In his remarks at Pearl Harbor today, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro highlighted qualities of America that were demonstrated on Dec. 7, 1941, and endure today.
The surprise attack rang out on that Sunday morning with “Air raid on Pearl Harbor — this is no drill” from Ford Island at 7:58 a.m. 80 years ago, Del Toro said.
Two minutes later, a Japanese armor-piercing bomb penetrated the deck of the USS Arizona, igniting the forward ammunition magazine and killing 1,177 sailors and Marines in “the greatest loss of life, ever, on any U.S. Navy ship,” he said.
In just under two hours, 21 ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet were either sunk or damaged. A total of 188 aircraft were destroyed. Some 2,403 were dead and 1,178 were wounded, Del Toro said.
“We gather together today to remember all of those we lost on that infamous day,” the Navy secretary said. “But we also gather to remember the bravery and skill of all who fought back — those that saved lives and those that persevered. Because it wasn’t just the fleet that was attacked here at Pearl Harbor, it wasn’t just our nation, it was the very future of freedom and democracy around the world.”
Del Toro said “we remember each of them” — the Americans who fought that day or volunteered to serve soon after.
“They made it clear that the United States will never sacrifice our beloved principles — and (this) sent a clear message to authoritarian states everywhere that we will never back down,” he said.
John Pildner, now 95, was one of those who carried the fight through Europe. The U.S. Army infantryman wore his olive drab wool Eisenhower jacket and uniform to the commemoration with the rank of private first class on the shoulder.
“That’s the highest I ever got in the military,” he said, laughing.
The Ohio man was in a mine platoon — the 290th Regiment anti-tank company — and served in the Battle of the Bulge in the winter of late 1944 and early 1945 in Belgium.
“We were on the north side of the Bulge. Actually, our unit was supposed to go to the Netherlands and relieve an English outfit … and the Bulge was going strong when we moved up through there, so they changed our orders right away,” he said.
Pildner pointed out he didn’t have to dig foxholes in the frozen ground.
“I was in this mine platoon and we had to clear roads of mines, so I did a lot of walking rather than digging holes. It was better to be moving. A lot of men lost toes and feet,” he said.
During the commemoration with gray skies as a backdrop, the destroyer USS Chung-Hoon conducted a pass between Kilo Pier where the ceremony was held and the sunken USS Arizona.
Tom Leatherman, superintendent of the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, noted that 150 World War II veterans were in attendance — with one additional aged Pearl Harbor survivor needing to be hospitalized.
The group included 32 military Pearl Harbor survivors and 13 civilian survivors, he said.
The ceremony concluded with a wreath presentation, rifle salute and echo taps.
Aged veterans started arriving at Kilo Pier at Pearl Harbor in predawn darkness this morning in wheelchairs and with canes — some in the military uniforms they wore long ago.
Louis Bourgault, 96, a Marine Corps veteran, came in from North Carolina with a group of 14 World War II veterans on his first trip to Pearl Harbor.
“I went in June 1, 1942,” he said. The war took him to “California, New Zealand, came to Guadalcanal after it was secured. And we took over Bougainville after it was secured, the Solomon Islands, went back to Guadalcanal, went to Guam, took Guam” and then on to Iwo Jima, he said.
The visit to Pearl Harbor “is a chance to honor these guys that didn’t make it back,” the North Carolina resident said.
Asked about COVID-19 concerns at his age and making such a long trip, Bourgault said, “COVID concern? You don’t want to ask me that question.”
The World War II veteran said he was not worried about coronavirus.
“No, not worried,” he said. “If it gets me, it gets me.”
The 80th anniversary of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor — which steeled American resolve to fight for the nation’s freedom and eventually brought a longstanding alliance with Japan — is taking place this morning on Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam’s Kilo Pier with a large survivor and World War II veteran turnout.
The 7:45 a.m. commemoration, with Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro giving the keynote address, is also being livestreamed on large screens at the adjacent USS Arizona Memorial visitor center, where 800 chairs are set up for individuals who reserved seating via National Park Service lottery.
Attendance of about 1,200 is expected on Kilo Pier by invite only, the Navy said.
About 150 aged veterans — including 40 attack survivors — made the pilgrimage, possibly one last time, to the place of surprise attack and violent death, but also, of inspiring valor that rallied America to “Remember Pearl Harbor!”
Daniel Martinez, chief historian at the Pearl Harbor National Memorial, said he is “stunned” by the size of the veteran contingent.
By contrast, no veterans or members of the public were allowed to attend the Dec. 7 ceremony last year due to COVID-19.
“We’re talking about people in their late 90s and in their 100s,” Martinez said of this year’s turnout. He added that “for them to have the fortitude to make these long trips and at that age, I’m stunned, and at the same time, I just have joy within my heart for them to be here and be the last witnesses to the attack, because this World War II generation is vanishing right in front of our eyes.”
“The courage and the durability of what they went through in 1941 on 7 December — they are showing it at this ceremony by being here on the 80th anniversary,” Martinez said.
He added that “the country responded and got a good majority of the people vaccinated (and) they were able to take the chance to come here.”
Fifteen Medals of Honor were awarded from the Pearl Harbor attack. One was for combat actions — Chief Aviation Ordnanceman John Finn fired back with a .50-caliber machine gun in an exposed portion of aircraft parking ramp at Naval Air Station Kaneohe Bay, receiving 21 shrapnel and bullet wounds.
The rest of the Medals of Honor were for rescue efforts, the Navy said.
Japan sought to cripple the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii as it pursued conquests in Southeast Asia. In the tragedy that unfolded, about 2,455 men, women and children were killed in the attack.
The total included about 2,390 American service members and Oahu civilians, 56 Japanese aviators and up to nine Japanese submariners.
A total of 1,177 men died on the battleship USS Arizona alone when a Japanese aerial armor-piercing bomb pierced its bow and ignited gunpowder for its big guns, creating a cataclysmic explosion and fireball that roared through the battleship.
Those who came to Hawaii for the big anniversary include eyewitnesses — civilian and military — to the attacks that took place around Oahu as Japanese warplanes flashed out of the sky dropping torpedoes and bombs and attacking with machine guns.
One of those here is David Russell, now 101, who was aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma reading in his compartment when an officer got on the loudspeaker and said, “This is an attack, fellas!”
“About that time torpedoes started hitting us, pow! pow! pow! pow! Nine of them hit us,” he recalled in a 2016 radio interview. One of the powerful explosives hit the ship probably 80 feet from him.
Russell had battle stations below decks and in a topside anti-aircraft gun, and after initially heading down into the ship, he decided otherwise and got out.
“By the time I got out of that ship, it was halfway over,” he said. “It had capsized right away.” Some men were trapped. A total of 429 crew would die..
Still others who made the trip to Hawaii served in the war and war effort.
Several of the veterans are women who were part of the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and WACs (Women’s Army Corps).
The nonprofit Best Defense Foundation paid for 63 wartime veterans to come out to Hawaii for the 80th from all over the country.
Ben Portaro, one of those veterans, joined the Army in 1943. He was sent to the front lines in France and then the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944.
“On Jan. 2, 1945, he was taken prisoner of war by the Nazis,” the foundation said in a biography of Portaro. “They walked for miles in the hard winter. Ben had frozen feet and watched while other men in his group were shot because they could not walk any further.”
In April 1945, he and another prisoner escaped. Three days later, they were rescued by U.S. Army soldiers.
The range of veterans that are present for the 80th shows the connection “from the day that the (Pearl Harbor) attack occurred to when (the war) ended in 1945,” Martinez said. “Every year the allies moved forward, and these young men and women were part of that effort.”
Despite flash flooding on Oahu Monday, the organizers of today’s 6 p.m. Pearl Harbor Memorial Parade through Waikiki say the event will proceed.
“We are going rain or shine,” said Chairman Joel Biggs.
Biggs said the parade is expected to have 3,500 participants, including about 130 World War II veterans, about 30 marching bands and choirs, cheerleaders, taiko drums, classic cars and others.
An opening ceremony is scheduled for 4 p.m. at Fort DeRussy. The parade is planned to head down Kalakaua Avenue and end at Kapiolani Park between 7 p.m and 7:30 p.m.
“The overall theme is to remember the past, we celebrate the future, and it’s really got a reconciliation theme to it as well, where we celebrate the fact that once bitter enemies are now friends and allies,” Biggs said.