Nearly 500 survivors of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor were here Thursday to honor those who died in the surprise attack 65 years ago.
Many veterans were treating the gathering as their last, uncertain whether they would be alive or healthy enough to travel to Hawaii for the next big memoria, the 70th anniversary, in five years.
“Sixty-five years later, there’s not too many of us left,” said Don Stratton, a seaman 1st class who was aboard the USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941. “In another five years I’ll be 89. The good Lord willing, I might be able to make it. If so, I’ll probably be here. I might not even be around. Who knows. Only the good Lord knows.”
Survivors, family members and others gathered for the commemoration were to observe a moment of silence at 7:55 a.m. local time, the minute planes began bombing Pearl Harbor 65 years ago.
A priest was to give a Hawaiian blessing and Marines will perform a rifle salute.
Stratton and other survivors were to board a boat to the white memorial straddling the sunken hull of the Arizona, where they will lay wreaths and lei in honor of the dead.
The Arizona sank in less than nine minutes after a 1,760 pound armor-piercing bomb struck the battleship’s deck and hit its ammunition magazine, igniting flames that engulfed the ship.
Attack sank twelve ships
More people died on the Arizona than any other ship as 1,177 servicemen, or about 80 percent of its crew, perished.
Altogether, the surprise attack killed 2,390 Americans and injured 1,178.
Twelve ships sank and nine vessels were heavily damaged. Over 320 U.S. aircraft were destroyed or heavily damaged by the time the invading planes were done sweeping over military bases from Wheeler Field to Kaneohe Naval Air Station.
Japanese veterans who participated in the attack as navigators and pilots will also pay their respects, offering flowers at the Arizona memorial for the American and Japanese who died.
Some Japanese veterans and American survivors have reconciled in the decades since.
Japanese dive bomber pilot Zenji Abe has apologized to American survivors for the sudden attack, ashamed his government failed to deliver a declaration of war in time for the assault.
The Japanese aviators who carried out the attack thought the declaration had already been made by the time they started bombing, Abe has said.
Memories fresh after 65 years
The attack may have occurred 65 years ago, but survivors say they can still hear the explosions, smell the burning flesh, taste the sea water and hear the cries.
"The younger ones were crying, 'Mom! Mom! Mom!'" said Edward Chun, who witnessed the attack from the Ten-Ten dock, just a couple hundred yards away from Battleship Row.
Chun, 83, had just begun his workday as a civilian pipe fitter when he was thrust into assisting in everything from spraying water on the ships to aiding casualties.
"From the time the first bomb dropped and for the next 15 minutes, it was complete chaos," he said. "Nobody knew what was going on. Everybody was running around like a chicken with their head cut off."
Chun saw the Oklahoma and West Virginia torpedoed by Japanese aircraft. He heard the tapping of sailors trapped in the hulls of sunken ships. He escaped death when Ten-Ten was strafed, leaving behind dead and wounded.
"How I never got hit, I don't know," said Chun, who was later drafted and served in the Korean and Vietnam wars. "I'll tell you a secret: When your number comes up, you're going to go. Well, every morning I get up, I change my number."
Everett Hyland doesn't know how he stayed alive when almost everyone around him didn't. He was radioman aboard the Pennsylvania, which was in Dry Dock No. 1, and was helping transport ammunition to the anti-aircraft gun when a bomb exploded.
Badly burned, Hyland regained consciousness 18 days later, on Christmas night. During that time, his older brother visited.
"The only way he knew it was me was the tag on my toe," Hyland said. "He (later) told me we looked like roast turkeys lined up."
Today, scar tissue covers most of his arms and legs. "I got a quick facial out of it. I used to be a freckled-faced kid," he said. "I don't have any lips. They could fix faces, but they couldn't build any lips."
Dead before life really started
And he was lucky. Many of the dead were teenage sailors and Marines away from home for the first time. They died before they had an opportunity to get married, have children, build lives.
The survivors say they have more than horrific memories to offer. "Remember Pearl Harbor" is just the first half of the association's motto; the rest is "Keep America alert."
Martinez said many Pearl Harbor survivors were disheartened by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, "as if they had not done their job hard enough."
Once again, it seemed that America had been caught sleeping. Interest in Pearl Harbor and its aging survivors surged. The old soldiers are much in demand — to sign autographs, walk in parades, speak to classrooms and pose for pictures. Visits to the USS Arizona Memorial are at record levels.
Not that everyone sees similarities between the two attacks. "There is no comparison," Hyland said. "That was terrorists killing a pile of civilians. Here, you had professional fighters versus professional fighters. Two different things."
Some forgive, others never have
There are those who are unable to forgive the Japanese, But others testify to the power of reconciliation.
"There are some guys that are going to die with hate in their heart. I don't have in me any hatred in my heart," said 87-year-old survivor Lee Soucy, of Plainview, Texas. "They were doing their job just like we were."
Hyland, who was almost killed in the attack, married a woman from Japan. They met at the 50th Pearl Harbor anniversary and wed the following year.
"I got over it a long time ago," he said.
Former NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, who dubbed Americans who came of age during the Great Depression and World War II "the greatest generation," agreed to be keynote speaker for Thursday's ceremony. A moment of silence at 7:55 a.m. was to mark the time when the attack began.
Martinez, the USS Arizona historian, likened it to another reunion 68 years ago — the final gathering of Civil War veterans in Gettysburg, Pa., when aging warriors in blue and gray shook hands and shared war stories. In 1938, as in 2006, the nation faced an uncertain future in a world gripped by conflict.
"The passing of that generation had its moment and we're going to have ours," he said.