Where they once raced frantically to survive fire and bombs, the Pearl Harbor survivors who returned yesterday on the 69th anniversary of the surprise Japanese attack lingered at a new $56 million visitor center, retold war stories, relished the camaraderie of other veterans — and wondered if they would make it back again.
About 3,000 people, including 200 survivors, attended the annual commemoration at the back lawn of the expanded visitor center.
Most of the survivors are in or approaching their 90s, and infirmity is taking a toll on those who made it through World War II.
DeWayne Chartier, 93, who was on the battleship Pennsylvania, came 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 described his feeling about being at Pearl Harbor yesterday 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 on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941.
"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.
"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 new waterfront visitor center to him.
OXYGEN-BOTTLE BAG CLOSES CENTER
Officials evacuated the new Pearl Harbor Visitor Center for about 75 minutes yesterday after someone found a large, unattended duffel bag in one of the museum galleries.
Navy explosives experts checked the rolling duffel and found it contained oxygen bottles used for breathing assistance. It had been left behind by someone helping a Pearl Harbor survivor who uses oxygen, an official said. The bag was discovered in the museum’s Road to War gallery at 10:55 a.m. The owner was identified and the museum was reopened after an hour and 15 minutes.
"I was telling him we are straight across from the memorial," she said.
Japanese planes flying off aircraft carriers attacked Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay; Hickam, Bellows, Wheeler and Ewa air fields; and Pearl Harbor.
The attackers killed 2,390 men, women and children; 21 ships of the Pacific Fleet were sunk or damaged; and 75 percent of the planes on Oahu were damaged or destroyed.
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."
A return to Pearl Harbor for the 50th anniversary of the attack was "hard as heck," said Conter, who lives in Grass Valley, Calif., but succeeding trips back have gotten easier.
Stuart Hedley, 89, who was on the battleship West Virginia, came with his wife, daughter and grandson for the opening of the new Pearl Harbor Visitor Center and museum.
"It’s our history (in the museum) and it gives us a chance to mingle with a lot of shipmates," the San Diego man said.
Hedley happened to catch a video in the museum featuring shipmate Gery Porter; when Porter walked past him yesterday, Hedley joked, "Hey, I was just listening to you!"
A bomb similar to the one that sank the Arizona hit the West Virginia about 15 feet from where Hedley was standing — but it was a dud, he said.
"If it would have exploded, we would have been the reverse of the Arizona — it would have been our stern that went down instead of her bow," he said.
The new museum expands the retelling of the attack, and provides insight into America’s and Japan’s state of mind at the time.
Hedley, wearing a navy, white and gold survivor’s cap, said the new museum is "beautiful — the way it’s laid out, the fact that they are covering both sides of the story, and it includes all of the ships in Pearl Harbor."
One incredible story after another was told by the aging survivors yesterday.
John Latko, a Marine, was blown off the West Virginia by a bomb blast. He climbed up on the Tennessee, got back on the West Virginia to fight fires and made a world-class leap onto a whaleboat, injuring his tailbone and knee in the process.
"It was either jump into the water or jump (into the whaleboat), because the ship was sinking," said Latko, 91, who was in a wheelchair yesterday.
"This will be his last trip (to Pearl Harbor)," said his son, David, who’s 57. "He’s having some problems."
Ray Emory, 89, who was on the cruiser Honolulu, had a single-minded focus on firing back.
Asked what was going through his mind, Emory said, "Nothing — other than trying to hit an airplane with a 50-cal machine gun. You’ve got tunnel vision. You don’t have time to get scared or nervous. You are just doing what you are supposed to do."
At 7:55 a.m. yesterday, 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 the U.S. Pacific Fleet. "They transformed the horrific events from a day that lives 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.