Kailua resident but died in a Hawai'i Kai retirement home.

Few people had heard the details of the friendly-fire landing until Daniels, at the urging of friends and family, started telling people about it after his retirement, said his son, Jay Daniels.

Its place in history is secure now, but Jay Daniels, 50, of Thousand Oaks, Calif., wondered if it will become a footnote.

"I think it will fade without him there to tell the story," he said. "That's the sad part about it."

Until three weeks ago, the elder Daniels was still making regular trips to the USS Arizona Memorial Visitors Center to sign military history books.

He would sit there for hours, even though Parkinson's disease made it difficult for him to sign, said his daughter, Bonnie Daniels Gardner, 62, of San Diego.

"It was his mission, really, to keep alive the names of those pilots," she said. "He always wanted to tell the story."

In 1995, Daniels was honored by President Clinton at ceremonies marking the 50th anniversary of V-J Day. The pilot's story was a touchpoint for Clinton's speech at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific because Daniels had been in the air on the first and the last days of the war.

After the Punchbowl ceremony, Daniels tried to put it all in context.

"This is the last hurrah for all of us," he said that day as the crowd dispersed. "They won't be able to put this on for us again because they won't have us. "

Daniels will be buried Wednesday at Punchbowl with military honors. The funeral will start at 11:30 a.m.

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8012.