PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (AP) – This will be their last visit to this watery grave to share stories, exchange smiles, find peace and salute their fallen friends.
This, they say, will be their final farewell.
With their number quickly dwindling, survivors of Pearl Harbor will gather today one last time to honor those killed by the Japanese 65 years ago, and to mark a day that lives in infamy.
“This will be one to remember,” said Mal Middlesworth, president of the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association. “It’s going to be something that we’ll cherish forever.”
The survivors have met here every five years for four decades, but they’re now in their 80s or 90s and are not counting on a 70th reunion. They have made every effort to report for one final roll call.
“We’re like the dodo bird. We’re almost extinct,” said Middlesworth, now an 83-year-old retiree from Upland, Calif., but then – on Dec. 7, 1941 – an 18-year-old Marine on the USS San Francisco.
Nearly 500 survivors from across the nation were expected to make the trip to Hawaii, bringing with them 1,300 family members, numerous wheelchairs and too many haunting memories.
Memories of a shocking, two-hour aerial raid that destroyed or heavily damaged 21 ships and 320 aircraft, that killed 2,390 people and wounded 1,178 others, that plunged the United States into World War II and set in motion the events that led to atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“I suspect not many people have thought about this, but we’re witnessing history,” said Daniel Martinez, chief historian at the USS Arizona Memorial. “We are seeing the passing of a generation.”
The attack may have occurred 65 years ago, but survivors say they can still hear the explosions, smell the burning flesh, taste the sea water and hear the cries.
“The younger ones were crying, ‘Mom! Mom! Mom!'” said Edward Chun, who witnessed the attack from the Ten-Ten dock, just a couple hundred yards away from Battleship Row.
Chun, 83, had just begun his workday as a civilian pipe fitter when he was thrust into assisting in everything from spraying water on the ships to aiding casualties.
“From the time the first bomb dropped and for the next 15 minutes, it was complete chaos,” he said. “Nobody knew what was going on. Everybody was running around like a chicken with their head cut off.”
Chun saw the Oklahoma and West Virginia torpedoed by Japanese aircraft. He heard the tapping of sailors trapped in the hulls of sunken ships. He escaped death when Ten-Ten was strafed, leaving behind dead and wounded.
“How I never got hit, I don’t know,” said Chun, who was later drafted and served in the Korean and Vietnam wars. “I’ll tell you a secret: When your number comes up, you’re going to go. Well, every morning I get up, I change my number.”