Solana Beach resident Captain John Campbell, USMC, Retired, who turns 100 this August, was recently honored as the oldest San Diego-based survivor of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. For Campbell, however, whose memories of that terrible day are preserved as part of the Naval Historical Foundation’s living history project, Pearl Harbor was only the beginning of a life that included a 30-year career with the American Broadcasting Company, where he would eventually become president of the network’s five owned and operated regional stations, including its flagship outlets in New York and Los Angeles.
And even then, Campbell wasn’t through. After retiring from ABC, Campbell purchased two amusement parks in Florida, a venture he says “almost cost him his shirt.” But it turned out well in the end, and it was then that he and his wife Denny made the move to San Diego. Campbell knew the area from his war days, and he and Denny spent 20 years together in Rancho Santa Fe before moving to a smaller home in Fairbanks Ranch. Denny, whose full name was Aline Elizabeth Dennison, was a member of the Navy WAVES; they met while Campbell was training in Jacksonville, Florida. She passed away two years ago, which is when he moved to La Vida Del Mar.
Campbell was born in 1920, one of five boys in Porterville, California. Like many families in town, his family lost their farm during the Depression, and after graduating from high school, Campbell worked at a service station. That was when a marine in dress uniform stopped by to talk about enlisting.
“He painted a pretty good picture,” Campbell says, which is how he ended up at Pearl Harbor. Campbell was stationed at Ewa Field, adjacent to the harbor, and describes the devastation after the attack as complete. Not only did it take the lives of 2,400 Americans, but those who survived were defenseless, without planes or ships.
Fortunately, the Japanese did not return, and having survived that day, Campbell’s big break came when he was assigned to walk the commanding officer’s dog. Campbell, who was a gunner at the time, wanted to be an aviator and that colonel made it possible. Campbell completed Aviation Cadet training at the University of Washington and earned his wings in Corpus Christi, Texas. By 1944, he was back in the Pacific, flying Corsairs from island to island on the march to Japan.
Recalled for the Korean War, Campbell flew helicopters, something brand-new at the time, just as television was when he went to work as a salesman for the fledgling ABC station in L.A. after the war. “There was only one television per block,” Campbell is quick to point out. But TV would soon be at the center of things and so would Campbell, just as he was that December morning in Hawaii more than 78 years ago.
Campbell, who remains active at 99 and continues to work on his balance and strength, is part of “the Greatest Generation,” and a prime example of how it got its name.