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CEDAR RAPIDS — Every December 7, Francis Riley’s family showed their love and appreciation for their service at Pearl Harbor.

This tradition will continue as they honor the memory of the beloved patriarch who died Tuesday, July 5, of how he lived his life — on his own terms, in his own Cedar Rapids home, his granddaughter said. daughter Sherry Steine ​​Ross of Cedar Rapids.

Riley was 99 and would have turned 100 on October 29.

“We lost an American hero when he died,” she said. “There isn’t much left of his greatest generation.”

Riley was among the last survivors of the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, and may have been the last survivor from Iowa, although several attempts to confirm this have failed.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941 — a date that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said would “live in infamy” — Riley was a 19-year-old Navy signalman on the USS. Vestal, a maintenance ship attached to the ill-fated USS Arizona, so that Vestal’s crew could install radar on the battleship.

At 7:58 a.m., Riley was hoisting the Hawaiian flag, known as the Union Jack, when a Japanese plane with an open cockpit flew so close to him that he could see the pilot smiling and saluting as he he was bombing Arizona.

“I didn’t even know what was going on,” Riley said in an oral history recorded for the Grout Museum in Waterloo. “…Then I saw Arizona rise and burst.” In the video, you can see tears flowing as he remembered that day.

He quickly sprang into action as the surprise attack continued. A bomb landed near him, but he was not injured. The Vestal, however, was damaged by direct hits and explosions on the Arizona and began to take on water.

Vestal’s crew were ordered to abandon ship, and Riley and the others jumped into the oily water, where he said he saw injuries and deaths. After several minutes, the crew was ordered back on board, and Riley’s job was to move his ship forward using a tug. The first tug sank, so Riley called in another, which successfully moved the ship through the harbor.

Bob Neymeyer, the Grout Museum historian who came to Cedar Rapids to interview Riley in 2014, noted that Riley’s initiative kept Vestal from going down with Arizona, but despite other honors and medals, he was never recognized for this action.

“We’ve been collecting the stories of Iowa veterans since 2004, all in a digital format,” Neymeyer added. “The intent is to recognize the service and sacrifice of Iowans and make them accessible to the public. … Some, like Mr. Riley, never talked about it. We appreciate that they agree to trust us with their stories.

To listen to an excerpt from his interview, go to

According to History Channel and website, the attack lasted less than two hours; damaged or destroyed nearly 20 warships; killed 2,400 American servicemen and civilians; and injured 1,000 others. The next day, Congress declares war on Japan.

Steine ​​Ross said his grandfather returned to Pearl Harbor for the 50th anniversary ceremony in 1991, but was disappointed.

“He was actually quite angry that they talked about the politicians and not the soldiers over there,” she said, “because he had to sit far back and was nowhere near from Arizona or from the platform. He was more moved to go there alone than to the ceremony itself.

Riley, born near Mount Auburn in Benton County, enlisted in the Navy in January 1941 and, after training, was stationed at Pearl Harbor. According to the Grout Museum’s History Project, he served as a signalman from 1941 to 1946, and as a gunner/armed guard with Merchant Navy ships from 1942 to 1944, after leaving Pearl Harbor, where he had helped save battleships damaged as a result of the attack.

He ended up serving in all four theaters of World War II.

“I’ve been around the world many times,” he said in a 2016 Gazette interview.

Among his assignments he was outside Japan when the two nuclear bombs went off, Steine ​​Ross said, and in 1946 he was part of a flotilla that observed the atomic test explosion on the atoll. of Bikini in the Marshall Islands, between Hawaii and the Philippines. .

“They sent them about 20 minutes outside of the islands where the bombs were planted,” Steine ​​Ross said. “They told them to cover their eyes, count to 30 and then turn around, and he literally saw the hydrogen bomb explode in the mushroom cloud. And he was there three days later, cleaning up boats, trying to eliminate the radiation from the boats.

Over the years, he’s given multiple television and newspaper interviews, Steine ​​Ross said, and because of internet connections and searches, he’s fielded requests from around the world for an autographed photo.

“It’s a pretty unique story,” she said.

It’s a story she never heard until around 1997 or 1998, when she asked her grandfather to speak in his American History class at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids.

“He didn’t tell anyone in the family about it,” she said, “and after that it still took a long time before he really talked about it much. But he told us stories here and there. After my grandmother died in 2009, he talked about it a lot more.

For Steine ​​Ross, he will always be the person who instilled in his family “love of country, respect for the flag, respect for veterans – God and country – and he instilled that in us all our lives. He didn’t want to be called a hero. He did the right thing, you know?

But she and her sister, Lorette Vanourny, founded Deafinitely Dogs! in his honor, placing PTSD service dogs with veterans. With memorial donations that may arise in the wake of his death, they hope to be able to pair another dog with a veteran. Not just any dogs, but Brittany Spaniels, as their grandfather raised him.

“They’re amazing dogs and they’re amazing service dogs,” Steine ​​Ross said.

Although never diagnosed, Riley suffered from PTSD, she believes.

“He had his angry moments and then you get over it and move on,” she said, “but there was always love. … He was a good, good man .Loved his family.I loved my grandma.It was just always family.Family and country and God.

Riley was buried Friday at St. Joseph’s Cemetery, in a private service at the family cemetery with full military honors. A celebration of life will be held from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Tuesday at his favorite restaurant, Tommy’s Restaurant, 393 Edgewood Rd. NW, Cedar Rapids.

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US Navy veteran Francis Riley, shown in his Cedar Rapids home in 2016, was aboard the USS Vestal the morning of the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. A photograph above the couch shows the Vestal, a maintenance ship docked alongside the USS Arizona when the aerial assault began. Riley passed away on Tuesday, July 5, 2022, at his home. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Francis Riley served in the United States Navy in all four theaters of World War II and was in Pearl Harbor when attacked on December 7, 1941. Riley died at his home in Cedar Rapids on Tuesday, July 5, 2022. (With l courtesy of Sherry Steine ​​Ross)

This medallion commemorates the service of United States Navy veteran Francis Riley of Cedar Rapids, who was aboard the USS Vestal during the December 7, 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. The locket was photographed at Riley’s home in Cedar Rapids in 2016. Riley died on Tuesday, June 5, 2022. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

A copy of a photograph of Captain Cassin Young, commanding officer of the USS Vestal, is shown in the Cedar Rapids home of U.S. Navy veteran Francis Riley in 2016. Riley, 99, died Tuesday, July 5, 2022. admired Young, who was in charge of the maintenance ship docked with the USS Arizona when the assault on Pearl Harbor began. Riley was hoisting a flag over the Vestal when the first bombs fell on Arizona. Riley died on Tuesday, July 5, 2022. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)