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Little-Known Civilian Hero Saved 32 Sailors During Pearl Harbor Attack

MARIN CITY (KPIX) -- In 1941, Walter Russell Potter was a civilian crane operator on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. During the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Potter rushed back to work to lift a huge boring bar onto the hull of the capsized USS Oklahoma to free trapped sailors.

The Navy says he saved 32 men.

Potter, now 99, was the guest of honor Thursday at a ceremony in Marin City and he is a good reminder that not everyone who survived Pearl Harbor wore a uniform.

Potter now lives in Corte Madera, but back in 1941, he was a young civilian crane operator at a machine shop next to Hickam Airfield.

He wasn't working the morning the bombs started falling and caught the only transportation he could find to get back to the base.

A bus.

The scene was complete chaos.

Potter watched as Japanese planes strafed the airfield and later, when the USS Oklahoma rolled over, Potter used his crane to deliver the large boring tool that cut through the hull, freeing dozens of trapped sailors.

But for all the terrifying things he saw that day, there is one image he will never forget.

"Something I've never seen before, carrying the wounded to the shop, laying them on the slabs there, you know?" Potter said.

They say a hero is someone who runs toward danger. Apparently, it also counts if you take the bus.

Potter never did join the military. He operated his crane for another year and a half and then moved to Corte Madera where he became a dental technician.

He turns 100-years-old in March.

The Pear Harbor attack would lead the U.S. into World War II and lead American man and woman to mobilize for the defense of the nation.

Phyllis Gould, the original "Rosie the Riveter" attended the ceremony as well. She was one of the first women to work at the Marin City shipyard.

"It was a totally different country," Gould said. "Even at the time I knew it would never happen again…that people would be so pulled together."

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