COVINGTON — In the past 37,960 days, America has sworn in 18 presidents, participated in 47 wars, seen a man walk on the moon, experienced a hair dryer and the Internet for the first time and collectively swooned over Don McLean’s “American Pie.” For most this is just a glimpse at American history, but for 104-year-old Pearl Harbor veteran Wayne Shelnutt, it is his life.
Shelnutt, who turned 104 on Monday, Aug. 5, was celebrated Tuesday by his granddaughter Tere Gaehle, great-granddaughter Marla Gaehle and his barber and friend of 15 years, Wain Stowe at Just a Hair Better barber shop in Covington.
“It’s not every day you see someone live to be 104 years old,” Stowe said.
Covington Mayor Ronnie Johnston, Newton County Sheriff Ezell Brown, Newton County Deputy Jack Simpson, and Covington American Legion commander Terry Moore as well as other local war veterans and customers congratulated the gentleman for turning another year older.
“It is men like yourself who make this town a great place,” said Johnston.
Shelnutt was born and raised in Chickasha, Okla., the youngest of three. He spent the early years of his life on a family-owned farm tending to the gardens and cultivating crops. After completing high school, Shelnutt joined the government’s Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933.
After a year in the CCC, Shelnutt joined the Navy to ensure he had “three square meals a day and a roof over his head.”
In 1934, he was sworn in at a base in Dallas and then hopped the next train to San Diego. He completed basic training and soon found his way to the USS California.
At Pearl Harbor in December 1941, after spending a night sweeping the shore for an obscure submarine, Shelnutt thought he would enjoy a cup of coffee. But the sound of the Japanese navy dropping bombs said otherwise.
“My reaction was, ‘What the heck?’” Shelnutt said.
Shelnutt sprinted to his battle station to man a 5-inch, .51 caliber broadside gun. He kept watch while his gun crew went below to retrieve ammo. But a Japanese torpedo slammed into the battleship below its armor belt: Shelnutt’s entire gun crew perished.
Returning stateside, Shelnutt later served aboard the destroyer USS Gheradi, taking part in convoy escorts to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the invasion if Sicily, Italy in 1943. On D-Day, June 6, 1944, the Gherardi was offshore at Normandy, firing nonstop at German positions on Utah Beach. Shelnutt and the Gheradi would also see action in the South Pacific later in the war, shelling enemy positions and fighting off Japanese suicide planes for over three months off Okinawa. She was among the first ships to sail into Tokyo Bay for the Japanese surrender.
Shelnutt served on 12 different ships before retiring in 1954 and opening a business in St. Louis with his late wife Ada. He then moved to Covington to be with family in the 1990s.
These days, Shelnutt spends most his time on his big front porch watching his horse, Dan, galloping back and forth.
“All I want to do is ride Dan,” said Shelnutt when asked what his birthday wish was.
Shelnutt has visited Stowe once a month ever since he moved to Covington.
“He’s become one of my best friends,” said Stowe. “And he won’t let anyone else cut his hair.”
After a big piece of cake and a lot of shared smiles and laughs, Shelnutt can’t wait to celebrate his birthday again next year.