PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (AP) – A handful of centenarian survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor joined around 2,500 members of the public at the site of the Japanese bombing on Wednesday to remember those who perished 81 years ago.
The audience sat quietly in a moment of silence at 7.55, at the same time as the attack began on 7 December 1941.
Sailors aboard the USS Daniel Inouye lined the rails of the guided-missile destroyer as it passed both the grassy shoreline where the ceremony was held and the USS Arizona Memorial to honor the survivors and those killed in the attack. Ken Stevens, a 100-year-old survivor of the USS Whitney, returned the salute.
“The eternal legacy of Pearl Harbor will be shared in this place forever as we must never forget those who came before us so we can chart a more just and peaceful path for those who follow,” said Tom Leatherman, Superintendent for the Pearl Harbor National Memorial.
Around 2,400 soldiers were killed in the bombing, which launched the United States into World War II. The USS Arizona alone lost 1,177 sailors and marines, nearly half the death toll. Most of Arizona’s fallen remained buried in the ship, which lies on the harbor floor.
Ira Schab, 102, was on the USS Dobbin as a tuba player in the ship’s band. He remembers seeing Japanese planes flying overhead and wondering what to do.
“We had nowhere to go and hoped they would miss us,” he said before the ceremony began.
He fed ammunition to machine gunners on the vessel, which were not hit.
He has now attended the memorial ceremony four times.
“I didn’t want to miss it because I have an awful lot of friends who are still here and who are buried here. I am coming back out of respect for them,” he said.
Schab stayed in the navy during the war. After the war he studied aerospace engineering and worked on the Apollo program. Today he lives in Portland, Oregon.
He wants people to remember those who served that day.
“Remember what they are here for. Remember and honor those who are left. They did a hell of a job. Those who are still here, dead or alive,” he said.
Only six survivors attended, fewer than the dozen or more who have traveled to Hawaii from across the country for the annual memorial ceremony in recent years.
Part of the decline reflects the dwindling number of survivors as they age. The youngest military personnel on active duty on 7 December 1941 would have been around 17, making them 98 today. Many of those still alive are at least 100.
Herb Elfring, 100, of Jackson, Michigan, said it was great that many members of the public showed interest in the memorial service and attended the ceremony.
“So many people don’t even know where Pearl Harbor is or what happened that day,” he said.
Elfring was in the Army, assigned to the 251st Coast Artillery, part of the California National Guard. He remembers hearing bombs explode a few miles down the coast at Pearl Harbor, but thought it was part of a drill.
But then he saw a red ball on the fuselage of a Japanese Zero fighter as it strafed the ground next to him near his barracks at Camp Malakole.
“It was a rude awakening,” he said. A soldier in his unit was wounded by the bullets, but no one died, he said.
Robert John Lee remembers being a 20-year-old civilian living in his parents’ home on the naval base where his father ran the water pumping station. The home was only about a mile across the harbor from where the USS Arizona was moored on Battleship Row.
The first explosions before 8 woke him up and made him think a door was slamming in the wind. He got up to yell for someone to close the door only to look out the window at Japanese planes dropping torpedo bombs from the sky.
He saw the hull of the USS Arizona turn a deep orange-red after an aerial bomb hit it.
“In a matter of seconds, the explosion came out with huge tongues of flame right up above the ship itself — but hundreds of feet up,” Lee said in an interview Monday after a boat ride in the harbor.
He still remembers the hissing sound of the fire.
Sailors jumped into the water to escape their burning ships and swam to the landing near Lee’s house. Many were covered in the thick, heavy oil that covered the harbor. Lee and his mother used Fels-Naptha soap to help wash them. Sailors who were able to board small boats shuttled them back to their vessels.
“Very heroic, I thought,” Lee said of them.
Lee joined the Hawaii Territorial Guard the next day and later the US Navy. He worked for Pan American World Airways for 30 years after the war.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs does not have statistics on how many Pearl Harbor survivors are still alive. But department data show that of the 16 million who served in World War II, only about 240,000 were alive in August, and about 230 die each day.
There were about 87,000 military personnel on Oahu at the time of the attack, according to a rough estimate compiled by military historian J. Michael Wenger.