The faithful turned out in droves Wednesday to remember Pearl Harbor and the men who valiantly tried to defend it on Dec. 7, 1941, three-quarters of a century ago.
The momentous anniversary prompted trips to Hawaii from around the country by survivors in their mid-90s and their families with the thought that the big commemoration might be a last opportunity for the aging veterans to revisit a pivotal moment in American history.
About 3,800 chairs stretched from one end of Pearl Harbor’s lengthy Kilo Pier to the other for the ceremony — and all were filled. Another 2,300 seats were set up for live-stream viewing at the USS Arizona Memorial visitor center, along with space for 2,700 more people to stand, the Navy said. An early count put the number of attendees at the visitor center at 3,500.
By comparison, the Navy estimated it had just over 3,000 people last year for the 74th anniversary.
Four F-22 Raptors from the Hawaii Air National Guard performed a “missing man” formation, the destroyer USS Halsey rendered honors to the sunken USS Utah and Arizona, and wreaths were presented. The ceremony also included a rifle salute and taps.
Adm. Harry B. Harris Jr., the head of U.S. Pacific Command and the keynote speaker, drew sustained applause when he compared the acts being chosen by some protesters in 2016 to the heroics of Dec. 7, 1941. “You can bet that the men and women that we honor today — and those who died that fateful morning 75 years ago — never took a knee and never failed to stand whenever they heard our national anthem being played,” he said early on.
Harris noted the maelstrom of death and destruction into which Oahu’s defenders were thrown — and their bravery in the face of it then and later in World War II.
“Just prior to the attacks 75 years ago — on a morning not unlike this one — people not unlike us were waking up to enjoy another day in paradise. … No one knew it would be the last moment of peace for almost four years,” Harris said.
“It fell upon the shoulders of brave Americans, like these here in the front rows, to respond to crisis that fateful day,” he added.
Stuart Hedley, who was on the USS West Virginia, remembered the instant transformation of Oahu and its military during a 75th commemoration event on Monday.
“I was a 20-year-old brat that grew up overnight by the very fact of being aboard the battleship West Virginia in turret 3 … and seeing the Arizona explode,” he said.
Stanley Chlipala, 95, who was on the destroyer USS Perry, had not been back to Pearl Harbor since he served in Hawaii, said his daughter, Elizabeth, who lives in Denver. Eight family members made the trip — which for her father was a link to another anniversary.
“He said it’s a big number (75 years), but also, when he was (young) he went to the 75th anniversary of the Civil War, and he actually was able to shake the hand of a Civil War veteran,” Elizabeth Chlipala said before Wednesday’s ceremony.
Some survivors were accompanied by as many as 20 or more family members to mark the 75th commemoration and take part in activities over the past week.
Lou Conter, one of just five remaining survivors from the USS Arizona, was wearing a new Navy white uniform with the rank of lieutenant commander. He had received his officer’s commission in New Guinea in the war and was a PBY Catalina pilot.
“My kids bought this (uniform) for me because my old one’s a little bit smaller — I used to be a 34 waist and now I’m a 38,” he said with a laugh.
At one point prior to the ceremony, about eight people surrounded Conter while simultaneously taking his picture. “We’re just flirting,” said one woman jokingly as she swooped in for a photo with Conter.
Asked about the importance of the 75th commemoration, Conter, 95, who lives in California, said: “Same as every year. Really, the celebration should be for the 2,403 men that died that day and 1,177 of our shipmates on the Arizona. It gets commercialized a lot, and we’ve got to teach the people to remember Pearl Harbor so it doesn’t happen again.”
Harris, the Pacific Command head, also stressed in his remarks the need for the country to be prepared, but noted repeated instances where America has failed to do so.
The “alarm bells had been sounding throughout the 1930s” prior to the Japanese surprise attack, he said. Pearl Harbor embodied the warning “to never be caught by strategic surprise again.”
“But, 15 years ago, we were again surprised by a major attack on our soil. Not by a nation-state this time, but by terrorists. As before, in the preceding decade, alarm bells had been ringing,” Harris said.
John Mathrusse, 93, from Mountain View, Calif., recalled being an 18-year-old sailor in Hawaii at the time of the attack. He was in transit waiting to board the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, which was due back into Pearl Harbor on Saturday, Dec. 6, 1941, but was delayed a day by storms.
“I thought, ‘This is great duty. Beautiful islands,’” he said. He was down on the pier by the battleship USS California when the bombs started to fall.
“I had just got down there and I thought, geez, kinda close for a (practice) bombing range,” he said. “The first bomb didn’t go off. The second one just blew the hell out of things. Then I took a good look at the planes, and realized, those are (Japanese).”
He said he helped take wounded off the California, and remembers being “very, very mad” at the Japanese. At the same time, “we were so busy just surviving and cleaning up afterwards, taking care of wreckage.”
Those present brought a reminder that attacks occurred at six airbases as well. James Donis, 97, from Palm Desert, Calif., was at Wheeler on Dec. 7.
“The first ones that attacked were ‘Val’ dive bombers,” he said. “I watched when they circled the field before they started their dive. The first ‘Val’ dive bomber when it went into a dive released … a 250-pound bomb. It went about 200 feet from where I was standing and hit some buildings and just blew them apart.”
The passage of 75 years also has brought reconciliation with Japan, and for the 35th year, the Japan Religious Committee for World Federation offered a prayer for peace.
“We are gathered here in the name of peace,” said the Rev. Tsunekiyo Tanaka. “Given how our countries were sworn enemies at one point in time, this is a most remarkable thing. We are living proof that time heals, that it is possible to become the best of friends and allies.”