The dwindling sentinels of Pearl Harbor faithfully returned on the 76th anniversary of the surprise Japanese attack Thursday to reminisce and honor fellow warriors from the greatest generation still living and gone.
Colorado resident Don Stratton, 95, one of just five remaining crew members of the USS Arizona, and one of three at the ceremony, later attended a Bronze Star With Valor presentation for Joe George, a sailor on the USS Vestal credited with saving six lives, Stratton’s included.
Asked what he would say if George, who died in 1996, were here, Stratton responded, “Thanks, buddy. You saved my life,” as he became a little emotional.
George threw a line to six men trapped on the burning Arizona who were able to escape by climbing hand over hand to the Vestal.
“My son and I and everybody tried forever to get that recognition (for George), and somewhere along the line someplace, it just got hung up and it took about 15, 16 years to do that,” Stratton said. “So we’re very proud to have (the Navy) get it done, and I hope a lot of people recall the memory a little bit.”
Ray Chavez, believed to be the oldest Pearl Harbor survivor at 105, came out from San Diego with his daughter, Kathleen Chavez, 65.
He was on the minesweeper Condor, which spotted the periscope of a Japanese midget submarine as it approached Pearl Harbor hours before the aerial attack.
“He likes to show his respect, especially for the folks that died here, and that’s why he comes out,” his daughter said.
At least 41 World War II veterans, 21 of whom were Pearl Harbor survivors, were in attendance at the USS Arizona Memorial visitor center, according to the National Park Service.
Thursday morning’s Pearl Harbor observance marked a return of the ceremony to the back lawn of the visitor center. Last year, for the big 75th anniversary, the commemoration was held on Pearl Harbor’s Kilo Pier.
This year 2,000 chairs were set up under three big tents facing the glassy waters of the harbor and the sunken battleship Arizona. All the chairs were filled, and hundreds more stood and watched the ceremony from the periphery.
Like almost all the survivors, Delton Walling, 96, was in the front row. The Valley Springs, Calif., man was decked out in a Navy summer white dress uniform.
On Dec. 7, 1941, Walling was a 19-year-old signalman who watched in horror from the harbor control tower as Japanese warplanes flew 30 feet below him and just 100 feet to the side dropping torpedoes that slammed into the ships of Battleship Row.
“I want to be here with my buddies,” Walling said, explaining that he feels a kinship here that he doesn’t feel elsewhere. Still, he said he tries to educate about Pearl Harbor.
“I made 35 speeches and flew many thousands of miles this year on my own time to tell the Pearl Harbor story so it’s not forgotten,” Walling said. “I don’t want the Pacific war or Pearl Harbor ever to be forgotten.”
In the two-hour attack about 2,455 men, women and children were killed. The total includes 2,390 American service members and Oahu civilians, 56 Japanese aviators and up to nine Japanese submariners.
Twenty-one ships of the Pacific Fleet, including eight battleships, were sunk or damaged, and 164 aircraft were destroyed.
“This morning, as we have for the last 76 years, we gather here to pay our respect to America’s World War II generation, the greatest generation, and in particular our veterans and civilians that responded to the attack on Pearl Harbor, grateful for their courage, service and sacrifice,” said Adm. Scott Swift, head of U.S. Pacific Fleet and one of the speakers. “We also honor fallen shipmates and all others who fell that day, as we mourn the loss of so many of our nation’s best and brightest.”
At 7:55 a.m. the USS Arizona bell on visitor center grounds was rung once, followed by a moment of silence and “missing man” flyover by four F-22 Raptors, with one arcing high into the sky over the sunken Arizona to symbolize those lost on Dec. 7, 1941.
This year’s theme, “Rising to the Challenge,” sought to highlight events “during the first year after the attack, 76 years ago, as the United States rose to face challenges, both at war and on the homefront, in order to achieve greater peace, freedom and democracy in the world,” the National Park Service said.
Keynote speaker Steve Twomey, author of “Countdown to Pearl Harbor,” spoke of the many impacts of America’s entry into World War II.
Winston Churchill heard the news of Pearl Harbor’s attack, and for the first time in two years of war, “he felt that England would live,” Twomey said. “Pearl Harbor had given him a partner, a full, reliable, game-changing partner.”
Churchill knew that Americans had been knocked down by Pearl Harbor, but he also knew they would get back up, Twomey related.
“You and I have come to call these Americans our greatest generation. But I doubt that in those first early months — or ever — they went around wearing T-shirts that proclaimed, ‘We’re awesome,’” Twomey said. “They simply got on with it, with the fighting and the rationing and the manufacturing and the bond buying and, yes, the dying.”
Just how resourceful was America? On Dec. 7, 1941, the battleship West Virginia “lay near death” on Battleship Row, he said.
“Shipyard surgeons went to work, first here at Pearl and then in Puget Sound, stitching her wounds, repairing her guts,” he said. “The workers didn’t just make her whole; they made her better than ever.”
Twomey noted that on Sept. 2, 1945, an array of American warships was at anchor in Tokyo Bay as Japan surrendered.
“One of those ships was the West Virginia,” he said. “What perfect symmetry.”