PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii – A handful of centenarian survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor joined about 2,500 members of the public at the scene of the Japanese bombing on Wednesday to commemorate those who perished 81 years ago.
The audience sat quietly during a moment of silence at 7:55 a.m., the same time the attack began on Dec. 7, 1941.
Sailors aboard the USS Daniel Inouye stood along the rails of the guided missile destroyer while it passed both by 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 from the USS Whitney, returned the salute.
“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.
About 2,400 servicemen were killed in the bombing, which launched the U.S. into World War II. The USS Arizona alone lost 1,177 sailors and Marines, nearly half the death toll. Most of the Arizona's fallen remained entombed in the ship, which sits on the harbor floor.
Ira Schab, 102, was on the USS Dobbin as a tuba player in the ship’s band. He recalls seeing Japanese planes flying overhead and wondering what to do.
“We had no place to go and hoped they’d miss us,” he said before the ceremony began.
He fed ammunition to machine gunners on the vessel, which wasn’t hit.
He’s 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 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’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.
Only six survivors attended, fewer than the dozen or more who have traveled to Hawaii from across the country for the annual remembrance ceremony in recent years.
Part of the decline reflects the dwindling number of survivors as they age. The youngest active-duty military personnel on Dec. 7, 1941, would have been about 17, making them 98 today. Many of those still alive are at least 100.
Herb Elfring, 100, or Jackson, Michigan, said was great that many members of the public showed interest in the commemoration and attended the ceremony.
“So many people don’t even know where Pearl Harbor is or what happened on 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 an exercise.
But then he saw a red ball on the fuselage of a Japanese Zero fighter plane when it strafed the ground alongside him near his barracks at Camp Malakole.
“That was a rude awakening,” he said. One soldier in his unit was injured by the bullets, but no one died, he said.
Robert John Lee recalls being a 20-year-old civilian living at his parent's home on the naval base where his father ran the water pumping station. The home was just about 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) across the harbor from where the USS Arizona was moored on battleship row.
The first explosions before 8 a.m. woke him up, making him think a door was slamming in the wind. He got up to yell for someone to shut 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.
“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 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 their burning ships and swam to the landing near Lee's house. Many were covered in the thick, heavy oil that coated the harbor. Lee and his mother used Fels-Naptha soap to help wash them. Sailors who were able to boarded small boats that 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 U.S. Navy. He worked for Pan American World Airways for 30 years after the war.
The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t have statistics for how many Pearl Harbor survivors are still living. But department data show that of the 16 million who served in World War II, only about 240,000 were alive as of August and some 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.