POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Dec 08, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 04:37 a.m. HST, Dec 08, 2011
The heroism and sacrifices of military members and civilians 70 years ago against Japan's surprise attack that launched America into World War II were remembered Wednesday in a ceremony rich with military pomp, memories and emotions at the water's edge of Pearl Harbor.
The National Park Service set up 2,800 chairs and expected about 3,000 people to attend the ceremony, which was timed to the second to coincide with the 7:55 a.m. attack by Japanese fighters and bombers, said Eileen Martinez, chief of interpretation for the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center.
Instead, more than 5,000 people crammed onto the lawn at the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center, including 71 media organizations and 120 journalists from countries including Japan, Russia, Mexico and England.
The overflow crowd turned out with 135 World War II veterans, Martinez said, "because people realize that now is the time to honor them."
Wednesday's ceremony represents one of the last official acts of the 2,700-member Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, which will no longer continue as an incorporated organization after this year.
So Pearl Harbor survivor Don Baldrachi, 93, a retired Army staff sergeant, traveled from his home in Bartlesville, Okla., to Hawaii for the first time since 1993's commemoration, uncertain when he might see another Pearl Harbor ceremony.
Memories of Dec. 7, 1941, are never far away for Baldrachi, who fired back at enemy planes from Schofield Barracks.
"There are seven days in the week and I think about it eight days a week," Baldrachi said Wednesday. "If I'm not thinking about it, I'm dreaming about it."
President Barack Obama hailed veterans of the bombing in a statement proclaiming Wednesday "National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day."
"Their tenacity helped define the Greatest Generation and their valor fortified all who served during World War II," Obama said in a written statement. "As a nation, we look to Dec. 7, 1941, to draw strength from the example set by these patriots and to honor all who have sacrificed for our freedoms."
The ceremony at the Pearl Harbor Visitors Center included the blowing of conch shells, a Hawaiian blessing, a missing-man formation flown by F-22 Raptor fighter jets, a Marine Corps rifle volley and the haunting wail of Navy buglers blowing "echo" taps.
The guided missile destroyer USS Chung Hoon sailed slowly past the sunken remains of the USS Arizona, where 1,177 sailors and Marines were killed — and to render honors to all of the 2,351 military members and 49 civilians who died in the attack.
The Chung Hoon is named after Gordon Paiea Chung-Hoon of Honolulu, who was stationed aboard the USS Arizona on Dec. 7, 1941, and later received the Navy Cross and Silver Star on his way to becoming a rear admiral.
Only 334 officers, sailors and Marines survived the attack on the USS Arizona and today 17 sailors and one Marine of that group are known to be alive. The oldest, Joseph Langdell, is 97.
Seven surviving members of the USS Arizona attended Wednesday's ceremony, said Dean Harris, president of the USS Arizona Reunion Association. His father, Johan David "Dean" Harris, survived the attack on the Arizona and lived until 2001.
Later Wednesday, Navy divers placed the cremated remains of Vernon Olsen back aboard the sunken hull of the Arizona.
At least two of the seven remaining Arizona survivors also have expressed interest in having their remains returned to their ship, Harris said.
They traveled to Hawaii from California, Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
"Over the years, these men have served their shipmates as ambassadors, Harris said. "These guys are dedicated to perpetuating and memorializing the men who perished on that day. That's why they do this. There's a very strong pull for these guys to be with their shipmates."
Emcee Leslie Wilcox told those who had gathered that "our service men and women stationed in Hawaii continue the legacy of honor, courage and commitment of those who served before and witnessed that terrible morning of Dec. 7, 1941."
The Raptors from the Hawaii Air National Guard and the destroyer Chung Hoon arrived on time for Wednesday's ceremony, Martinez said.
But the speeches ran two minutes late, Martinez said, which upset the delicate timing of the program that was intended to coincide with the 7:55 a.m. attack, forcing the Chung Hoon to temporarily sit idle offshore.
"Last year, one of the speeches went a little long," Martinez said. "But this year everything got pushed back and the ship had to be delayed."
Wilcox asked military and civilian survivors from the various Oahu attack sites to stand in recognition at the end of the ceremony. And those who were able, rose — sometimes wobbly — to raucous applause.
The bell from the USS Arizona sounded as survivors were recognized from the World War II-era installations known as Wheeler Field, Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay, Ewa Mooring Mast Field, Hickam Field, Bellows Field and Schofield Barracks — as well as from the battleships Utah, West Virgina, Oklahoma, California, Nevada, Tennessee, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Arizona.
After acknowledging the survivors, however, people in the audience — many of them sons and daughters of Pearl Harbor survivors — shouted the names of other Pearl Harbor-based ships, billets and locations, including "Mobile Hospital 2," the Pearl Harbor Navy Yard, Fort Kamehameha, USS Honolulu, USS Raleigh, USS Patterson, USS Phoenix, USS Sacramento and others.
"You know, we had 200 ships that were in Pearl Harbor that day — 200 — and I'm so happy to see you stand up for your site, it's really inspiring," Wilcox said."
When the shouting ended, Wilcox asked all Pearl Harbor attack veterans who had not been recognized to stand "and let us thank you for your service."