Six centenarian survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor were among the thousands of attendees at the Hawaii memorial on Wednesday to commemorate the thousands of lives lost 81 years ago.
The ceremony began at 7:30 a.m. Wednesday at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial. An emotional moment occurred 25 minutes later at 7:55 a.m., as over 2,500 people sat in silence in remembrance of the time the attack began on Dec. 7, 1941.
As part of the ceremony, the USS Daniel Inouye passed by the attendees and the USS Arizona Memorial to honor the survivors and the lives lost in the attack. Sailors aboard the guided missile destroyer could be seen along the rails offering a salute as the ship passed.
Ken Stevens, a 100-year-old survivor who was on the USS Whitney the day of the attack, returned the salute.
Approximately 2,403 people, almost all service members, died in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which launched the U.S. into World War II.
The USS Arizona alone, which was stationed at the naval base, lost 1,177 sailors and Marines, accounting for nearly half of the bombing’s death toll. Most of the fallen remain entombed in the ship, which lies on the harbor floor below today’s memorial.
“The ever-lasting legacy of Pearl Harbor will be shared at this site for all time, as we must never forget those who came before us so that we can chart a more just and peaceful path for those who follow,” said Tom Leatherman, superintendent of the Pearl Harbor National Memorial.
Only six survivors attended this year’s ceremony, noticeably fewer than the dozen or more who traveled from all over the country in recent years. The decline reflects the dwindling number of survivors, as the youngest active-duty military personnel in December 1941 would have been about 17 years old.
Many of those still alive are at least 100 years old, including all six of the men who attended Wednesday’s event.
Ira Schab, 102, a tuba player in the USS Dobbin’s band, recalled seeing Japanese planes flying overhead before the attack.
“We had no place to go and hoped they’d miss us,” he told the Associated Press before the ceremony began.
Schab ended up feeding ammunition to machine gunners on the vessel, which was not hit in the attack. He has now attended the remembrance ceremony four times.
“I wouldn’t miss it because I got an awful lot of friends that are still here that are buried here. I come back out of respect for them,” he told the AP.
His hope is that people will remember those who served that day.
“Remember what they’re here for. Remember and honor those that are left. They did a hell of a job. Those who are still here, dead or alive,” he said.
Herb Elfring, a 100-year-old Army veteran from Jackson, Mich., told the AP it was great that so many members of the public showed interest in the commemoration by attending the ceremony.
“So many people don’t even know where Pearl Harbor is or what happened on that day,” he said.
Elfring was assigned to the 251st Coast Artillery, which is part of the California National Guard, when he heard bombs exploding down the coast at Pearl Harbor. He initially thought it was part of an exercise until he saw a red ball on the fuselage of a Japanese Zero fighter plane as it strafed the ground near his barracks at Camp Malakole.
“That was a rude awakening,” he said.
Robert John Lee, a 20-year-old civilian at the time of the attack, was living with his parents on the naval base where his father ran the water pumping station. Their home was about one mile across the harbor from where the USS Arizona was moored on battleship row.
Lee said he was woken up by the first explosions before 8 a.m. by what he thought was a door slamming in the wind. When he got up to yell for someone to shut the door, he saw Japanese planes dropping torpedo bombs from the sky.
He then saw the hull of the USS Arizona turn a deep orange-red after it was hit by an aerial bomb. He said he still remembers the hissing sound of the fire.
“Within a few seconds, that explosion then came out with huge tongues of flame right straight up over the ship itself — but hundreds of feet up,” Lee told the AP in an interview after a boat tour of the harbor.
Lee said many of the sailors who jumped into the water to escape the burning ships swam through the oil-coated harbor to the landing near his house. He and his mother used Fels-Naptha soap to help wash the sailors off.
The sailors who were able to boarded small boats that took them back to their vessels. Lee said he thought they were “very heroic.”
He joined the Hawaii Territorial Guard the next day, and eventually the U.S. Navy. He worked for Pan American World Airways for 30 years after the war.
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