PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (AP) — A handful of centenarians who survived the attack on Pearl Harbor joined about 2,500 members of the public at the site of the Japanese bombing on Wednesday to remember those who died 81 years ago.
The audience sat quietly for a moment of silence at 7:55 a.m., the same time the attack began on December 7, 1941.
Sailors on the USS Daniel Inouye stood along 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, responded with a salute.
“Pearl Harbor’s eternal legacy will be shared on this site 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. Warden of the Pearl Harbor National Memorial.
About 2,400 soldiers died in the explosion, which brought the United States into World War II. The USS Arizona alone lost 1,177 sailors and marines, nearly half of that number. Most of the Arizona’s fallen remained buried in the ship lying on the harbor floor.
Ira Shaba, 102, was a tuba player in the ship’s band on the USS Dobbin. 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 the gunners on the ship, which were not hit.
He has now participated in the memorial service four times.
“I wouldn’t miss it because I have an awful lot of friends who are still here and are buried here. I come back out of respect for them,” he said.
Shabb remained 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 why they are here. Remember and honor those who remain. They did a hell of a job. Those who are still here, dead or alive,” he said.
Only six survivors attended, fewer than a dozen or more who have traveled to Hawaii from across the country in recent years for the annual memorial service.
Part of the decline reflects a decline in the number of survivors as they age. The youngest active duty military personnel were approximately 17 years old on December 7, 1941, and today they are 98 years old. Many of those still alive number at least 100.
Herb Elfring, 100, of Jackson, Michigan, said it was great that so many members of the community showed interest in the memorial 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 go off a few miles up the coast at Pearl Harbor, but thought it was part of the training.
But then he saw a red ball on the fuselage of a Japanese Zero fighter plane as it hit the ground beside him near his barracks at Camp Malakole.
“It was a rude awakening,” he said. One soldier in his unit was wounded by a bullet, but no one was killed, he said.
Robert John Lee remembers being a 20-year-old civilian living in his parents’ home on a naval base where his father ran a water pumping station. The house was only about a mile across the harbor from where the USS Arizona was moored in a row of battleships.
The first explosions woke him before eight in the morning, leading him to believe that the door had been slammed 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 USS Arizona’s hull turn a dark orange-red after being hit by an aerial bomb.
“Within seconds, this explosion erupted with huge flames right above the ship itself, but hundreds of feet up,” Lee said in an interview Monday after a boat tour of the harbor.
He still remembers the hissing sound of the fire.
Sailors jumped into the water to escape the burning ships and swam to a landing near Lee’s house. Many were coated in the thick, heavy oil that covered the harbor. Lee and his mother used Fels-Naptha soap to help wash them. Sailors who could board small boats that took them back to their ships.
“Very heroic, I think,” Lee said of them.
The next day, Lee joined the Hawaiian Territorial Guard 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 living. But of the 16 million who served in World War II, only about 240,000 were alive in August, and about 230 die each day, according to the department.
According to military historian J. Michael Wenger estimates that there were about 87,000 military personnel on Oahu at the time of the attack.