On Saturday, half of the Iron Range turned out to sing happy 100th birthday to North Dakota farm boy slash Tower Soudan resort operator slash Hoyt Lake miner Arleigh Birk. At 21, he was a Navy gun director onboard the USS Honolulu during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. "Somebody hit lots of them but we don't know if it was us, you couldn't tell. It might have been yours that went down or somebody else's. You don't know." said Birk while remembering the events of that day.
Birk's ship was damaged by a Japanese bomb but there were no casualties. Pearl Harbor wasn't the only WWII battle in which Arleigh Birk took part. He helped assault Guadalcanal, Leyte Gulf, the Marianas and Bougainville onboard the USS Denver. There, the Denver took a Japanese torpedo.
"The skipper said prepare to abandon ship but the oil king, he opened the empty oil compartments." said Birk. That counter flooding by the Denver's oil king saved the ship. For decades now, Arleigh honors shipmates lost at Pearl Harbor at ceremonies like this one in Gilbert every year.
In his 99th year, many things changed for Mr. Birk. His beloved wife Marian of more than 70 years passed away and Arleigh outlived county commissioner Tom Rukaviina who had promised to redo his driveway when he turned 100. In the last few months, Birk has left that home and moved into a nursing home in Aurora. That's where state representative Dave Lislegard and state senator Dave Tomassoni honored him on Saturday.
Arleigh Birk may well be Minnesota's last Pearl Harbor survivor since Bemidji's Coast Guard veteran and Pearl Harbor survivor Bruce Atwater passed away at age 98 in January. These hundreds of people here from as far away as Norway hope there will be several more of these birthday parties for Arleigh Birk.