PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (AP) — A handful of centennial survivors of the attack on Pearl Harbor They are expected to gather at the Japanese bombing site on Wednesday to commemorate those who perished 81 years ago.
That’s fewer than in recent years, when a dozen or more traveled to Hawaii from across the country to pay their respects at the annual commemoration ceremony.
Part of the decline reflects the decline in the number of survivors as they age. The youngest active duty military personnel on December 7, 1941 would have been around 17 years old, making them 98 today. Many of those still alive are at least 100 years old.
About 2,400 servicemen died in the bombardment., which launched the United States into World War II. The USS Arizona alone lost 1,177 sailors and Marines, nearly half the death toll.
Robert John Lee remembers being a 20-year-old civilian living in his parents’ house on the naval base where his father ran the water pumping station. The house was only 1 mile across the harbor from where the USS Arizona was moored on the battleship row.
The first explosions before 8 am woke him up, making him think that a door was blowing shut in the wind. He got up to yell at someone to close the door only to look out the window at Japanese planes dropping torpedoes from the sky.
He saw the hull of the USS Arizona turn a deep orange-red after an aerial bomb hit it.
“Within a few seconds, that explosion went out with huge tongues of fire directly over the ship, but hundreds of feet up,” Lee said in an interview Monday after a boat tour of the harbor.
He still remembers the hiss of the fire.
The sailors jumped into the water to escape their burning ships and swam to the landing near Lee’s house. Many were covered in the thick, heavy oil that covered the port. Lee and his mother used Fels-Naptha soap to wash them. Sailors who were able to board small boats that transported them back to their vessels.
“Very heroic, I thought,” Lee said of them.
Lee joined the Hawaiian Land Guard the next day and later the US Navy. He worked for Pan American World Airways for 30 years after the war.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs does not have statistics on how many Pearl Harbor survivors are still living. But department data shows that of the 16 million who served in World War II, only about 240,000 were alive in August and about 230 die each day.
There were around 87,000 servicemen on Oahu at the time of the attack, according to a rough estimate compiled by military historian J. Michael Wenger.
The Navy and National Park Service-sponsored ceremony will feature a moment of silence at 7:55 am, the minute the attack began, and a missing-man formation flyover.
Navy and park service officials are required to comment.