Tracing Tracy: Memories die with Pearl Harbor survivor
by Sam Matthews
Jul 12, 2013 | 3557 views | 0 0 comments | 560 560 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Tracy lost another connection to a historic event Monday, July 8, when Walter Gorr died at the age of 95.

Walter, as a number of Tracyites will recall, was a Pearl Harbor survivor, a title he wore proudly over the years, appearing in numerous parades and at annual Memorial Day and Veterans Day programs.

Over the years, I had talked with Walter about his experiences during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, an attack that brought our nation into World War II.

He was stationed in the Army at Schofield Barracks several miles from the naval base. The Army base was attacked by Japanese planes on their way to Pearl Harbor, and Walter saw it all.

On the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, the native of Shell Lake, Wis., was a 23-year-old Army private standing in a breakfast chow line outside a mess hall at Schofield Barracks.

“We were just standing there outdoors when we heard the sound of aircraft approaching. We looked north and saw a dozen or so planes coming in low over the mountains toward us,” he told me in 1986.

Walter said he first thought the Army Air Corps “was sure up early today,” but then the planes started strafing nearby barracks, which fortunately were vacant at the time.

“I could see the big red meatball on the wings, and in an instant we knew it must be a Japanese attack,” he recalled.

Later that day, he and other soldiers went to the Army air base, Hickam Field, and helped clear away what was left of B-17 bombers that had been destroyed in the attack.

As a staff sergeant in an Army combat construction engineer unit, Walter spent 47 months in the Pacific during World War II. He earned the Bronze Star. He lived a long life, but he never forgot what he had experienced that morning in 1941.

Going the extra mile

The good-sized crowd of Tracyites who had climbed out of bed early on the Fourth of July to watch the balloon liftoff at Lincoln Park came close to being disappointed.

But a single balloonist, Brent Stockwell, saved the day for people at the park. If he hadn’t volunteered to take his balloon up in the face of weather warnings, there would have been quite a number of chagrined people at the park.

Usually up to a half-dozen balloons take part in the liftoff to begin the Fourth of July festivities, but this year only four balloonists arrived at the park before 6 a.m.

Three of the four balloonists didn’t unload their trailers as they stood around and conferred with each other. The problem was the weather.

Although there was no wind at the park — the usual reason balloons remain on the ground — there were fears that serious turbulence would be encountered aloft, causing the balloonists to face hazardous flying conditions.

Cumulus clouds, the kind associated with thunderheads and unpredictable wind currents of all kinds, were 40 miles southeast of Tracy and headed this way.

“Normally, if those kinds of clouds are within 70 miles, balloons don’t go up,” Brent told me later. “We all wanted to fly, but we knew safety was our most important consideration.”

Brent, who operates Balloon Excelsior Balloon School in

Manteca and who has headed the annual Fourth of July balloon launch for the past 20 years, knew the people at the park would be disappointed if they had stood around for more than an hour and then didn’t see a single balloon lift off.

So he decided to give it a try.

“I thought I might just go up a few feet, so people could see a balloon inflated with hot air,” he said. “But once I had the balloon upright. I decided to make at least a short flight.”

As hundred of cameras fired away, Brent fired up the gas burners and the balloon rose into the air. He waved to the crowd below as the balloon drifted eastward toward Tracy High School at low altitude and out of sight.

A few minutes later, Brent set his balloon down in an open field just north of the 11th Street overpass. It was an abbreviated flight, but it meant the Fourth of July balloon liftoff wasn’t a complete bust.

“The only negative part of my flight came after I landed in the field,” he told me. “A security guard came rushing over to me, yelled that I had to leave. But I wasn’t about to go into the air again.”

Tracyites in general — and the Tracy Chamber of Commerce, sponsor of the Fourth of July celebration, in particular — owe Brent a real thank-you for going the extra mile, literally, to enable the people at the park to see at least one balloon liftoff.

Thanks to Brent, the annual holiday celebration got off to a good start.

Contact Sam Matthews at 830-4234 or

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