Fifteen Pearl Harbor survivors had a place of honor in the front-row seats at the USS Arizona Memorial visitor center for this morning’s 77th commemoration of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack.
John Mathrusse, 95, came out from the Bay Area of California — as he does every year.
Mathrusse was an 18-year-old on Dec. 7 and had just been assigned to a dive bomber squadron on Ford Island.
“I was down by the (battleship) California and I remember some of those guys were getting pretty beat up,” he said. “So we were helping them over to the shore. Some of them were real bad. Some of them were dead.”
Mathrusse said the 77th anniversary of the attack is no different than observances in the past.
“I just come every year,” he said.
Mathrusse said he will also attend ceremonies for the USS Oklahoma and USS Utah losses.
“I knew guys on those ships,” he said.
By 7:45 a.m., minutes before the commemoration began, most of the 1,375 chairs set up on the back lawn of the visitor center were filled as rain showers passed through.
In the two-hour attack, about 2,455 men, women and children were killed. The total included 2,390 American service members and Oahu civilians, 56 Japanese aviators and up to nine Japanese submariners.
Jacqueline Ashwell, superintendent of the World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, which includes the USS Arizona Memorial, said in her remarks that when she gets the privilege of taking someone on their first tour of Pearl Harbor, “I ask them to stop for a moment, to go back in time with me, to imagine the harbor as it was on that day — explosions, chaos, smoke, flames.”
She said that the survivors in the front rows of the seating didn’t have to imagine.
“You witnessed it firsthand,” she said , adding, “We are truly blessed to have you here with us today to help us remember.”
Navy officials said about 35 World War II veterans — 15 of whom are Pearl Harbor survivors — attended the commemoration. Five years ago, there were 50 Pearl Harbor survivors at the annual memorial.
Herbert Elfring, 96, flew in from Jackson, Mich., for the event for the fourth year in a row.
Elfring was with the California National Guard’s 251st Coast Artillery stationed at Camp Malakole near Barbers Point. He remembers hearing planes and explosions in the direction of Pearl Harbor and thinking it was just another exercise.
Then a Japanese “Zero” fighter flew by and strafed the camp.
“He probably missed me by about 15 feet, fortunately,” Elfring said.
His unit had a whole battery of guns near the beach, including 90mm anti-aircraft weapons, he said.
“We had ammo, but the guns were not set up to fire,” he said.
The unit had been through training, “but there was absolutely no reason to be ready for an attack,” Elfring said of the general thinking. The men were not able to fire back “except for our little rifles.”
He added that “we really didn’t have much time to be frustrated.”
Elfring, like some of the others, was the only one representing his unit at today’s commemoration.
“As far as I know, I might be the last survivor of my unit,” he said.
This year, no survivor from the USS Arizona attended the ceremony as none of the men were able to make the trip to Hawaii.
The Arizona sank after two bombs hit the ship, triggering tremendous explosions. The Arizona lost 1,177 sailors and Marines, the greatest number of casualties from any ship. Most remain entombed in the sunken hull of the battleship at the bottom of the harbor.
Dozens of those killed in the attack have been recently identified and reburied in cemeteries across the country after the military launched a new effort to analyze bones and DNA of hundreds long classified as “unknowns.”
In 2015, 388 sets of remains were exhumed from the USS Oklahoma and buried in a national cemetery in Honolulu. The Oklahoma had the second-highest number of dead after the Arizona at 429, though only 35 were identified in the immediate years after the attack.
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency has identified 168 sailors and Marines from the Oklahoma since the exhumations three years ago. It has said it expects to identify about 80 percent of the 388 by 2020.
Several families were scheduled to rebury their newly identified loved ones today, including Navy Seaman 1st Class William Bruesewitz of Appleton, Wisconsin. He’s expected to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.