The men and women who survived the bombs and bullets of Dec. 7, 1941, returned to Pearl Harbor this morning in large numbers to commemorate the 69th anniversary of the surprise Japanese attack.
About 200 survivors and 3,000 members of the public came out for the waterfront ceremony and dedication of a new $56 million Pearl Harbor Visitor Center and museum.
Most of the survivors are in or approaching their 90s, and infirmity is taking the toll these days on those who made it through World War II.
DeWayne Chartier, 93, who was on the battleship Pennsylvania, came out from Walnut Creek, Calif. with his two daughters for the commemoration and had a front-row seat for the event.
"Most important" was how Chartier said he felt about being at Pearl Harbor this morning — even though he is now blind. "I was there in the original cast, and here I am again."
Chartier was a shipfitter on his way to church when Oahu was attacked.
"The first duty was to get back to the ship," Chartier said as he sat in a wheelchair. For Chartier and other survivors, it was a surreal, unbelievable moment that defied logic.
"It was difficult to understand," he said of the attack. "This was the first time this ever happened. It was a setback, trying to figure out what happened, and you are right in the middle of it."
His daughter, Kathy Geddes, described the waterfront visitor center to him.
"I was telling him we are straight across from the memorial," she said.
At about 8:06 a.m., a Japanese high-level bomber dropped a 1,764-pound armor-piercing bomb onto the battleship USS Arizona.
The bomb penetrated the forward deck and the resulting explosion ignited aviation fuel stores and the powder magazines for the 14-inch guns, instantly separating most of the bow from the ship and lifting the 33,000-ton vessel out of the water.
Louis Conter, 89, remembered the blast that killed 1,177 of his shipmates.
"Very few men from the mainmast forward got off," Conter said. "Everything from the mainmast forward was just burning and in flames. They didn’t have a chance."
Japanese aircraft flying off aircraft carriers attacked Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay; Hickam, Bellows, Wheeler and Ewa fields, and Pearl Harbor.
A total of 2,390 men, women and children were killed; 21 ships of the Pacific Fleet were sunk or damaged; and 75 percent of the planes on Oahu were damaged or destroyed.
At 7:55 a.m. this morning, about the time of the attacks on Oahu, four F-15 fighters from the Montana Air National Guard soared overhead with one peeling off in a "missing man" formation, and about five minutes later, the destroyer USS Chafee sailed past the Arizona Memorial and rendered honors.
"This morning, we recognize and we memorialize men and women who were simply extraordinary by every measure," said speaker Adm. Patrick Walsh, head of U.S. Pacific Fleet. "They transformed the horrific events from a day that live in infamy into this quiet, idyllic peaceful setting that stands before us as a stalwart symbol of valor, of courage and of sacrifice."
The ceremony also included warship and battle site wreath presentations accompanied by a single loud ring for each from one of the USS Arizona’s recovered ship’s bells, a rifle salute, echo taps, a dedication of the new visitor center and a "Walk of Honor" for Pearl Harbor survivors, who passed through a cordon of 100 armed forces and park service members.