BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — After Bruce Atwater, a fresh-faced 20-year-old Coast Guardsman from Minnesota, survived one of the most devastating attacks on U.S. soil in 1941, he spent the remainder of his years rehashing memories of Pearl Harbor and his country’s unending perseverance and valor in a time of global turmoil.
When Atwater died last Friday, Jan. 10, at the age of 98, his passing was not only a bittersweet indication of the world’s dwindling connection to the Greatest Generation; but a reminder to celebrate a man who embraced a life of service as a teacher – both in the classroom and as a walking document of history.
“He was a wonderful guy and a remarkable man who had his memory right up to the day he passed,” Commander Bruce Malterud of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post of Bemidji, said.
Those who knew the WWII veteran remember him as both a man of words and as a man of action, having served in a multitude of roles in an official capacity for his community. From 1985 to 2000, Atwater was a member of the Bemidji City Council, re-elected three times before his retirement from city government.
Atwater often began his harrowing tale of Dec. 7, 1941 with a preface: Barely out of boot camp and assigned to sweep an officer’s recreation hall, he had been stationed in Hawaii for only three days when the warning from loudspeakers and the roar of warplanes signaled something was wrong on that quiet Sunday morning.
From a half mile away, Atwater watched as Japan attacked the U.S. Navy Base’s harbor. Initially ordered to stay back after the first attack, he spent several hours in the sick bay later that day, helping tend to hundreds of wounded men.
In 1946, after five years of service on both land and sea, Atwater was discharged and returned to Minnesota, where he enrolled at Bemidji State Teachers College and earned a Bachelor of Science, a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Science.
For 30 years, Atwater taught English, speech and journalism at high schools in International Falls, Williams, Esko and Warroad. After retiring from teaching in 1980, Atwater and his wife, Ellen, returned to Bemidji.
Prior to his service on the Bemidji City Council, Atwater was City Clerk in Williams, was elected to the Warroad City Council and chaired the Warroad Hospital board.
He was also a member of the Pearl Harbor Survivor Association.
"He lived a long life but still was looking forward to the 80th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor in 2021 so he could attend it at age 100," Jonel Axtell, Atwater's daughter, said in a Facebook post.
In his later years, Atwater loved gardening both flowers and vegetables, teaching many of his neighbors how to achieve a green thumb.
He also enjoyed spending time with his family, delighting in taking his grandchildren on walks and teaching them how to play cribbage.
"His biggest priority was family. Any time family needed him, he was there," Atwater’s family said in a statement. “The traditions and values that he has instilled in us will continue on long after he is gone."
Memorial services will be held on Friday, Jan. 24, at 2 p.m. at Bethel Lutheran Church in Bemidji with Pastor Mark Kindem officiating. Visitation will be one hour prior to the service at church. Inurnment will be in Pine Hill Cemetery in the spring.